As we reflect on the centenary of the outbreak of the ‘Great War’; the “war to end all wars”, but more predictably and prosaically in human history a conflict that proved only to be World War I; what is happening in the Ukraine should give us all pause for thought. As the accusations of blame for the appalling destruction of the Malaysian airliner (MH17) and the loss of innocent life mount, it would perhaps inspire greater confidence in the wisdom of all politicians, including those in the West (not least in the UK), if they waited for the investigation of the causes to be definitively completed before they brought in their final verdict. It seems the decent thing to do: but it is clearly too much to ask; soberingly, just as it was too much to ask of pre-1914 diplomacy not to rush unconsciously to irreversible, apocalyptic judgement over events in the Balkans. This applies particularly when the righteous response seems obvious; for too often we have to live with the horrific unintended consequences of righteousness. I write this not because I have great insight to offer, or solutions to propose; but because I believe there are no wholly satisfactory outcomes to be found in this crisis; still less, the conviction that justice will (or can?) be upheld. We must make the best we can of what frail human wisdom can devise.
The West’s current, insistent policy on Ukraine, driven principally by the US and UK (from a distance), may simply strengthen Putin inside Russia, not undermine him. I shall try to explain why I believe this; but because of the atmosphere that attends this issue I feel obliged to point out that this article is not an exercise in Russian apologetics, but rather an attempt to understand what has brought Russia and the Ukraine to the brink; appreciating that the ‘brink’ to which they have been brought is not essentially new; it has a long history, and it would be wise to attempt to understand something, at least, of its nature before we all rush to judgement, or blindly accept the initiatives of our politicians: the events surrounding the declaration of two World Wars should remind us that politicians are particularly good at making really bad decisions.
Instead of looking either to the United States or the UK in the first instance for ‘Western’ solutions, countries which seem to be less concerned with the difficulty of the solutions than the ease of belligerent declamations; statements that seem to have been hastily released from threadbare, dead-files marked ‘Cold-War rhetoric’, with only the dates changed to protect the cynical: it may be wiser to listen to the European nations with the closest, the most immediate, most relevant connections to Russia and Ukraine; nations that probably have the most to lose, as they have done so often in Europe’s past, from the Baltic, through Poland and Germany to the Balkans; all these countries (on anyone’s side) ’de facto’ will live imminently with the consequences of any diplomacy or military action; they are likely to be the states with common borders with Ukraine, or whose history is most closely associated with both Russia and Ukraine. I am thinking particularly, although not exclusively of Poland (which historically has close cultural links with Ukraine – part of Ukraine, centred on Lviv, which had a predominantly Polish population, was Polish until 1939) and of Germany. The Polish Foreign Minister, Radoslaw Sikorski said in an interview with Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post (18th April):
“Poland’s relationship [with Russia] is bigger than most. We trade with Russia as much as the U.S. does. But our economy is smaller, so you can imagine that it is a bigger part of our economy. Seven percent of our exports go to Russia. That is why we are reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia. We would rather Russia stop doing what is giving rise to the need for sanctions.
We should do the energy union in response to these events. Remember, the European Union started as the union of coal and steel, which were the strategic commodities in the 1950s. Today’s strategic commodity in Europe is gas, and we take about 30 percent of our gas from Russia, as does Europe. But we overpay because Russia has managed to create monopolistic arrangements.”
More recently Sikorski, who has been highly critical of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, has played a much less significant role in the crisis since MH17 (in part, apparently through bitter political divisions in Poland). It has been suggested by some critics that this apparent loss of influence is due to Sikorski’s criticisms of Russia, however he was also recorded as describing US-Polish relations in the following terms: “the Polish-American alliance is worthless, even harmful, as it gives Poland a false sense of security. It’s bulls—t” (Time, 22nd June). It is unfortunate that through ‘Waitergate’ Poland appears to have side-lined itself; while Poland’s apprehensions about Russian purposes is understandable given Polish history; it would be more valuable to general Western understanding of the issues if Poland articulated the Polish response both to the independent Ukraine and particularly the undercurrent of neo-fascist organisations allegedly linked to successive Ukrainian governments, and to the independence movement more generally. I shall turn to Germany a little later; suffice to say now Germany has indulged raw populist rhetoric less than the UK, and attempted pragmatic negotiation with Russia considerably more. I wonder why?
