When the Soviet Union collapsed, Mr. Gorbachev visualised the normalisation of Russia’s relations with the West. In fact, what happened, was that Russia inherited the Soviet’s role as hate-fear figure of the West. NATO instead of becoming almost redundant expanded eastwards but let it be known that Russia would always be treated as ‘the other’. That assumption made Vladimir Putin’s emergence and behaviour a natural consequence. The ex-KGB Colonel continued to behave-like a KGB Colonel.
I do not look at Mr. Putin through rose-tinted spectacles. The poisoning of Mr. Litvinenko with polonium in 2016, presumably with Mr. Putin’s knowledge; the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury and the accidental death of the Salisbury resident following the actions of Russian agents; were all reprehensible. The persecution, prosecution and imprisonment of the principal opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, on bogus charges, are the actions of a dictator and not a normal elected politician.
The positioning of over 130,000 Russian troops just over the border with Ukraine is a dangerous game of brinksmanship. However, there is another side to the story.
Decades ago in 1962, when I was still at school, my parents warned me about an impending war. The Soviet Union, then led by Nikita Khruschev, had persuaded the Communist régime in Cuba, in the Carribean, to allow the installation of Soviet missiles, potentially with nuclear warheads, with easy access to the United States. The United States President, John F. Kennedy let it be known that he and the United States would not tolerate this threat and would react to it. I am not sure whether the words used have ever been published but there was an unambiguous threat of a military response. Fortunately, Mr. Khruschev and his colleagues reacted responsibly and removed the missiles back to the Soviet Union.
It was recognised that the Caribbean was within the United States’ sphere of influence and should not be encroached on with deadly weapons by the United States’ principal protagonist.
I have never been an admirer of the Soviet Union or its ideology. However, Mr. Khruschev, on that occasion, showed himself to have statesmanlike qualities, eventually if not initially.
The present crisis was not planned by either side but it was the consequence of actions by both sides. The Eastern European satellites of the Soviet Union moved to embrace both the European Union and NATO. Three of these – the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – had been Soviet republics. Russians, not just Vladimir Putin, saw NATO encoaching on what Russia saw as its legitimate sphere of influence. The idea that NATO might launch an invasion could be as a sign of paranoia but as the saying goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that people aren’t getting at you!”.
Of all the countries of Eastern Europe, one stands out as sharing a history of being the closest to Russia – Ukraine. Its shared history goes back to the founding of Russia itself. From Russia’s perspective, Ukraine could not be seen as a legitimate member of NATO. That would be seen as a threat to Russia’s identity.
There have been strands of sympathy, in Ukraine, with Russia but also strands of antipathy to it. The former included Leonid Kuchma and his successor, Viktor Yanukovych. The later included Viktor Yushenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, the leader of the Orange Revolution.
Yanukovych resisted plans to form a trade agreement with the European Union. The European Union and the United States were determined to remove Yanukovych and organised large unruly protests outside the Parliament. Eventually, Yanukovych was overthrown within one afternoon. It has been described as an impeachment but the impeachment procedures that would have taken several days, contained in Article 111 of the Constitution, were ignored. It would more accurately be described as an EU/US organised coup.
The response from Russia was immediate. They sent troops into the Crimea and held a referendum on whether the territory should be returned to Russia. 97% said ‘Yes’. This was not surprising. It had been Russian for centuries and was transferred to Ukraine only in 1954 by the Soviet leader, Mr. Khruschev, who was of Ukranian descent.
Russia has gradually been building up its forces on the borders of Ukraine: on the border with Russia and on the border with Belorus.
At the time of writing, we are waiting to see whether Russia will invade Ukraine or not or not yet!
I look forward to a normalisation of relations between Russia and the West. Russia’s land mass certainly extends well into Asia but the population of Russia is overwhelmingly European. We all share a European civilisation.
However, the chances of normalisation, while Putin is in power, would seem remote and Putin does not look as though he will relinquish power in a hurry. The most we can hope for is a reduction in conflict and a minimisation of bloodshed.