Public clashes between Ukrainians and Russians in the main square in Sevastopol. Ukrainians protesting at Russian interference; Crimean Russians demanding the return of Sevastopol to Russia, and that parliament recognise Russian as the state language. Ukrainian deputies barred from the government building; a Russian “information centre” opening in Sevastopol. Calls from the Ukrainian ministry of defence for an end to the agreement dividing the Black Sea fleet between the Russian and Ukrainian navies. The move is labelled a political provocation by Russian deputies. The presidium of the Crimean parliament announces a referendum on Crimean independence, and the Russian deputy says that Russia is ready to supervise it. A leader of the Russian Society of Crimea threatens armed mutiny and the establishment of a Russian administration in Sevastopol. A Russian navy chief accuses Ukraine of converting some of his Black Sea fleet, and conducting armed assault on his personnel. He threatens to place the fleet on alert. The conflict escalates into terrorism, arson attacks and murder.
Sound familiar? All this happened in 1993, and it has been happening, in some form or other, since at least the 14th century.
Instead of blustering into their microphones in a frenzy of self-righteous indignation, the leaders of the US and EU would do well to spend a few minutes swotting up on the history of this volatile region. They would learn that Crimea has a long history of conflict between its Ukrainian, Russian and Tartar communities, and has been ping-ponging back and forth between Ottoman, Russian and Ukrainian jurisdiction for years. The last time the British got involved was in 1853-6, and that, too, was a shambles. This time, the west’s intervention has been foolish and inept, and its hypocrisy is shameful.
Less than a month ago, a violent insurrection in the streets of Kiev against the elected government was greeted in the west as an uprising of “the people of Ukraine” choosing the west against closer ties with Russia. Everyone knows, if they stop to think about it, that such a simplistic characterisation of “the people of Ukraine” is wilfully naive, but the breathless journalists and huffy politicians gushing their stuff never stop to think. Thinking is dangerous. It can lead you to see the other person’s point of view.
The one thing we know for sure is that we don’t know what’s going on. The situation is volatile and murky. But that doesn’t stop western politicians jumping in feet first. We don’t know exactly what forces are at play, but we still desperately want to pin our naive “goodies” and “baddies” labels on to somebody.
When things turned nasty in Kiev as armed protesters, some of them with fascist insignia, seized control of government buildings, the police cracked down, and snipers gunned down police and protesters in the streets. But who exactly were these snipers? The Estonian foreign minister, Urmas Paet, not a natural ally of Moscow, thought it was at least credible that they belonged to the anti-government Maidan protesters. “Gosh!” said the EU’s Lady Ashton in a leaked phone call.
For a moment, the frothing stopped and a truce was negotiated, with the help of Poland, Germany and France, and supported by the US, Russia and the Kiev protesters, all realising that things had gone too far. The agreement allowed for a return to the old constitution, and new elections. Order was restored. Phew!
But this compromise was quickly sabotaged by extreme elements among the protesters, including some sinister far-right elements who are now a de facto part of the government. They pre-empted the outcome of the elections by continuing the occupations and installing themselves in power. (But it’s OK: it’s not a coup, because they are pro-west.) The Russians were alarmed. What was the point of negotiating, if the agreements were not respected, the Russian interior minister demanded to know.
As if in answer, president Viktor Yanukovych resigned. Victory was declared. Hurray! Neither the EU nor the US stood up for the agreement they brokered. Yanukovych fled, with his ill-gotten wealth. Yulia Tymoshenko was released from jail, with her ill-gotten wealth (which is OK in her case, because she is pro-west).
Let us just pause to remember, before we gallop on to the next crisis, that Yanukovych, for all his grotesque self-enrichment, was democratically elected, as few of the new self-appointed government have been. We shouldn’t feel too sorry for him, though. His allegedly pilfered billions will have already been safely stashed abroad, no doubt in some western-administered tax-haven, where they will be protected by our very own financial whizzes.
And so it goes on. Unfortunately, someone in the new Ukrainian government flexes his anti-Russian muscles, and the Russian language is stripped of its official status throughout Ukraine. Fortunately, someone else sees sense and the move is cancelled. But if you were a Russian speaker, wouldn’t you be rattled? Wouldn’t you look around for support? Sixty per cent of Crimea’s population is Russian. Suddenly, Russian troops appear in Crimea. Is it an annexation or a rescue? It depends on your point of view. Is there any evidence that Russia was behind the Crimean move to secede from Ukraine, or was it a homegrown initiative, as in 1993? The Russian Black Sea fleet had been docked on territory controlled by anti-Russians. And rumour has it that Nato is sniffing around for a new place to park its ICBMs. (But that’s OK, because Nato is on our side.)
I am no fan of Vladimir Putin, who is, in my opinion, a loathsome, anti-democratic tyrant with physique issues. But the EU and the US have played right into his grubby little hands. His popularity has soared enormously, because he has been doing exactly what a leader is supposed to do: he has been sticking up for the interests of his people. Would any western government allow its fleet to fall into the hands of its enemies? I hope not, though given the level of incompetence we have witnessed so far, anything is possible. Would any western government allow its enemies to station missiles a few miles off shore? Kennedy was hailed a hero for putting his foot down over Cuba. And Putin is being hailed a hero over Crimea. Whether the threats are real or not is irrelevant at this point.
