Ukraine in Context: What You Don't Know About a New Cold War
As the events in Ukraine have sent world leaders scurrying to develop and spread narratives that serve their own interests, the complexities of the geopolitical and economic implications—whether from a Russian, American, European or Ukrainian perspective—have become elusive to those trying to understand exactly what’s going on inside the country.
While the U.S. media is obsessed with what it likes to describe as the belligerence of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the political implications the crisis is having on Obama’s foreign policy legacy, much of what is lost in the coverage is a more critical look at how Cold War history, austerity economics, and deep mistrust have emerged to make the situation in Ukraine, as one historian puts it, “the worst history of our lifetime.”
What follows is a brief roundup of some of the contours missing from the surface coverage by voices that take a tougher and more in-depth look at the still unfolding situation.
For his part, Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University who has long focused on Russia, says what is constantly missing from most mainstream coverage in the U.S. is the very real perception by many in Russia who see a European takeover of Ukraine as a direct military encroachment by the NATO powers on their western border.
This, he says, may be lost on an American audience, but the seriousness of it is not lost on those who know the history of War World I and the bloodshed along the Russian front after War World II that led to the Cold War.
Appearing on CNN this weekend, Cohen told viewers that it is U.S. and European policy in recent years, not what Putin is now doing, that deserves the most severe criticism. He said:
Asked to elaborate, Cohen continued:
Jonathan Steele, writing for Guardian, argues that both the US and the EU need to ratchet down both their rhetoric and threats. He contends the only real solution to the turmoil in Ukraine is one which respects the rights and aspirations of all Ukrainians. Matching Cohen’s analysis in some way regarding NATO’s encroachment, Steele writes:
As for Russia’s involvement, it should at least be seen in light of its own interests and the legality of the military intervention. Even if not justified, says Steele, it must be compared to that of other world powers who now wave their finger at Moscow with such hypocrisy. He concludes:
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Another aspect that has created controversy is whether the Russian military presence in Crimea and the rejection of the new Kiev government in other places in the south and east of the country is pretext for a secessionist movement within those provinces. Others worry that the political split between east and west could lead to all out civil war or a regional conflagration with the Ukraine army in the west, backed by the EU and US, facing off against Russian-backed forces in the east.
But Nicolai Petro, a professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island and currently a Fulbright research scholar in Ukraine, says those opposing the takeover in Kiev are not interested in splitting Ukraine, but instead are concerned about losing key rights, including their ability to retain their Russian heritage under new legal edicts. And, says Petro, those with close economic ties to Russia seeing those interests subjugated by a government beholden to European interests does little to inspire confidence in the emerging government that has taken control in Kiev.
Despite those worries, however, those characterized as ‘Pro-Russian’ do not want to secede, argues Petro in The Nation. He explains:
Lastly, informed observers note that what’s really driving the crisis in Ukraine is about the country’s faltering economic conditions more than anything else. What should not be lost, they suggest, is the fact that Ukraine—guided by the interim government in Kiev—is now on the verge of taking on billions of dollars in public debt by accepting financial bailout packages from the International Monetary Fund and European banks.
The Wall Street Journal reports Monday that an IMF team is en route to Kiev to begin discussions with the interim government there over the possible details of such a financial package.
As the economist Michael Roberts noted recently, “the people of Ukraine [were] left with Hobson’s choice: either go with KGB-led crony capitalism from Russia or go with equally corrupt pro-European ‘democrats'”.
But as Andrej Nikolaidis, a Bosnian who says the situation in Ukraine reminds him all too much about what happened in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, says in a piece in the Guardian on Monday: “When common people find themselves in the middle of a geopolitical storm – as the citizens of Ukraine do now, or my family back then in Bosnia – the dilemma “is this glass half empty or half full?” is irrelevant: soon, it will be broken.”
And Nikolaidis continues with a warning:
What’s needed in that context, according to Petro’s assessment, is a diplomatic and economic solution that caters to the interests of all Ukrainans, not one driven by discussions that take place “in New York, Brussels or Moscow.”
“The partners that need to resolve their differences are all inside Ukraine,” he says, “and the issue they need to address is full equality between the two major cultural components of Ukrainian identity, Ukrainian and Russian. Only this can provide the basis for a common vision for the future shared across the entire land.”
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