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Taking sides in Ukraine.


It’s not a good place for a columnist to be. We are supposed to take clear and unequivocal positions on the events of the day, not flail around looking at both sides. But in the Ukraine, I find it unusually difficult to say which side I’m on. And that, as the clock ticks toward the expiry tomorrow of the truce in the disputed Crimean peninsula, is worrying. The region could be at war by the weekend, and then we’d have to take sides.


Vladimir Putin is an expansionist and has lost little time annexing the Crimea after an over-hasty referendum in which the status quo wasn’t an option. The Edinburgh Agreement it wasn’t. Putin’s “putsch” has been compared to Hitler annexing the Sudetenland in 1938, also after a plebiscite, and the resonances are certainly disturbing. However, we should beware drawing provocative historical comparisons. Putin isn’t a dictator – at least not yet – and isn’t planning to gas jews and homosexuals and colonise Europe.


In fact, you could make an argument – and the Russians do – that the new regime in Kiev has more in common with the Nazis than Putin. The Maidan revolt in Kiev was colourful and exciting in a Les Miserables kind of a way, but its democratic legitimacy is questionable. The ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was the elected President of Ukraine and was up for re-election next year. Loathsome and corrupt he may be, but was it right to overthrow him, effectively, by force?


Yes, he let loose the hated Berkut riot police on poorly armed demonstrators, killing some 80 of his own citizens. But there is certainly evidence that the demonstrators had been shooting too, and many of the Maidan militants were from from the far right and wearing nazi insignia. There is an assumption in the West that the involvement of neo-nazis is a minor matter,  that the demonstrators had to look for help where they could find it. However, many of these people are in government, including the deputy prime minister, Oleksandr Sych. Sych is a member of the extreme nationalist Svoboda Party, the Ukrainian equivalent of Greece’s Golden Dawn.


The secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council, Andriy Parubiy, was,according to an investigation by Channel Four News, one of the founders of the fascist and anti-semitic Ukrainian Social National Party that became Svoboda. His deputy, Dmitro Yarosh, is also a member of the far right street fighters Pravy Sektor, or Right Sector. Yarosh, who is now standing for President of Ukraine, has threatened to blow up Russian gas pipe-lines. These people are now helping supervise the mobilisation of Ukraine reservists.


Now , this doesn’t justify the military seizure of the Crimean peninsula, but it does perhaps explain why so many Crimean citizens voted to secede in last week’s plebiscite. In eastern Ukraine there is a neurotic fear of fascism, which we don’t fully understand because we were never invaded by the Nazis. Russia lost 22 million people in the Second World War. When the Ukrainian Right tried to abolish Russian as an official language, many Crimeans feared that history was repeating itself.


Crimea has long been regarded as part of Russia and is the home of its Black Sea fleet. The peninsula is of immense strategic, linguistic and cultural significance to Russia, and the annexation has been hugely popular in Russia itself. Crimea was only ‘gifted’ to Ukraine in 1954 by the Russian President Nikita Khrushchev when Ukraine was already part of the USSR. It would be naïve to believe, were the situation reversed, that the West would be doing anything different.


Indeed, we are seeing blowback here from the illegal American/British invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, which Putin cites as examples of Western hypocrisy. Iraq was based on an even more bogus premise: that non-existent weapons of mass destruction could destroy British interests in 45 minutes. People in glass houses make uncomfortable diplomats. Nato is a military alliance and rightly or wrongly, many Russians believe that this alliance is pointed at them and is trying to absorb parts of the homeland.


I hold no brief for Vladimir Putin, who is an authoritarian leader with the mindset of a KGB agent and the ambition to restore Russia to the status of a military superpower. The Russian leader changed the constitution so that he could extend his rule more or less indefinitely. Opposition groups have been suppressed in Russia; journalists, like Anna Politkovskya, have been murdered, though no one thinks Putin personally order her killing.


Putin is however, not Josef Stalin, trying to export communism by conquest. Russia has profound economic problems of its own from which Putin is seeking to distract public attention by costly circuses like the Sochi Winter Olympics and military adventures in South Ossetia in 2008 and now Crimea. The West is right to question the legitimacy of his actions in Ukraine, but should beware of aligning itself to closely to the regime in Kiev.

The very confused and fluid nature of the crisis in Ukraine is what makes it so dangerous. Western politicians, resorting to Cold War rhetoric, have upped the ante by making threats that Putin knows they will not carry out. Banning the export of British cloth for Russian uniforms is not going to make Putin back down and nor are visa controls and asset freezes. There would have to be a full scale trade embargo, financial isolation and the effective exclusion of Russian from the Western European economy.

But Russia is one of the EU’s biggest trading partners. Germany, the powerhouse of Europe, depends on oil and gas from Russia. City of London banks have a ton of money tied up there. Neither side wants to lose the bizniz, which means that real economic sanctions are unlikely to materialise. What then?.We are assured that Western boots on the ground are not remotely on the horizon, but accidents can happen.

Ukraine is mobilising, and some of the people involved in the mobilisation, such as Dmitro Yarosh, are going to make every effort to deliver a confrontation. He has sworn to drive Russia out of Ukraine. If bloodshed follows tomorrow’s deadline, after which Ukrainian troops in Crimea must be disarmed, there is a serious risk the West could find itself involved. I don’t know what that military involvement might be – perhaps sending advisers and mercenaries to assist the Ukraine forces. Perhaps cyberwarfare against Russia – which is already happening according to some accounts. But the crisis could escalate.

No one wants to go to war over Ukraine, but then no one wanted to go to war in 1914. Indeed, most people before the First World War believed, like most people today, that a European conflict was no longer possible because the economies of Europe were too closely interlinked. But a complex web of alliances, opportunism and some random shocks, led Europe into a catastrophic conflict. Ukraine is a Black Swan swimming straight into the heart of a Europe which has itslelf been struggling with intractable economic problems and political instability. Political leaders resorting to militant rhetoric need to be very careful now. Sometimes, war starts because no one can think of anything better to do.


About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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