Russia has invaded to reassert control over sovereign territory. We must respond

3 Mar 2014

* March Article of the Month *

After the approving of troop deployment in Ukraine by the Russian parliament on Saturday, the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister said that: ‘It does not mean that this right will be used quickly.’

That was a lie.

Russia has invaded Ukraine and taken over sovereign territory without a single shot being fired and without any casualties. 

But the tactics used in Ukraine today are not new.


When, in 1956, Hungary deviated from Soviet power, the Soviet army reinvaded and reconquered her territory — blaming ‘fascists’ aided by the Western ‘imperialists’. Events repeated in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, in 1979 in Afghanistan, in 1992 in Moldova and in 2008 in Georgia. The Soviets invaded to restore their power. Today the Russians are repeating this ugly method: provoke unrest and then use troops to assert dominance. 

The Russians have intervened, Putin says, to ‘defend human rights’ of Russian citizens. Russia Today, Kremlin’s English propaganda media machine, has said there is ‘humanitarian crisis’ and 675,000 Ukrainians have ‘poured’ into Russia. Again, lies: there is no evidence for that. (See image: This is nonsense. The Russian president has no inclination towards human rights. Look how he treats gay people and his domestic opponents, look how he continues to court allies with repressive nations in Central Asia and further, look how he consistently defends the Syrian governments’ torturing, bombardment and sieging of its own people. He wanted Ukraine to join the Eurasian Union — a proposed economic union of former Soviet countries such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, both dictatorships which crush dissent with an iron fist. It is nothing other than a community for despots and a place for Putin to salvage former Soviet supremacy. Ukraine took off her puppet strings and ran away from him. He wants her back.

Indeed, Putin is scared of revolution in Ukraine because it undermines his rule in Moscow. For much of last week, Red Square in Moscow was shut down and surrounded by army units — any anti-Putin demonstrators were quickly taken away. More than one hundred were arrested for ‘violating public order’.

To those who think this is not our business, it very much is. We, along with Russia and the USA signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994. In it we promised:

·         ‘To reaffirm… commitment to Ukraine [and] to respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.’

·         ‘To reaffirm… [our] obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.’

·         ‘To consult in the event a situation arises which raises a question concerning these commitments.’

Russia has broken its commitment to respect Ukraine’s independence, has broken its obligation to refrain from using force against her and has broken its promise to consult any other country on this matter. It has arrogantly superseded the rule of law and there must be consequences. 

Where is the red line on Ukraine? Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters last Friday: ‘The question is whether or not what is happening now might be crossing a line in any way and we are going to be very careful in making our judgments about that.’ Putin will not be shaken by words like that — as a matter of fact he was sending in troops as Kerry spoke. He had already seen how the West responded after Syrian government forces crossed Obama’s infamous ‘red line’ when they gassed their own civilians. 

We cannot allow those who fight for peace and democracy to be disheartened from a lacklustre response to Russia’s breaking of international law. They are looking to us to uphold our principles.

Obama’s warning to Putin on Friday was lamentable. He said that there ‘will be costs’ if Russia invaded Ukraine — at the time residents and journalists in Crimea could already see Russian troops swarming. The next day Putin’s parliament unanimously gave approval to sending forces into Ukraine. On Saturday he called the Russian President and expressed ‘deep concern over Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is a breach of international law’. Concern gets us nowhere — it allowed Russia to reassert their dominance in the Crimea. To be sure, it would not be hyperbolic to say that Comical Ali of Baghdad had more credibility than Barack Obama has today. His foreign policy is marred with weakness and inefficacy.

How Obama responds now will characterise his presidency. Will he allow such brazen violation of international law to go unheeded? He has the power to defend it but does he have the will? As a KGB officer, Putin was being made by the Cold War whilst Obama was still at school. He is an expert in action; Obama is an expert in rhetoric. Today is the time for acts not words.

The West are recalling ambassadors and Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom have stopped preparation for G8 talks in Sochi in June. Oh how Mr Putin must be quivering with fear in his Kremlin base. Of course not — that threat is only a slight irritation and not enough to stop him. It is time for the West to catch up with the situation and stand up to Russia. America has leverages. Let us see them used.