In short it is the United States and especially the UK that appear to have resorted, in a kind of mindless reflex, to an antiquated if ‘conventional’, Neo-Cold-War ideological rhetoric that problematically lacks credibility; the EU nations that actually live in Eastern Europe have been generally more circumspect. Caution of this kind has attracted criticism in the UK press for commercial venality (protecting trade or energy supplies with Russia), when the starting place for effective economic sanctions against Russia is finance: it would best begin with the City of London and also with Russian investment in London. Rhetoric is cheaper than reality, for squeezing Russian investment in Knightsbridge (London’s very own Patriarshie Prudy), would blow a hole in Osborne’s faux-recovery. Indeed we have been confronted by gross British self-serving venality of a quite different and wholly cynical kind; that wishes to apply sanctions against Russia, while continuing to supply Russia with military equipment, or equipment that can relatively simply be used/converted for military purposes. The Huffington Post wrote on 5th March, in the middle of the Crimea crisis, that “Britain has sold more than £86m of sniper rifles, ammunition, drones and laser technology to Russia in just over a year”. By 23rd July a report submitted by four Westminster Select committees argued that, in spite of the government in March claiming it would stop some arms exports to Russia, as of mid-May only 34 of 285 outstanding licences worth more than £131m had been suspended or revoked. The Conservative MP Sir John Stanley, Chairman of Parliament’s Arms Export Controls Committee said; “We should have been applying a more cautious approach for some considerable time towards Russia”. How much easier it is to sit in 10, Downing Street and piously point to the mote in others nations’ eyes.
Meanwhile in the real world of diplomacy and realpolitik, nations march uneasily to the beat of a different drum. It is Germany that at least appears to have done most to fill the diplomatic vacuum. Margareta Pagano has revealed (The Independent, 31st July) that Angela Merkel and Putin have been developing a German-Russian diplomatic solution to the crisis, with two ambitions; “stabilising the borders of Ukraine and providing the financially troubled country with a strong economic boost, particularly a new energy agreement ensuring security of gas supplies”. The principal issues in the stabilisation plan seem to be as follows:
- Russia withdraws financial and military support for the separatists of Eastern (pro-Russian) Ukraine
- The Ukraine would agree not to apply to join NATO
- Russia would not block or interfere with trade under the recent Ukraine-EU trade pact
- Russia (Gazprom) would offer Ukraine a new long-term energy supply agreement
- Russia’s annexation of Crimea would be accepted, and Russia would compensate Ukraine for loss of income related to the stationing of Russia’s fleet at Sevastopol
This bold but difficult plan was, unsurprisingly, suspended after the destruction of the Malaysian airliner; but it remains the only comprehensive diplomatic plan on the table devised by those who have to live most directly with the consequences of their actions. It will be interesting to see a plan developed that meets higher standards of justice and more importantly, has the remotest prospect of ever being implemented.
Meanwhile back in the UK, having virtually abandoned our commitment to Europe and the EU, save for NATO, we have the extraordinary intervention by Rory Stewart MP, Chair of the Defence Select Committee to “proclaim the convenient return of Cold-War ideology”. The quotation, incidentally is Georgina Graham’s, Political Correspondent, Daily Telegraph (31st July). Convenient? Convenient! Stewart, a past FO insider, argues that Britain has “taken its eye off the ball” over the threat from Russia, and now needs to “recalibrate” defence strategy away from the Middle East and back to the Cold War. The question ‘why has Britain taken its eye off the ball’? produces an answer that tells us much more about Britain than about anywhere, or anything else. Stewart famously made his name in Iraq (where he was an FO deputy governor) and Afghanistan, not least by revealing the hapless bungling that informed British foreign policy and defence strategy in the Middle East. Stewart beautifully summarises what I can only and I believe even fairly describe as the imbecility, not just of British policy, but much deeper, of being British, in his book ‘Occupational Hazards’; describing events around the bloody, chaotic years of 2004-5 in Iraq:
“All this chaos and contingency was shaped by the stubborn character of Western bureaucracies and Iraqi political culture: institutions not individuals, cultures not policies, drove events. And the invasion was crippled not by what we did but who we were”.
