Russia and Trumps’ top team have again dominated the news headlines this week, but we hear precious little about the continuing conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Possibly this is because there can be little resolution until the United States resolves the current uncertainty over sanctions, but the basic facts remain. Crimea is still illegally occupied, and there is still conflict in the Donbass region.
Underlying the situation in Ukraine is a Russian resurgence after the chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union. To those in the West, the end of the USSR was a moment at which the final victory of democratic liberal values could be celebrated, and which all could live happily in the assumption that, in the immortal words of D:Ream, ‘things can only get better’. That assumption has been unravelling for some time, arguably since the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.
It is President Putin’s wish to restore the perceived injustice of the post-cold war settlement, and to restore Russian pride and influence. There are many roads to pride and influence, but the manner in which President Putin has set about restoring Russian pride and influence is a major challenge to global political norms and risks a global arms race. President Trump, with his policy of greater military spending, has done nothing to deter this. Russian actions demonstrate contempt for Ukraine’s national sovereignty and right to self-determination. This has been paralleled by their continued interference in former soviet states, as well as renewed espionage activity against NATO members.
Those who would act as apologists for President Putin often say that Russia is only behaving as other nations behave, and that President Putin has brought a new pride to Russia. But Russia has invaded and continues to occupy Ukraine. Apologists choose to forget that Ukraine is a sovereign democracy, and to accept that justice is merely the interest of the stronger.
It should concern us all that many Russians see this as a holy war to restore ‘Novorossiya’. This is a historical term referring to southern Russia and eastern Ukraine, and has been used by Russia’s president to refer to the region since Russian troops entered Ukraine. A Russian movement of the same name has been on the E.U. sanctions list since 2015 and continues to operate in Ukraine. Ideologues close to the Kremlin, and principally Alexander Dugin, have advocated a new fascism, based not on blood but on culture. It is this, perhaps, that provides a justification for interference to ‘protect Russian speakers’.
Other ex soviet states look west for support. When Russia invaded Ukraine, President Obama made a speech in Warsaw, Poland, saying that Poland had let been down in the past by its allies, but would not be again: The United States would stand firmly behind Poland. Last year the Republican Newt Gingrich claimed that Estonia was ‘in the suburbs of St Petersburg’. President Trump and General Mattis have urged NATO members to look to their own defences if they want continued American support.
The problem is, they are already doing so. There is a vast increase in civil defence force numbers training across Eastern Europe. Disunity in NATO will only embolden Russia to fresh acts of aggression. We must hope that the new American administration recognises this and continues to put pressure on Russia to implement the Minsk agreement. In Western nations, we must keep faith with democracy and the right of nations to self-determination
By Chris Johnson
Photograph: Illustration/Getty Images