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The invasion of Crimea: What should we do?

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
The Welsford-Parker Memorial to the Crimean War.
The Welsford-Parker Memorial to the Crimean War.

In the Old Burial Ground on Barrington Street in Halifax there is a magnificent sandstone triumphal arch that commemorates the Crimean War, the only one of its kind in North America.

This war was a foolish 19th century conflict between the Russian and Ottoman Empires over the rights of pilgrims in the Holy Land. Both France and Britain felt compelled to enter the fray to foil Russia's expansionist designs in the Black Sea region. Serving in the British forces were a handful of Nova Scotians, two of whom, Major Augustus Welsford and Captain William Parker, lost their lives in the battle of Great Redan in 1855.

On top of the monument -- carved, incidentally from sandstone from a quarry in Mary's Point in New Brunswick where my family home is located -- stands a magnificent Crimean lion, and inscribed on the arch are the names, Alma, Balaklava, Inkerman, Tchernaya, Redan, and Sevastopol -- all locales where battles took place. The monument is a dramatic one -- the second oldest in Canada -- and stands in a cemetery as a reminder of the dead hand of imperialism. Imperialism that incessantly meddled in the affairs of states, redrawing national borders, and claiming lives. It is surmounted by a noble lion, but in whose ambit lie only graves.

Now, I'm afraid of a new 21st century Crimean War, which would be just as foolish.

How should we understand what is transpiring? It's quite simply an invasion. President Vladimir Putin's "Russian Empire 2.0" has invaded Crimea -- a peninsula on the Black Sea -- ostensibly to protect Russian-speakers who make up 58 per cent of the population. It was a silly pretext since Russian-speaking people have been living peacefully in Crimea for the last 24 years since Ukrainian independence with no real problems or discrimination.

There are a substantial majority of ethnic Russians in Crimea, and far be it from anyone outside to interfere in their rights to self-determination. There are, however, valid constitutional ways of proceeding, and utterly fraudulent ones.

We have an exact parallel here in Canada where the sovereigntist Parti Québécois have called a provincial election, and the expectation amongst many pundits is that if the PQ win a majority mandate they will call another referendum on Québec independence. We will, of course, see what happens, but this bid for independence, whether it succeeds or not, is proceeding along legal and constitutional lines.

Imagine the outrage if we awoke one morning to discover that France had militarily occupied Québec, was calling a referendum in two weeks in which the choices on the ballot were "Yes" and "Sort-of Yes", where there was no voter's list, and the results in Québec City showed a 123 per cent voter turn out. This is precisely the situation that Ukraine finds itself in today.

It's important to underscore that Russia is not Vladimir Putin. By no means do all Russians share his imperialistic vision. On Saturday there was a massive March for Peace in which over 50,000 Muscovites walked through the city -- ethnic Russians and Ukrainians arm-in arm -- to protest the shameful conduct of their government. This by itself was an act of considerable civic courage, given how repressive the Putin regime has become in recent years -- jailing opponents, muzzling the press, and cowing the judiciary.

So, what do we do?

There should, of course, be no thought of military action against Russia. This would be a cataclysm. A military confrontation could easily spiral out of control, escalating from a cold war, to a very hot one, very rapidly.

Neither should we appease the militarism of Vladimir Putin. Crimea may seem very far away and hardly worth the risk of a confrontation, but exactly such military gambits have had disastrous results in the past. From Adolf Hitler's invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938, ostensibly to protect ethnic Germans, to Slobodan Milosevic's invasions of Bosnia and Kosovo, ostensibly to protect ethnic Serbs. This is a slippery slope that we have slid down before with tragic consequences.

Economic sanctions are what are required. Some have already been introduced by Canada, the United States, and the European Union, but they need to be much stiffer in order to be effective.

In this regard, we in the west have quite a lot of leverage. While sanctions hurt both sides, 15 per cent of Russia's GDP depends on trade with the European Union, whereas only 1 per cent of the EU's GDP is dependent on trade with Russia. So, economic sanctions bite Russia, much, much more deeply.

In the short term, if Russia reciprocated and cut-off or slowed-down natural gas deliveries, this would certainly cause hardship in some European nations. However, 60 per cent of Russia's budget depends on oil and gas exports. So, a Russian gas embargo might make for a very cold winter in some European countries -- until alternative heating supplies were arranged -- but its economic consequences for Russia would be ruinous.

Why economic sanctions are important is that Vladimir Putin's political support is dependent, on the one hand, upon the super-wealthy pirate-capitalists known as "oligarchs" in Russia, and on the other, on the middle class, whose standard of living has improved significantly under his presidency. If sanctions bite deeply into Russia, both of these sources of support could rapidly evaporate.

We need to link arms -- artists and scientists, fisherman and farmers, academics and authors -- people from every walk of life. Canadians and Germans, Russians and Ukrainians, Americans and Armenians -- people from every country -- to make it clear that military solutions to civilian problems are unacceptable. That driving wedges between people, conjuring up racial and national hatreds, is not something we are prepared to permit. That finding peaceful solutions built on dialogue and democracy is the template of governance in the civil, and civilized, societies that we wish to build.

We live in what may be the most challenging epoch of human history. Global problems such as climate change, pollution, resource depletion, poverty, hunger, disease, strife, extremism, and insecurity are affecting every nation in developing and developed worlds alike. In the coming years and decades we must find methods of addressing these issues. They transcend nations and require and collective and coordinated responses. Vladimir Putin's military invasion of Crimea is a step in precisely the wrong direction. We need to stop such aggression in its tracks and find different pathways along which all of us -- not so much as citizens of nations, but first and foremost as human beings -- can travel. It's a tall order, but we can't afford to fail.