(Occupational Hazards, 2006: Epilogue, p.425)
This is not a passing observation, Stewart repeats the phrase “We were crippled by who we were” (p.426); as a mantra. At last, self-knowledge in the FO? Perhaps not, for now Rory Stewart appears to believe the trumpeted “peace dividend” (remember that?) was all a mistake, and he bemoans the drastic subsequent reduction in resources on the Russia desk. He does not seem aware that he is merely reminding us that in making this admission he has cut the feet from the credibility of the FO’s ability to provide well-informed, as distinct from ideological, knowledge of Ukraine and Russia in the present crisis. If the resources are not there, the fault is Britain’s, its choices; and second, and to put it simply, since the resources are not there, then the FO is frankly in the dark. This cannot be repaired in a week, a month or a year. By the time the FO is ready to contribute usefully to opinion or policy, the world will already have irrevocably changed. The FO has side-lined itself. It was Britain (and the FO) that put us in this position, as it was Britain that blundered in Iraq. Stewart reminds us only that we are crippled by who we are. Fortunately in Scotland, on 18th September we can do something about it; no longer crippled in the world by who we are; no longer a country with no self-knowledge, a country driven by the ideology of the past, by British hubris.
It is worth simply forgetting Britain’s hapless foreign policy, and instead reflecting on the history of the relationship between Ukraine and Russia for ourselves, as best we can, since we manifestly have been so badly served by politicians and the FO these twenty five years. This history in the 20th century is profoundly bleak; and I will venture no further back than World War II. I wish here simply to offer an incomplete, tentative but I hope modestly useful historical perspective; at least from our own partial, uninformed perspective in the more-strident, more-distant West, which seems to become more assertive, more dogmatic, more uncompromising, more righteous the further from the disputed borders we happen to live: how conveniently, comfortably delusional that ‘objectivity’ (especially of the US and UK) may yet prove to be as events unfold. My principal source for the history of this period is provided through the work of that great Western post-war historian of the Soviet Union and World War II, the late Professor John Erickson of Edinburgh University.
Erickson edited a collection of papers on the Eastern front in World War II, titled ‘Barbarossa: the axis and the allies’ (1994). Erickson’s own contribution was ‘Soviet War Losses: Calculations and Controversies’, which assembled the best estimates of the casualties sustained by the Soviet Union in destroying Hitler’s Wehrmacht, 1941-45. This casualty estimate, including non-combatants, was on such a scale that it could only be approached by calculating the total Soviet Union population loss over the period, from pre-and-post war population statistics. The actual losses were uncountable, and the estimate of losses would therefore require to include children never born. Such is the nature of Total War. Erickson based his best estimate on the work of Kurganov, Koslov and Kvasha to come up with a Soviet Union ‘Global loss’ figure of 48 million (the mean), or a skewed range, 48-50 million; representing 23% of the Soviet population. This does not include the lost homes, the broken families, the wounded, the brutalised, the imprisoned, or the irreversibly damaged. It is worth offering British people a meaningful context: the figure of 48 million obliterated people alone, represents roughly the total population of the UK at the same period (and had the UK suffered comparative equivalent losses to the Soviet Union in 1939-45, our losses proportionally would have been at least 11 million – unimaginable). It may be an uncomfortable irony to acknowledge this in brash, blundering 2014 Britain; but that was the price paid by the Russians, for the Allies to secure our freedom. I write this observation on Soviet-Russian losses because I think that it is therefore understandable if we discover that ordinary Russians – our war-time allies – having fought invasion on their soil, still evince strong feelings about their ‘borders’, and about where they are appropriately drawn, and are easily moved to defend a past that drew their borders elsewhere; whatever the circumstances, whatever the ‘rights or wrongs’.
