Allan Massie: West must tread fine line on Ukraine

Denying that Moscow has a genuine interest in the goings-on in the former Russian state won’t make the problem go away, says Allan Massie

Salmonds admiring remarks on Vladimir Putin have proven contentious. Picture: Reuters
Salmonds admiring remarks on Vladimir Putin have proven contentious. Picture: Reuters

I wasn’t as dismayed or shocked as many claim to have been by Alex Salmond’s expressed admiration for president Putin, because it was actually heavily qualified, and he was speaking as one nationalist of another. Again, unlike some commentators here, I would hesitate to pronounce on the strength of pro-Russian feeling in eastern Ukraine, though the disaffection of many there with the government in Kiev is fairly clear. Rightly or wrongly, many do seem to believe there was a fascist coup in Kiev, and are evidently afraid of the consequences. The heavy-handed and unsuccessful attempts by government troops to dislodge the protesters and regain control of public buildings has clearly not only failed – for the time being anyway – but has also made a bad situation worse.

Nevertheless it is equally certain that last weekend’s referendum is, to put it mildly, not to be taken as a fair test of opinion. It would be fair to call it farcical. For one thing, you simply can’t organise a genuine referendum for several million people in a matter of days – the same stricture might be applied to the one in Crimea which delivered that Ukrainian province to Russia. Moreover, there were polling stations manned by the separatist militias, rather a deterrent to voting “No”. It is as if on 18 September the referendum here was organised, the polling stations staffed, and the count made by people wearing SNP badges, some of them carrying Kalashnikovs and threatening anyone whom they supposed might be about to cast a “No” vote.

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One of the choicest remarks was made by a volunteer at a polling station: “The Soviet way of voting was reliable,” he said. “It was only after 2004 that we started seeing abuses.” Well, he was right to this extent. The Soviet way of voting was indeed reliable, invariably producing almost unanimous votes in support of the Party.

Some certainly turned out enthusiastically. In Mariupol, the second-largest city in the Donetsk region, there were long queues of people waiting to vote. But then there were only four polling stations in a city with a population as big as Edinburgh’s. There were no voters’ lists in most places and people marked their ballot papers in full view of the organisers. It must have taken courage to vote “No”.

Nevertheless, no matter how ridiculous and dishonest it was, the referendum has given the separatist movement a degree of authority. The figures relating to turnout were certainly cooked, and the result will not be accepted by the interim government in Kiev. Yet that government is going to have to take account of it. It can’t just be wished away, and the strength of popular feeling is such that there are only three likely outcomes of any attempt by Kiev to use troops to end what is now a rebellion in the eastern part of the country. First, this would probably fail. Second, it would enflame feeling further. Third, it would invite Russian military intervention.

There is still no reason to think Putin is ready to risk this. It is one thing to dispatch undercover agents or agitators to foment rebellion against Kiev and provide assistance to the separatists, quite another to move troops across the border. The consequences for the Russian economy of any American and European imposition of real sanctions would be severe. Moreover, whatever the strength of pro-Russian feeling in eastern Ukraine, anti-Russian feeling is strong too. There would be a real danger of a guerrilla war, such as the Soviet Union faced there in the Forties, and this time such a war would have to be conducted in full sight of the world. Moreover, Putin himself was a young officer in the KGB when the Soviet Union found itself embroiled in war in Afghanistan; he knows war imposed a strain which contributed to the Soviet collapse. Direct military intervention would be a grave risk; there is no chance that the US and Europe would turn a blind eye to it as they did in the Chechen wars.

Putin has made no secret of his desire to reassert Russian influence in what Russians call “the near abroad,” and what he regards as Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence, but he has hitherto been very careful how he sets about doing this. He is quite ready to take two steps forward, one step back, as he did in the war with Georgia in 2008. His first aim in Ukraine is to deter Kiev from entering into a close association with the EU or Nato. Push too far and too fast now and he may provoke just what he wants to avoid. So he has to perform a delicate balancing act.

The West is in the same position. Sanctions intended to punish and deter are one thing. But even this course carries the risk of deepening the divide between Russia and the West, and the consequences of doing that might be very serious. Wars start when people can find no common language, no ground for compromise. The West has to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and security while not doing so provocatively. We should surely be making the case for a political settlement that may take a federalist form.

What is clear is that we, and the other member states of the EU, can no longer maintain the illusion that war is now unthinkable on the continent. It is as far as member states of the EU are concerned; we settle internal disagreements by argument and compromise. But beyond the union’s frontiers is still dangerous territory. Russia has been re-arming and modernising its defence capability while we have been cutting defence spending and reducing the size of the army. The wisdom of doing this was always questionable. Events in Ukraine have given an answer to the question. It would be sensible to bring forward the defence review planned for next year. At the same time it would be helpful to acknowledge that Russia’s interest in Ukraine and the Russian-speaking citizens there is itself legitimate. There is no point pretending that it isn’t, because such denial won’t make the problem go away.