Saturday, February 22, 2014

Ukraine and the Great Game

Timoshenko is out of jail.  I have mixed emotions; sort of “Lord, have mercy; Baby’s got her blue jeans on”.  The Rada have been acting so responsibly and everything is going so smoothly in the transition to a “unification government” that I hope she plays it very cool.  Elections are called for May 25.

Yanukovych refused to resign so they impeached him.  No one knows where he is (Dick Cheney’s bunker?) and the presidents offices are emptier than the inside of my head. He has abandoned Kyiv and his billion dollar mansion no one was supposed to see or know about.  It is now a tourist attraction.  Watch for pictures.  It is awesome.

There are 4700 Deputies from SE Ukraine meeting in Kharkiv, declaring the new government illegal etc. and declaring they will not be governed by Kyiv.  The population of Kharkiv are lined up outside, protected by the police, in effect telling them to pack salt.  Even those of Russian descent do not want to go back under Moscow’s thumb or under the Party of Regions government.  If they could arrest the lot and throw them in jail it would go a long way to cleaning up the country.

Excellent article HERE by Conrad Black with history and background, topped by Repin’s famous painting “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire.”  If Repin were still alive, he could do one entitled “Reply of Ukrainian Citizens to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin”.

Which brings us to today’s history lesson.  There is often today the use of the term “reverting to ‘Cold War’ rhetoric”, referring to America and Russia.  This is nonsense as this rivalry of empires goes back at least 150 years before the beginning of the Cold War and was initially between Russia and Britain.  

All countries are unique but Russia is more unique than others. It is the world’s largest country, measured in geographic area, BUT it is virtually landlocked.  Major ports include Kaliningrad and St Petersburg on the Baltic, Novorossiysk on the Black Sea, Murmansk and Arkhangelsk (and a few others) on the Arctic coast and Vladivostok on the Pacific in the Far East.  

Looking at a map will quickly show you the problem.  Access to the Atlantic from the Baltic is easily blocked (ask the Germans); access to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea is only via the Dardanelles.  Shipping season, even for Russian icebreakers is pretty limited in the Arctic and Vladivostok is 9,000 km from Moscow. 

Russia is boxed and has been paranoid about it for a couple of centuries.  And paranoid of “the West” for even more centuries.  When you hear Putin rant about the West trying to hem in Russia, part of it is traditional Russian suspicion of The West and part of it is truth.

In the 19th century Russia was busy expanding its empire south into the ‘Stans.  The Great Game, as it was called was between Russia and Britain, to keep Russia out of Afghanistan (and India) and out of Iran and a warm water sea port.  The game was called on account of reign in the early 20th century as Russia had enough problems of her own.  It resumed with a vengeance after the war as America attempted to block expansion of the (now Sovietized) Russian Empire even as she expanded her own.

With the demise of the Soviet Union and with it the entire empire, Russia had a chance to modernize and democratize.  However that was blown in the 90s and one can argue the causes.  Of course The West got blamed for the entire 90s and in many cases, deservedly so.  They certainly didn’t help.  Chaos brings dictatorship.  It was ever thus and especially in Russia where the people want a strong Tsar with an iron fist.  Putin fills the bill admirably (not bad abs for an old guy, either).  He IS the government and along with his cronies are enjoying being the new nobility.

Putin seems determined to rebuild the empire and The West is determined to stop him, with the ever loving concurrence of the countries that they are pulling into the EU/NATO sphere of influence as they have no desire to be back under Moscow, many of them having been there since 1939 with a short hiatus when they were under the Nazis. For more on that, read Bloodlands.  Warning, it is not an easy read.

Ukraine is THE key missing piece.  “Without Ukraine, Russia is a country, but with Ukraine, Russia becomes an empire."  The country has had a rocky road since independence; has ranked even lower than Russia on the corruption scale of Transparency International; and has essentially failed to reform, modernize or grow.  As I mentioned earlier it was frustration with the totally disastrous “Westernizing” of Yushchenko and Timoshenko that elected Yanukovych in the first place.

When it became obvious he was going for closer ties with Russia, it was time he went and was replaced by a government which would forge closer ties with “The West”.  The people of Ukraine care that a change of government brings them freedom; brings them rule of law; brings them transparency; freedom from fear and extortion; a future.  “The West”, as has been proven over and over, doesn’t care a rat’s ass about any of that as long as the government is friendly to western investors.  So we in Ukraine can only hope that in fact we get the kind of government we desperately need.

The West has been busy for several years helping Ukraine prepare for the events of the past three months.  If you think that Maidan just happened, that the people just exploded and everything else sort of fell into place as time progressed, you are incredibly naïve.  There is a huge amount of training and preparation goes into something like this, to be ready to harness the people when they do explode.  Leadership and logistics; communications, public relations and defense, and on and on.  There are manuals on how to organize and carry out peaceful protests.  There are also manuals on dealing with protests that turn violent.  It also takes money.  Money to fund the training, money to support the protests.  Much, maybe most, maybe all, of the later no doubt came from Ukrainians but someone had to be organized to collect it and use it.

NGOs have been quite involved in training people, as they are everywhere.  It is called civil society development – how people can organize to help themselves.  Occupy was no spontaneous event; though many, if not most of the people who turned up did so of their own accord.  When you hear about Putin clamping down on NGOs in Russia and having them declare themselves as foreign agents, this is exactly what he fears and intends to stop.

Whether his turn will come or not, I don’t know.  If you want to know what business and politics is like in Russia, read anything by Anna Politkovskaya.  Warning, it is not easy reading.

As I write this, the meeting of deputies at Kharkiv seems to have come to nothing.  Some of the rats have escaped; others have been stopped at the border.  Yanukovych is still in the country as he was apparently blocked from trying to board a plane.

The Russian politicians, of course, as my mother used to say mad enough to chew nails and spit thumb tacks.


And I can hear Yulia on TV downstairs…

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