Who is in control in Ukraine? This is a question that it has always been much easier to ask, than to answer. Meanwhile a war crime has probably been committed, but by whom? We may find out, but we may not. Certainty will inevitably prove more elusive than we would wish, for the whole history of Russia and the Ukraine is tangled, baffling, impenetrable and above all, brutal. I will turn back to Erickson’s ‘Barbarossa’ and to the second volume of his monumental work on the Soviet-German War (‘The Road to Berlin’) to attempt, briefly, to describe aspects of this nightmare history, rooted in World War II, but still working its malignant effects on both countries to the present day.
Even the detached world of academic historiography slowly crumbles in Sergei Kudryashov’s paper for ‘Barbarossa’: The Hidden Dimension – Wartime Collaboration in the Soviet Union’. On the issue of collaboration with the “German fascist authorities”, Kudryashov argues that “even President Kravchuk of the Ukraine considered it laudable to admit that as a child he helped the ‘banderovtsi’ [OUN] – the armed Bandera nationalists”. Kudryashov is thus writing this history as living, contemporary 1990s politics. The OUN, a Ukrainian partisan organisation which was used by the Germans to undermine Soviet authority in Ukraine, fought for Ukrainian independence from Russia beside the Germans; until in turn it sought independence from the Germans, who promptly arrested its leader, Stepan Bandera; at which point the OUN went underground and fought through the war on two fronts; fighting both Soviet and German authorities, and at times each other. There was a large poster of Bandera mounted in Independence Square, Kiev during the recent violent revolution (Washington Post, 25th March, 2014).
In addition to the OUN, variously fighting the Germans or the Soviets, there was the anti-Soviet Ukrainian Revolutionary Army (OPA) and the OUN’s armed wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which in one action even managed to inflict “deep hurt on the Red Army” (Road to Berlin, p.182). It has been claimed that the UPA was responsible for the death of 100,000 Poles in Ukraine.
The third President of the Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko (2005-10) described the Bandera associated organisations as ‘heroes of the Ukraine’ (see Rudling, below). Another controversial Ukrainian anti-Soviet war-time organisation had a more formal association with the German armed forces: the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Ukrainian); known generally as the ‘Waffen-SS Galizien’. Pers Rudling suggests in his examination of the chilling service record of this unit and the war in Ukraine: ‘The Defended Ukraine’ that, “We are only beginning to understand the dynamics of local collaboration in the occupied Soviet Union” (Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 25:329–368, 2012).
Even Stalin, who was ostensibly in charge or ‘in office’ in Ukraine, was never wholly in ‘control’; this was a savage, merciless, cruel, internecine war. Stalin’s writ did not run everywhere; and although we understand something of Stalin’s terrible legacy in Europe for so many countries; we cannot say this of our knowledge of the long-term consequences of Ukraine’s appalling experience of the 20th century, on Ukraine today. In Erickson’s stark words, “The Soviet-German war was hideous beyond all imagining. It was befouled by and drenched in criminality”. Few places were more soiled than Ukraine. This history has left its mark on both Russia and Ukraine; more than a mark, a deep, open wound that has bled continuously into the 21st century: I have grave reservations that Western politicians, and even more, Western diplomatic and intelligence services adequately understand the complex, dangerous, inexplicable workings (or failings) of Russian authorities, Ukrainian authorities, Russian or Ukrainian nationalists, or the ‘partisans’ or gangsters that attach themselves to such chaos on either or both sides; and that have brought both countries to this predicament.
Never have the words ‘lest we forget’ been more relevant than now for Europe, for the EU on Russia’s unstable borders. And lest in Britain we forget; remember the Eastern Front in World War II, and much closer to home: remember Iraq.