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Russia and the West

Last week’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in the Welsh city of Newport was hyped up as a momentous occasion that would reinforce the relevance of the western military alliance, which has struggled to identify a raison d’etre since the collapse of European communism.
Its role in the post-9/11 occupation of Afghanistan has turned out to be less than a resounding success. Likewise its incredibly misguided intervention in Libya three years ago, which facilitated the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi but in its wake left an utter mess that is yet to be sorted out.
The consequences of whatever actions NATO undertakes in Iraq may well turn out to be equally uncongenial, but the forays of the so-called Islamic State (IS) have nonetheless offered it some kind of goal to strive for. Inevitably, that provided a significant agenda item for Newport — which, incidentally, was hosting the first NATO summit on British territory since 1990, when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.
The current host, David Cameron, signposted an even more key concern, meanwhile, when he told a European Union summit in Brussels the previous week, contributing to the hot air over Ukraine: “We run the risks of repeating the mistakes made in Munich in ‘38… This time we cannot meet [Vladimir] Putin’s demands. He has already taken Crimea and we cannot allow him to take the whole country.”
Although Ukraine is not a NATO member state, the problems in its east have provided the alliance with a European crisis to tackle. Even before the western leaders congregated in Newport, there were indications that a rapid response force would be proposed as a means of challenging Russian aggression.
Such a force did indeed turn out to be one of the more cogent outcomes of the summit, even though its deployment in Ukraine is more or less out of the question. Beyond that, however, Putin deftly blunted NATO’s potential sting by proposing a cease-fire plan for eastern Ukraine and persuading his counterpart in Kiev, Petro Poroshenko, to accept it.
Poroshenko was a lionized guest in Newport, and undermining his declared aims would have put NATO in an absurd position. Thus outmaneuvered by Putin, it could do little else but to lamely endorse the truce, possibly in the expectation that it would be violated sooner or later, validating its narrative about Moscow’s belligerence.
Back in Kiev, meanwhile, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, dismissed Putin’s peace proposal as a trap. He has frequently referred to Russia as a terrorist state and appears to believe that Putin’s ultimate aim is to resurrect the Soviet Union.
The post-Maidan premier has ensconced himself so far up the rear tract of the western digestive system that it is impossible to imagine him emerging intact from any extraction procedure. It is just as well that Ukraine’s legislative elections next month will in all likelihood lead to his replacement by a more sensible head of government. And for the moment it is fortunate that the recently elected Poroshenko appears to have the final say.
The Ukrainian president communicates frequently with his Russian counterpart, which is evidently crucial in maintaining the cease-fire declared last Friday following talks in Minsk between government and rebel representatives. There have been violations, but none of them serious enough to jeopardize the truce — although that is no guarantee it will hold for very long.
The possibly temporary calm is undoubtedly a blessing for the civilians in Donetsk and its surrounds who were bearing the brunt of the shelling. But it is also something of a reprieve for government forces, which have been on the retreat — ostensibly because the ranks of the separatist rebels have been swelled by Russian army regulars.
That at least is the western and official Ukrainian narrative, although there seems to be plenty of circumstantial evidence suggesting this is not a complete fantasy, notwithstanding vehement denials from Moscow. The somewhat mysterious Russian humanitarian aid convoy that attracted so much attention a couple of weeks ago was derided as a Trojan horse and a means of conveying weapons to the rebels. Neither of those charges turned out to be factual. What’s perfectly conceivable, though, is that it served as a distraction that allowed Russian military reinforcements to be infiltrated through other points along the extensive border.
That possibility squares with the fact that Kiev’s forces suffered crushing defeats in the fortnight or so preceding the truce, and this no doubt was crucial in the negotiations in Minsk with those hitherto dismissed all along as “terrorists.”
In the days before the Soviet Union conclusively imploded, the US administration endorsed Mikhail Gorbachev’s view that Moscow’s military withdrawal from Eastern Europe must not presage an expansion of NATO. That spoken agreement has subsequently been violated with impunity. Ukraine and Belarus are among the only former Soviet republics to Russia’s west that have not been sucked into an alliance that has lately once again demonstrated that it has not substantially shifted from its anti-Russian moorings.
Cameron’s reference to 1938 was intended as a reference to Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” pact with Adolf Hitler, which shortly thereafter proved unsustainable. When Russia looks pack to that period, it sees the absence of buffer states that exposed it to a lightning Nazi invasion.
Josef Stalin’s appeal to nationalism, rather than communism, was crucial in the Soviet defeat of the Nazi menace — notwithstanding the collaborators who cropped up in the Baltic republics as well as Ukraine. The significance of the fact that the authorities in Kiev enjoy neo-Nazi support is not lost either on Moscow or on the Russian-speaking Ukrainians who dominate the country’s east.
Many of them are determined to secure independence, but autonomy within a Ukrainian context should suffice, provided Russia is willing — as it appears to be.
Putin is in many respects a nasty character, who last week warned the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, that if he gave the word, his forces could take Kiev within a fortnight. That would, obviously, be an incredibly stupid step, and there are no indications that Putin intends to take it. But it certainly wouldn’t pay to provoke him, thereby feeding into a frenzy that could unleash a third world war.
It’s a delicate situation out there in Ukraine. But it can be handled relatively peacefully, provided the likes of Cameron and Yatsenyuk can be dissuaded from provoking a catastrophe.