Indranil Banerjie | Flashpoint Ukraine: Cold War thinking still prevails

The global order, democracy and world peace are under threat and the West is determined to prevent this from happening

Washington claims that a new spectre is haunting the world: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who early Thursday ordered his military columns into hapless Ukraine. Explosions have been heard in its capital Kyiv and several Ukrainian cities. The global order, democracy and world peace are under threat and the West is determined to prevent this from happening. Or so goes the narrative.

What exactly is up in Ukraine? On the face of it, it’s about two enclaves within that country — Lugansk and Donetsk “oblasts”, or provinces, which are collectively known as the Donbas —where ethnic Russians are in a majority and wish to separate from Ukraine.

These areas have seen fighting in the past eight years in which thousands have been killed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has put his foot in it by declaring the two regions to be independent entities: the Lugansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic. He has signed friendship treaties with them and pledged to help them. Worse, on Thursday, he ordered his military into the Donbas ostensibly in response to a call for help.

“I have decided to conduct a special military operation”, President Putin said early Thursday, in response to “increased Ukrainian aggression” in the Donbas. Russian troops, amassed at Ukraine’s border as a deterrent against possible Ukrainian military action in these enclaves, have been ordered to go in to “protect” these areas.

The Ukrainian government reacted by imposing a state of emergency, authorising its citizens to carry arms and appealing to the United Nations to stop Russian aggression. Its President, Volodymyr Zelensky, had till recently ruled out military conflict: “We believe that there will be no large-scale war against Ukraine, and there won’t be a wide escalation from the side of the Russian Federation.”

There is more to the whole fracas than just a bunch of unhappy ethnic Russians stuck in a country where they don’t want to be. The Ukraine crisis involves three sets of issues, the first related to principles: Is it acceptable to change national boundaries by force as Russia has for all practical purposes effected? For status quo-ist powers like India, forcible alteration of national boundaries is abhorrent, especially as its two key adversaries China and Pakistan have for decades been attempting to do just that. Sadly, ethical standards rarely deter the powerful or determine the course of history.

Russia, however, is hardly an exception as the Western powers are trying to make it appear. The West has been altering national boundaries, invading sovereign states and breaking up nations for over a century now. Much of Africa and large parts of Asia are the result of some pretty nasty cut and paste jobs. India too has suffered the imperialist scalpel.

In recent times, the former Yugoslavia was the target of major national re-engineering by the West whose support ensured the balkanisation of that country while a helpless and enraged Russia watched on. Yugoslavia was systematically cut up and when the Serbs resisted, Nato moved in to complete the process of dismemberment.

In other words, while Moscow’s argument that large parts of Russia were wrongly incorporated into Ukraine may sound much like China’s claim that it has been short-changed in Taiwan, Arunachal, Ladakh and other parts, it’s not unique or entirely without historical precedent. The question ultimately is whether a nation can actually pull it off and escape the consequences of its actions — which brings us to the second question: why exactly is the West and Washington in particular so agitated by the plight of the powers in Kyiv? After all, they were not similarly concerned when Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad sought help at a time his country was being overrun by Islamists hordes committing abominable excesses against his people. Nor did Washington even rap its ally Turkey on the knuckles for repeatedly attacking Kurdish areas to kill as many Kurds as possible. The list goes on and on. So why this immense outpouring of Western solidarity with Kyiv?

The answer lies in history: the Cold War never really ended entirely in the sense that the USSR’s demise didn’t mean the end of hostilities with Russia. There are many in America who point to Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal, its powerful military and its pugnacious President Vladimir Putin as enduring challenges.

Russia in recent times has thwarted the US in several areas. Regime change as in Iraq and Libya was averted in Assad’s Syria only because the Russians stepped in with their military to protect the regime. Moscow also successfully blocked Washington’s inroads into the Central Asian republics and in recent times sided with China in its skirmishes with the Western powers.

Washington is also deeply concerned about Europe’s growing reliance on Russian energy supplies. The Nord Stream-2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline, that would double the flow of Russian gas to Germany, has been particularly contentious. This $11 billion project was completed last year but has not been put to use yet due to US objections and European hesitation. Now, Germany has said Russia’s actions in Ukraine have forced it to reject the project. But that could be temporary.

The bigger picture is that the Cold War mentality hasn’t fully gone away. President Putin is hardly a paragon of democracy but no one would fault him for putting his country’s interests first. The fact that Washington has not succeeded in completely grinding Russia into the ground is in part due to Mr Putin, who is demonised in the West as a fascist, Russian jingoist and a dangerous geopolitical upstart.

What Mr Putin has been trying to do in his part of the world is what the Western powers continue to do in theirs: define and dominate their spheres of influence. As one writer noted, Russia did not grudge the US for turning both the Atlantic and Pacific into “American lakes”, or protecting its interests in the Americas and Europe. Nato, on the other hand, has been consistently moving eastwards.
In Ukraine, Mr Putin has thrown down the gauntlet and warned against any further Western advance into its area of core influence. Significantly, he also warned Ukraine against joining Nato. Now, whether he is right or wrong in doing so is a philosophical question.

Nobel laureate Joseph Rotblat, one of the brains behind the atom bomb, had once said: “The Cold War is over but Cold War thinking survives. We were told a world war was prevented by the existence of nuclear weapons. Now we’re told nuclear weapons prevent all kinds of wars.”

The world hasn’t changed much since he made those remarks 27 years ago. The imperatives of a bygone era still rule our world.

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