Ukraine: there’s no way out unless the west understands its past mistakes


After the fall of the Soviet Union, many hoped the cold war ideology could be put behind, and that the powers could work for a more co-operative and a better world. Nato had done its job.

There were many ways in which the former members of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe could have been given security for the future. Nato chose to provide that security by moving eastward to the borders of Russia. The then president, Gorbachev, in negotiating with secretary of state, James Baker, had insisted that Nato should not move one foot east – this was an area of traditional Russian influence. President Clintonpushed to expand the Nato alliance to the very borders of Russia. There was talk of Ukraine and Georgia being included.

The move east, despite the negotiations held with Gorbachev, was provocative, unwise and a very clear signal to Russia: we are not willing to make you a co-operative partner in the management of European or world affairs; we will exercise the power available to us and you will have to put up with it.

The message was re-emphasised years later, when President Bush sought to placeelements of the anti-ballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic. America said this was aimed at Iran. Russia would not have believed that. The west was acting as though the cold war still persisted.

What happened a while ago in Georgia, and what is happening now in Crimea, grows directly from those early mistakes made by the west. The west has been angling over the years to draw Ukraine into Nato. It has been doing whatever it could to support a pro-European government in the Ukraine, and to oppose or to bring down a pro-Russian government.

In January, Seumas Milne described those fighting against the then government. If but a small part of what he then said was correct, the west has once again chosen some unsavoury partners and that does not augur well for the future. Milne then described the elements then fighting the government as pro-fascist, pro-nazi, anti-Jew.

The west has again been flat-footed and unprepared. There is a significant Russia minority in Ukraine; Russia would be bound to take steps to protect that minority. In addition, if Putin thought that the west was angling to get the Ukraine into Nato, he certainly would have taken steps as he has to guarantee access to the Black Sea ports in Crimea and to safeguard military establishments which could be used to threaten that access.

To protect assets in Crimea will always be a Russian objective. Western leaders and western media mostly paint the whole dispute as totally one-sided: it is all Russia’s fault, and Putin is preventing a true democracy emerging. The steps taken in the early days after the fall of the Soviet Union, the breach of what Gorbachev (I accept almost certainly mistakenly) believed to be a firm agreement that Nato would not move east, was bound to create difficulties for the future.

There will be no way out of this, unless the history and the west’s past mistakes are understood by those who are trying to grapple with the present intractable, difficult and extraordinarily dangerous problem.

There is another aspect of this which should give western powers even greater concern for the future. The US has embarked on what many regard as a foolish and dangerous policy in the western pacific: a policy of containment of China. Even Joseph Nye, a former Pentagon official, has said containment is the wrong approach to a rising China – the US policy should be one of co-operation. There have been discussions about possible strategic arrangements between China and Russia. Are the mistaken policies of the US and the unfolding drama in Ukraine going to push both Russia and China towards a strategic partnership?

Those who thought the cold war was over and hoped for a better world are being proved to be wrong. Those in charge of current policy are showing an inadequate understanding of the events unfolding before their eyes, and an inability to work co-operatively to guide the world more safely.


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