The Crimean peninsula itself had been ruled by Russia for centuries until Nikita Khrushchev gave it away to Ukraine in 1954, a move that was deeply unpopular in Russia – some say Khrushchev was drunk at the time –and most ordinary Russians – as well, it seems, as a majority of Crimeans themselves – would like to see it returned to Russia. Putin is also off the hook over the Ukrainian economy. Previously, Russia had agreed to bail out Kiev, but it seems that now this cost will be borne by European taxpayers. Will Ukraine also be offered membership of the EU? This is what most of the Maidan protesters were hoping for, but in truth, it was never on offer.
All this makes me immensely sad, because Ukraine is a wonderful country, and Ukrainian people are clever, hard-working, resourceful, passionate, generous and good fun. They deserve better than to be pawns in this cynical east-west power game of spheres of influence, which has nothing at all to do with Iron Curtain anti-communism any more, and has even less to do with the wellbeing and happiness of ordinary people. Of course Ukrainians should be part of the EU: they have much to contribute, and were less of an economic basket-case before western advisers introduced them to casino capitalism. Maybe Russia will also one day be part of the EU. Why not? Of course Ukraine should not turn its back on its eastern neighbour. Putin is not to everyone’s taste, for sure, but the Russian people are not the enemies of the Ukrainian people; on the contrary, in many cases, as in my own family, they are friends, colleagues, cousins, in-laws, husbands and wives.
The cynicism and hypocrisy with which some politicians have tried to pick apart the seams in this delicate and ancient fabric fills me with rage and despair. The histories of Russia and Ukraine have been entwined since at least the ninth century, and so have Russian and Ukrainian families. Only in some fascist paradise are people ethnically “pure”.
In fact, Kiev was the original capital of Kievan Rus’, the proto-Russian Slavic state of the early middle ages, but became too vulnerable during the Mongol invasions, and the administrative and royal headquarters were moved north, near Moscow, which gradually became the dominant region. The languages of north and south drifted apart, too, but are mutually comprehensible, and closer than, say, Italian and Spanish. Many people, like my own family, speak Surzhyk, a mongrel mixture of the two. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the western part of Ukraine was annexed by the Polish empire, which imposed Catholicism on a previously Orthodox population. During the 19th century, this region, Galicia, centred on the city of Lviv, belonged to the Catholic Austro-Hungarian empire. Not surprisingly, these regions of Ukraine are still predominantly Catholic, and see themselves as belonging in the west. In a way, this historic tug of war between Poland and Russia over Ukraine is still being played out, with Poland being the strongest champion of Ukraine in the EU. Poles sometimes refer to Ukrainians as “Eastern Poles”, while Russians still sometimes call them “Little Russians”.
At the end of the second world war, when Churchill and Stalin met in Yalta to define the boundaries of the new world order, western-born Ukrainians who were refugees or ostarbeiter working under the Third Reich were allowed to stay in the west, like my family, whereas those who came from further east were sent back, often to face the gulag. This is why most Ukrainians now living in western countries hail from that western Catholic part of Ukraine, and are likely to support the Maidan protesters.
The second world war has left its gory mark on this part of Ukraine in another way, too. Galicia was home to the notorious pro-Nazi Ukrainian Insurgent Army, whose leader, Stepan Bandera, was viewed as a hero by some Ukrainian nationalists (including my maternal grandfather), but a fascist antisemite by others (including my paternal aunt).
The staggering wartime losses suffered during the second world war, which is still called the Great Patriotic war by those in Russia and the east of Ukraine, also underlies much of the bitterness now surfacing on the streets, since a member of the new Ukrainian government actually tried to ban the use of the term. Some 20 million Soviet citizens perished in the war against fascism, an almost unimaginable sacrifice; hostility towards those seen as neo-fascists is easily ignited. It is a defining historical sacrifice for eastern Ukrainians, in a way that Stalin’s famine of the 1930s has become a defining sacrifice for Ukrainians in the west. In 2006, the authorities in Lviv erected a statue of Bandera in the central square, which provoked outrage in the east. It is Bandera’s spiritual descendants who provided much of the organised violent muscle on the streets of Kiev. To tar the whole of the protest with the fascist brush would be very unfair, since most of the protesters are clearly just ordinary citizens fed up with the suffocating corruption of the old regime. But the western powers should be careful not to collude with neo-Nazis (though, to judge from much media coverage, their snipers and molotov cocktails are OK, because they’re on our side).
What will happen next? I predict that nothing will happen. There will be a tremendous amount of huffing and puffing of hot air; well-oiled muscles will be flexed and machinery moved about. Some kleptocratic Russian and Ukrainian ladies will have to put on hold their next shopping trip to Harrods or Gucci. But for the bankers, oligarchs and oilmen, it will be business as usual. They will still own big chunks of London. And, fortunately, their offspring will still be able to enjoy their elite education in some of the world’s finest private schools cut-price, thanks to the generosity of the British taxpayers who have deemed those institutions to be charities.
Let us hope I am right, because the alternative is civil war: people slaughtering each other in the streets over some fabricated notion of ethnicity. And even a bit of hot air and hypocrisy is preferable to that.
• Marina Lewycka is the author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Her new book, Various Pets Alive and Dead, is published by Penguin.