The propagandists in Russia have spread rumours that the revolution that took place last month was the work of ultra-nationalists. It was not: Timothy Synder described it as a ‘classic popular revolution’. There is some concern about far right groups, such as Svoboda — Yanukovych’s government let them flourish whilst he crushed the centre-right opposition. It now controls the ecology and agricultural ministry and leads the chief prosecutor’s office. The Deputy Prime Minister is also a member of that party. However, the far-right still has less power than they have in France and the Netherlands. The current speaker and acting president was Deputy Prime Minister under Yulia Tymoshenko and is an Evangelical Baptist from a Russian-majority speaking oblast; the interior minister is half Arminian half Russian; and the minister of defence is of Roma origin. The poster boy of the Revolution, former boxer Vitali Klitschko, speaks Russian and only some Ukrainian. Yet these power bases aren’t instilling their language and culture on the majority of the country. They do not want to crush their own people, they merely want independence from the Russian hand. 

But before the revolution Ukraine had, according to Synder, an ‘unmistakably reactionary regime’ with a leader who was, it is true, democratically elected but then ‘altered the system from within’. $70 billion of state funds has vanished into offshore accounts in the past three years. Russia offered a much needed loan of $15 billion and said it would lower the price of gas if Ukraine stopped seeking closer cooperation with the European Union — Mr Yanukovych and government ministers went on to explain to ‘his’ people that the EU was primarily interested in gay marriage, typical irrationalism emanating from an authoritarian government — and joined Putin’s dictator club — the Eurasian Union. 

In the revolution, protesters, journalists and medical workers were attacked (one journalist was dragged out of her car and shot; one leading opposition activist was kidnapped and had a part of one ear cut off, was beaten and nailed to a cross) and over 70 people were killed by their government’s forces. Dozens of people are still missing from the police’s crackdown on the protestors. On January 16, the president passed laws — illegally and only by a show of hands — restricting freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom to protest. Having ordered this decisive action against the people, Moscow then released $2 billion in aid which it had halted. 

The people in Crimea were hardly under threat from ‘fascist gangs’. This is sheer propaganda drooling from the mouth of Putin. But now, thanks to the failure of the West to intervene, Crimea is under Russian occupation. And it is not the only Russian speaking part of Ukraine and so the military invasion is unlikely to stop with the trenches being built there.

Ukraine is a sovereign state. Ukraine is not Russia. Ukraine is no longer a Soviet Socialist Republic. But Russian troops are again on her territory. That is our business. 

Ukraine will not be able to repel the illegal invasion on its own. That is why it is the responsibility of the outside community to uphold the rule of international law. We cannot allow Putin to achieve his objectives, we cannot allow Putin to suppress another nation. This is about principle and this is about lawfulness.

What happened in Ukraine burst Putin’s ego. He saw the popular revolution against an increasingly dictatorial and illegitimate leader as a Western imperialist conspiracy. His allies, depending on who you listened to, accused fascists — linking certain ultra-nationalist groups to Nazi collaborators in the Second World War — or Jews. It would be more sensible not to listen.

The European Union holds the keys to economic sanctions — it has closer economic links to Russia than the USA has. They seem to be the best course of action to isolate Russia. If America sends warships close to the Crimea, Obama would never use them and Putin knows that. The military option is most definitely off the table. 

Putin wrote in the New York Times last summer when the USA, UK and France wanted to attack Syria for their usage of chemical weapons: ‘The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades. No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.’ He should heed his own words, but he will not.

The world is watching. When Russian forces bombarded Tbilisi in 2008, they faced no costs. And in the longer term, Russia’s isolation was over within a year when Obama tried to improve relations. They have now invaded another independent, former Soviet state. The Georgian farce seems to be repeating itself. 

The fairy-tale of Sochi has ended. Putin squandered seven years and $50 billion of work to polish Russia’s look but the veneer has been shed. As Russian soldiers seize Ukrainian weaponry, hold Ukrainian sailors hostage and cut off their electricity and water supply, we now see the real meaning of Russian might.

Garry Kasparov said on Twitter on Saturday: ‘Even if you do not agree that free nations must defend free people from moral obligation, it is a practical one. Dictators always expand.’ 

He is right — if we do not respond to aggression, who will be next to fall? We must teach Putin and his cronies that Ukraine is not his country anymore.

We cannot be indifferent to the fate of freedom in the world. We are being watched carefully by dictators and by democracies. We failed Syria and her people. Will we fail Ukraine?

By Tom Fenton


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