Ukraine narrative rich in irony

As originally published by Embassy.

As coverage of the unfolding crisis in Ukraine shifts focus away from the protests in Kiev and the installment of a shaky and inexperienced government, a new dominant narrative has begun to emerge in Canadian media.

It is a narrative rich in irony, mixed with hysteria and moral outrage, driven by a singular underlying theme: Russia bad, West good and Ukraine victim.

It is reminiscent of former United States secretary of state John Foster Dulles’ Cold War mindset that saw Russians as only capable of acting in bad faith.

This narrative is unhelpful. Ultimately the blame game gets in the way of constructive dialogue which is really the only way out of this mess.

For anyone sifting through all the messages sent, from reporters on the ground to those reacting in Washington, there has been a clear disconnect.

For example, in a statement filled with irony, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: “You just don’t, in the 21st century, behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.”

Canadian and US news outlets described the situation as a large scale “invasion” with a hostile occupying force installing a puppet government in violation of international law.

In contrast, reporters on the ground tweeted video showing only a handful of masked men­possibly special forces from the Black Sea fleet­who were able to literally walk into the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) unimpeded and without incident.

So far, despite issuing an ultimatum to Ukrainian forces, these “invaders” have not met any resistance, have secured the airports, and dug themselves in, prepared for that time when Crimeans will decide their political future.

People I have talked to in Crimea’s administrative centre Simferopol during the crisis are going about their lives as they would any other day. For most ­but not all Crimeans­ nothing much of substance has changed. To argue that Russian actions have made the situation worse is to avoid some uncomfortable realities which the mainstream media has largely chosen to ignore.

The first reality that one must confront in any political upheaval, if not a “revolution,” is the question of who controls the military. This question appears to have been an afterthought among those who supported the installment of a friendly government in Kiev.

It matters because Ukraine’s forces were only put on high alert after Crimea came under Russian control, suggesting that the command the fledgling government has over the army is uncertain, if not weak. And if there is weakness, then there are implications for Kiev’s ability to control confrontations elsewhere where it may be compelled to stop violent clashes, secure its borders where groups are mixed and provide security guarantees to Ukraine’s minorities who have been singled out for attack.

We have already seen at least one high profile Ukrainian military leader side with the Russian forces in Crimea, and there may be more. More importantly uncertainty over Kiev’s intentions and capabilities will only contribute to conflict escalation as people seek their own security by whatever means necessary.

For example, in Transcarpathia, the region that straddles the border between Hungary and Ukraine, ethnic Hungarians are preparing to leave the country after an incident involving an attack by members of the right Pravy Sektor on a village council meeting. About a week ago, a Rabbi in Kiev urged his people to flee the city after it became clear their safety was at risk.

What concerns these minority groups is not just that they might become targets of attacks and potential ethnic cleansing but that the local police and even the military, should it be deployed, are uninterested and unable to come to their aid.

This is worrisome because it raises the question of who might actually stop the violence in the hotspots of Eastern Ukraine, where ethnic Russians might want to join Russia in a referendum. It would be hard to imagine a Ukrainian military keeping the peace in Eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement to Germany indicates that he has an alternative plan to prevent outbreaks of violence wherever Russian minorities are located by relying on his own forces to provide security. This is a reality the West must come to terms with.

A second reality is that there is great opportunity here for the West to play a constructive role. If a key task is to pressure the government in Kiev to avoid military confrontation, then that has not been done by either Obama or Kerry. Obama’s suggestion that Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe observers be scattered throughout Crimea in a monitoring capacity has merit but it must go further. Kerry’s decision to go to Kiev is less helpful­because it will embolden Kiev’s political protestors and possibly the government’s ultranationalist wing to push for an even more antagonistic approach.

The most significant breakthroughs so far have come not through bellicose Washington, but through Germany whose ideas of a contact group would include European nations and the UN but not the United States. Coupled with a fact finding mission the idea has been in principle accepted by Putin. If however monitoring is really going to work and if fact finding is to going to be the basis for a long term solution then all of Ukraine should come under the watchful eye of impartial observers. Putin has asked as much.

A third uncomfortable reality is securing stability in Crimea when the region decides on it political future. Already autonomous, a referendum would ask whether Crimea should seek full independence. As is typical in instances of irredenta, secession would likely be followed by absorption into Russia. The difficulty is that Crimea is home to a number of distinct groups including Crimean Tatars, ethnic Russians, Ukrainian as well as a number of smaller groups who are not particularly well integrated even at the local level. Most groups in Crimea have relied on assistance from their diasporas. Crimean Tatars as the indigenous peoples of Crimea, can only expect support from each other or seek assistance from the international community. Increasingly, the Tatars are appealing to Turkey for help and a younger more radical generation looks to Saudi Arabia which offers free education to those who want it.

As a result Putin’s interests in Crimea lay in preventing outbreaks of violence among these peoples. But like the West he must confront some uncomfortable realities about the uncertainty of Crimea’s minority Tatars and its minority Ukrainian population. While the Ukrainian minority may end up leaving under duress, the Tatars have no place to go. If bloodshed is to be avoided then it is vital that both the West and Russia promote dialogue and security within Crimea. All this assumes that the West’s interests are not to make matters worse for Putin but to help all the people of Ukraine. That remains to be seen.

By David Carment. He is the editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal and a professor of international affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

One thought on “Ukraine narrative rich in irony

  1. Pingback: Professor Carment: Ukraine narrative rich in irony~Embassy (NPSIA Blog) - The Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

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