Nearly ten years ago, Ukraine underwent a bloodless revolution that put Viktor Yushchenko in power. His opponent, the Ukrainian prime minister at the time, had originally won the presidential election, but amidst accusations of massive corruption and fraud that prompted millions of young Ukrainians to take to the streets, the country’s Supreme Court annulled the results and held a run off vote that resulted in Yushchenko’s rise to power. Viktor Yakunovych, a man with a criminal record that included robbery and assault, continued to oppose Yushchenko’s government in the years that followed as the Prime Minister of Ukraine.
What occurred in Kiev in 2004 was remarkable, not only because it was a bloodless revolution, but because it was the result of a tried-and-tested effort by the United States government to enforce pro-Western democratic action in countries with questionable electoral practices. This effort, which had previously been executed successfully in Serbia and Georgia years before (with a failed attempt in Belarus) involved the support of the US’ two main political parties, the US State Department, and USAID, among many other agencies and organizations which funded, advised, and organized democratic groups that took part in civil disobedience designed to prevent undesirable anti-Western candidates from coming into power. Does the Arab Spring start to make more sense yet?
Fast forward six years.
Yakunovych ends up running again for the presidency in 2010, this time against Yulia Tymoshenko, winning by a three percent margin. After four years in power, rising unemployment, economic woes, and political corruption give rise to another mass protest that turns violent in a matter of months, with government forces seen sniping helpless civilians in the capital. Yakunovych’s pro-Russian decision to reject an agreement to join the European Union in favor of a bailout from Moscow is seen as the tip of the iceberg that ignited the protests that forced him into exile. In response, Russian military forces move into Crimea claiming ethnic Russians are at risk in the region, and the term “right-wing fascist” shows up in the media again. It’s interesting to note that the use of the term in these regions is not that farfetched: During World War 2, some Eastern European populations sided with the Nazis to fight Stalin’s Soviet army because it was considered more brutal than Hitler’s. This anti-Russian sentiment is still felt today in these places.
Under Putin’s leadership in the last 15 years (counting, of course, the years that Medvedev kept his seat warm while he waited for the constitutionally-mandated rest period between presidential elections to pass), Russia has reasserted itself as an economic and military power in an era marked by American domination of world affairs. This is not a casual coincidence; Putin, a former KGB agent, grew up at the height of Soviet might and his sentimentalism for days long gone has been evident since the beginning of his political career:
“Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest abroad in both the former Soviet lands and elsewhere. We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored.” – Putin 1999
The rapid escalation of tensions between the West and Russia should come as no surprise. Its annexation of Crimea following the region’s referendum to secede from Ukraine has highlighted the shortcomings of the United Nations as it tries to come up with ways to punish Russia’s military actions without escalating tensions even further. Putin’s chess game with the West has so far been a brilliant success, not a single death has been directly attributed to his actions in the past few weeks and it has put his Western counterparts in a tough spot. President Obama, who has shown remarkable restraint in dealing with the crisis despite the outcry of known Republican warmongers (hello, McCain), recently spoke to Putin over the phone while on a trip abroad to discuss the crisis.
Just last week, he gave a speech in Brussels where he fought back against Russia’s accusations of America’s double standards when it comes to military aggressions by providing a reasonable justification of NATO’s involvement in Kosovo over a decade ago, when its population was getting systematically brutalized by Serbia’s government.
The speech, however, got awkward when he proceeded to talk about the Iraq War that he inherited from Bush:
“Russia has pointed to America’s decision to go into Iraq as an example of Western hypocrisy. Now, it is true that the Iraq war was a subject of vigorous debate, not just around the world but in the United States, as well. I participated in that debate, and I opposed our military intervention there.
But even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people in a fully sovereign Iraqi state that can make decisions about its own future.”
Let’s be clear here: Obama is not defending his predecessor’s actions, but he does get real damn close to doing so. Obama acknowledges that the war was a huge mistake, but he falls into the trap of attempting to differentiate it from what Russia did in Crimea by stating it never annexed the country or attempted to steal its resources. While that may be true, he also mentions that the US sought to work with the international system, but falls short of mentioning that, even though the invasion of Iraq had supporters in the West (primarily from Tony Blair’s United Kingdom), the war was never authorized by the UN’s Security Council. Most of its members were uneasy about the whole affair. France in particular was vehemently opposed to it, which meant that no resolution in favor of the invasion could be approved due to its ability to veto any resolution as a permanent member of the Security Council.
Despite knowing it had very little support to invade Iraq (fewer than 50 nations gave explicit support for this catastrophe, including Nicaragua), the United States led a coalition of countries into Iraq in 2003 in a direct violation of the United Nations Charter under the justification that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction and that it repeatedly failed to uphold UN resolutions which forced Iraq to allow weapons inspectors into its facilities. We all know how that ended. Over a million deaths and billions of dollars in infrastructural damage later, Iraqi society, however sovereign it may now be, gets routinely shaken by weekly suicide bombings.