[For further information on this topic see, Ukraine on the brink, Crisis in Ukraine: Disinformation and Useful Idiots, and Faces of War on Moscow streets.]

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On that theme . . .

. . . would you call for similar sanctions against the gang of fascists and right-wing extremists who have taken over Ukraine in what ammounts, by any reasonable standards, to a coup?

And how do we grapple with the role of the US and West in funneling millions of dollars into the Ukrainian "opposition" (spearheaded by the likes of neo-Nazis Svoboda)? It seems like a pretty crucial element to ignore in this context.

What do sanctions against Russia do to secure peace and freedom for those in Ukraine, or the stability of the region generally?

It seems to me that our responsibility is to oppose our own government's ambitions in the region, rather than rushing to applaud their geopolitical meddling.

The Ukrainian Government


Four points in response to Brad Vaughn's comment:

1. Coup d'etat: The revolution in Ukraine was certainly not a coup d'etat. Such interpretations are complete Kremlin-funded disinformation.

Ex-president Viktor Yanukovych was impeached by a unanimous vote of 328-0, by 73 per cent of the deputies of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada (parliament), including the members of his own party, the Party of Regions, which has subsequently disowned him stating that: "we strongly condemn the criminal orders that led to human victims, an empty state treasury, huge debts, shame before the eyes of the Ukrainian people and the entire world."

There is no doubt that Yanukovych's government was democratically elected. There is also no doubt that Yanukovych's government (including Yanukovych himself, and his son) was deeply implicated in widespread abuses of power, cronyism, and violations of human rights. Yanukovych also peremptorily abandoned trade and association talks with the European Union, a policy which been at the centre of his electoral platform, and which therefore constituted the basis of his democratic legitimacy. Security forces under his control opened fire on the people gathered in Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square resulting in the death of 77 people.

As such, in my view, Viktor Yanukovych lost his democratic legitimacy, a view taken my the participants in the Euromaidan movement (over a million people who demonstrated in 33 cities and towns across the length and breadth of Ukraine.

A million people rising in revolt do not a coup d'etat make. That would be utter nonsense.

2. Svoboda: The presence of Svoboda, a far-right political party, in the Ukrainian parliament and government, is certainly a matter of great concern. However several facts need to be understood:

a) Only 35 of 449 parliamentary deputies (i.e., 7.8%) in the Ukrainian parliament represent Svoboda;

b) In the last election only Svoboda received only 8.1% of the vote;

c) Of the 22 members of the Ukrainian cabinet only three (Oleksander Sych, Ihor Shvaika, and Andriy Mokhnyk) are representatives of Svoboda;

d) This is, correctly, a cause of concern, however, the interim Ukrainian government is a coalition government composed of five political groupings. Svoboda is part of that coalition, their deputies are legally elected through a system of proportional representation, and as such are legally entitled to a parliamentary voice;

e) Elections are slated for May 25, 2014 in Ukraine. We'll see then how much support Svoboda receives. My correspondents there indicate that it is likely that Svoboda's support will decline substantially.

That said, the presence of extreme right-wing parties is, unfortunately, a feature of the political stage throughout Europe.

In France, the similarly right-wing National Front polled 13.6 per cent in the last national election and has 118 deputies (6.3 per cent) in France's regional councils. There are extreme right wing and/or fascist parties in many European countries. The Jobbik Party in Hungary has 43 deputies (11.1 per cent) in the Hungarian National Assembly. In Greece, Golden Dawn is a nationalist, anti-immigration, neo-Nazi, fascist party with 6.9 per cent popular support and 18 seats (6 per cent) in the Greek parliament. There are many other examples.

Should we regard France as crypto-fascist because of the existence of the National Front? Should we condemn the Hungarian or Greek governments because there are minority parliamentary representations of right-wing extremists? Not in my view. The existence of such groups is regrettable, but the fact is that the vast majority of the populace does not support them. This is as true of Ukraine as it is of most European countries.

3. US Investments in Ukraine: PoliticFact has a summary of American investments in Ukraine over the past 22 years. It says (in part):

"Since 1992, the government has spent about $5.1 billion to support democracy-building programs in Ukraine, Thompson said, with money flowing mostly from the Department of State via U.S. Agency for International Development, as well as the departments of Defense, Energy, Agriculture and others. The United States does this with hundreds of other countries.

"About $2.4 billion went to programs promoting peace and security, which could include military assistance, border security, human trafficking issues, international narcotics abatement and law enforcement interdiction, Thompson said. More money went to categories with the objectives of "governing justly and democratically" ($800 million), "investing in people" ($400 million), economic growth ($1.1 billion), and humanitarian assistance ($300 million).

"…the money in question was spent over more than 20 years. Yanukovych was elected in 2010. So any connection between the protests and the $5 billion is inaccurate.

"Contrary to claims, the United States did not spend $5 billion to incite the rebellion in Ukraine.

"That’s a distorted understanding of remarks given by a State Department official. She was referring to money spent on democracy-building programs in Ukraine since it broke off from the Soviet Union in 1991. We rate the claim Pants on Fire."

4. Geopolitical Meddling: The geopolitical meddling taking place in Ukraine is first and foremost being conducted by the Russian government of Vladimir Putin. For further information on this topic see, Ukraine on the brink, Crisis in Ukraine: Disinformation and Useful Idiots, and Faces of War on Moscow streets.

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