Peter Jones: Scotland left on the sidelines?

Pro-Moscow demonstrators with a Russian flag outside a government building in Donetsk. Picture: Reuters
Pro-Moscow demonstrators with a Russian flag outside a government building in Donetsk. Picture: Reuters
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POTENTIAL diplomatic answers to the crisis in Ukraine may have an impact on separatist ambitions in Scotland, writes Peter Jones

WAR hangs menacingly over Ukraine, threatening Europe and relations between Russia and the West with its biggest crisis, certainly since the creation of the EU and one greater than those posed by the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. And it also has aspects which, if a peaceful resolution can be found, may impact on our heated debate over independence.

Europe is intensely involved. Ukraine has a huge population – 46 million – and it borders four EU countries, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, all of whom would be swamped with refugees if war did break out. And it was the promise, which Russian president Vladimir Putin saw as a threat, of greater economic and political integration with the EU, that sparked the crisis.

Britain is more involved than seems obvious, too. Like me, you had probably never heard until now of the Budapest Memorandum. It was signed in 1994 and, as its name suggests, is not a formal treaty. But it nonetheless commits the four signatories – the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Britain – to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine and to refrain from using military or economic sanctions to coerce Ukraine.

It was part of a series of diplomatic initiatives designed to shore up normality and peace in the former Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, while reassuring Russia of non-aggression. Ukraine’s part, which it abided by, was to remove all Soviet nuclear weapons from its territory and send them back to Russia, and to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Now we, and the US, are left with a nasty legacy. What do we do about Russia’s clear breach of this memorandum, which Russia would doubtlessly say is not a breach of it at all, but a move to protect its citizens – of whom there are many millions in Ukraine and who are the majority in Crimea – which it is duty-bound to do under its constitution?

The answer, I think, is to engage in state-building, for it is pretty clear that beneath the many factors in the crisis, the root cause is the complete collapse into corruption and kleptocracy of the Ukrainian state and its parliament, the Rada. The interim regime that has emerged in Kiev may not be as gangsterish as that of ousted president Viktor Yanukovich, but the jeering Kiev crowds clearly think it is still full of crooks.

The Orange revolution of 2004, which looked so full of democratic promise, turns out to have just juggled a corrupt pecking order. The now freed Yulia Tymoshenko, an Orange vanguardist and twice prime minister, is tarred with the same brush and is no part of any solution.

Because of this, a fresh round of elections to the Rada and presidency, while necessary, is not enough. Something needs to be put in place that will help assure the people that things will be different and better. Perhaps an external commission, charged with not just assuring that elections are free and fair but also with continuing oversight of a clean democratic system, might be an answer.

If something of that ilk can be constructed, Russia has to be a part of it, if only for the simple reason that Ukraine’s Russians need to be reassured as well. That looks hard, because Mr Putin is no respecter of democracy. But he must surely understand that turning Ukraine’s clock back to serfdom under Russia is sure to fail as well.

The leverage that the West has is money. Ukraine is flat broke, its reserves were down to $15 billion in late February, Russia is demanding $1.6bn in overdue payments for gas, and while the interim prime minister is seeking $15bn from the IMF delegation due in Kiev this week, external assessments suggest some $35bn will be needed over the next three to five years.

And while Russia has the military whip hand against which Ukraine’s forces, despite all the calling up of reservists, are pretty puny, Mr Putin surely cannot want to pit all of Ukraine’s non-Russian population against him.

Money is also Russia’s weakness. The rouble has plunged to a new low against the US dollar and its main stock market has lost $58bn in value, more than Mr Putin spent on the Winter Olympics in Sochi. He also faces being frozen out of the G8, and the economic sanctions threatened by John Kerry, US secretary of state, risks his banks being unable to finance more lending.

It is true that he could cause a mini energy crisis in Europe by restricting gas supplies, forcing prices up, but it is also true that he needs the foreign currency that gas exports earn.

So the conditions for a diplomatic solution, with the West supplying money and democratic guarantees, rather than a military debacle, are there.

That democracy also has to extend to further devolution of power away from the centre to strengthen the somewhat incoherent regional legislatures and reflect Ukraine’s cultural diversity. There can be no more grotesque demonstration of how deep these divisions are than that last month’s victims of brutal repression are hailed as martyrs in Kiev while their police killers are eulogised elsewhere.

An interesting aspect of this is that the legislature in Crimea is planning to hold a referendum on 25 May, the same day as the scheduled presidential elections. Voters are apparently to be asked to say Yes or No to the apparently self-contradictory statement: “The Autonomous Republic of Crimea has state independence and forms a part of Ukraine on the basis of agreements and treaties.” I think this means that Crimea will be part of Ukraine only as long as it wants to and has the right to declare itself an independent sovereign state whenever it wants.

It may well have implications for Scotland’s debate. How will the EU regard this? Could it set precedents for an independent Scotland’s desire to be part of the EU?

But the crisis poses a larger question. Britain has a role to play in resolving the crisis because of the Budapest Memorandum. Scotland, if it became independent, would not be a signatory to that accord and would therefore have no role, whereas the rest of the UK, as the continuing state in international law, would.

Is that what Scotland wants? If Britain plays a constructive role in ending the crisis – a big if, admittedly – does Scotland want to say goodbye to all that?