This is not, of course, a lesson on the US’ disastrous 21st century foreign policy or Russian apologetics. Russia’s mobilization into the Ukraine and its occupation of Crimea is as illegal as the United States’ invasion of Iraq, at least under international law. That’s not even up for debate. But Crimea’s decision to join Russia is an entirely different beast. Some historic and cultural considerations have to be kept in mind:
Crimea has an ethnic Russian majority and it used to be a part of the Soviet Union before Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954, which was technically a Soviet state at the time. To put things into perspective, Crimea spent more time under the rule of the Soviet Union than southwestern territories (Texas, anyone?) in North America have been a part of the United States. It’s hardly surprising to see the region break away from the Ukraine, especially at a time when the country is in revolt over Yakunovych’s controversial decision to develop closer ties with Russia instead of with the European Union. Add the fact that over 100 civilians lost their lives to pro-Yukanovych forces and I would have voted in favor of splitting from the Ukraine myself if I were an ethnic Russian.
So what’s all the fuss about anyway?
Putin’s opponents like to point out that Russia has violated the Budapest Memorandum, which gave assurances to Ukraine in 1994 that the United States would defend the country from any aggressors and that Russia would not threaten its territorial integrity. In exchange, Ukraine gave up its nuclear stockpile, the third largest in the world at the time, effectively getting rid of their deterrent against foreign military action. The memorandum, however, has no treaty status, and as such it is not legally binding. It’s a gentlemen’s agreement at best and an empty promise at worst.
Other critics point out that Russia’s unilateral occupation of Crimea goes against the UN’s charter (and it does), but the same charter, in Article 1, states that the UN’s goal is to “develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace”.
Crimea’s overwhelming vote in favor of seceding from Ukraine and annexing to Russia is a direct expression of such self-determination through a democratic process, which the West should be happy about. In this sense, the vote should be seen as legal, but the degree of Russian involvement begs some questions. If Russia hadn’t moved troops into Crimea, would there be such outcry against the referendum? More importantly, should the rest of the Ukraine have a say in what one of its territories wants to do?
It’s important to note that Putin’s military has amassed at least 20,000 troops near Ukraine’s border according to NATO commanders. It’s a significant figure that has raised concerns, and rightly so.
Western leaders fear Russia may repeat its annexation of Crimea. The next logical step would be to annex other pro-Russian regions likeTransnistria, a breakaway region in Moldova that has already expressed its desire to join Russia. Gaugazia, too, has expressed its desire to join Russia, but neither has been officially annexed yet. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are also up for grabs , but it is unlikely Russia will get involved there because even though they have significant Russian populations, all three countries are part of NATO, and an attack on a NATO member is an attack on all.
Despite the West’s employment of so-called intelligent sanctions and its decision to kick Russia from G8 meetings, there’s little it can do to stop Russia without further escalating the situation. Broader economic sanctions, as opposed to sanctions and travel restrictions on specific individuals, are not an option because they would have a huge impact on world trade. Europe’s dependence on Russian gas doesn’t help either.
With recent developments, it’s not hard to see why political commentators are already describing this as the start of the second Cold War, but it’s a silly notion. The truth is that the Second Cold War, if you want to call it that, started many years ago and it was largely fueled by the irreverent attitude of the United States towards the United Nations in the past fifteen years, if not longer. Russia’s war with Georgia at the end of the last decade was its way of showing that if the United States could wage war on anyone it pleased, so could Russia. The affair should have been a sign of things to come. Its enduring support for Iran and Syria, its only allies left in the Middle East, has grown stronger over the years, and its relationship with China shows no signs of deterioration. Beijing’s recent abstention from voting on a UN resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea does little to change this. It is, once again, China voting for China. It can’t publicly support the move because it would threaten its grip on separatist Tibet by sending the wrong message.
Perhaps the hardest pill to swallow is the fact that the invasion of Iraq, the systematic violation of human rights through torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques”, remember that one?), the disregard for international law, the hushed attempts to overthrow democratically elected governments, the blind eye towards Israel’s land grabs, and the growth of a pervasive surveillance state, among other things the United States is rightfully accused of, have all paved the way for a world where the United Nations can’t do anything about Russia because the US’ actions have undermined its credibility as an upholder of international justice.
Taking this into consideration, the last thing we need in Nicaragua is a Russian military base with the potential to create tensions in the future. While it’s true that the United States has bases all over the world and has a long list of sins written in blood over its flag, two wrongs don’t make a right and Russia should keep its military within its borders. The alternative is the remote, but real possibility of armed conflict funded by two distant world powers that results in the deaths of thousands of innocent people caught in the middle. Don’t believe me? Just ask Syria, where US-funded rebels (with alleged ties to terrorist groups) are still fighting Russian-backed dictator Bashar al Assad in a war that’s resulted in at least 100,000 deaths since the uprising started.
But hey, it’s not like we know anything about being used as pawns in proxy wars, right? Pffft.