To each superpower, its own near-abroad

    The downing of MH17 puts the spotlight back on the Ukrainian crisis. It’s a warning to the West to eschew attempts to ‘contain’ Moscow and stop the provocative expansion of NATO across Russia’s borders.

    In the early hours of the morning of July 17, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 with 298 people on board was shot down over eastern Ukraine, now controlled by Russian separatists, engaged in a civil war against the Kiev Government. The Russian speaking minority has evidently been reinforced and equipped by their kinsmen from across the Russia-Ukraine border. They carry heavy firepower including tanks, armoured personnel carriers and a range of surface-to-air missiles.

    The shooting down of MH17 came alongside rebel missile attacks over the past four weeks, which have downed two military transport and three state-of-the-art Sukhoi attack aircraft, of the Ukrainian Air Force. It is evident that the missile attack on MH17 was based on the mistaken assumption that it was a Ukrainian Air Force aircraft. There have been seven incidents of such inadvertent shooting down of civilian aircraft in the past. In recent times, South Korean Airlines Flight 007 with 277 passengers and crew strayed into Soviet airspace. It was shot down by a missile fired from a Soviet MiG.

    After the usual rhetoric, Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev returned to business as usual. Thereafter, on July 3, 1988, Iran Air Flight 655, flying from Tehran to Dubai with 290 passengers, mostly pilgrims headed for Mecca, was shot down over Iranian territorial waters, by two missiles fired from the US Navy missile cruiser, USS Vincennes. The US refused to accept responsibility for the action. It paid a sum of $61.8 million as compensation to the families of the victims, following the ruling of an international tribunal.

    What the US paid was less than three per cent of what it got from Libya, for the Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am 103. The Captain of the USS Vincennes was awarded Combat Action Ribbons, shortly after shooting down a civil airliner. Washington, DC’s displeasure, about Russian supply of surface-to-air missiles to the Russian resistance in Ukraine, is surprising. It was the US that started the practice of providing lethal weaponry to non-state actors. The Central Intelligence Agency liberally provided lethal Stinger surface-to-air missiles to the anti-Soviet Mujahideen in Afghanistan, through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.

    Three Indian Air Force aircraft – a MiG 21, MiG 27 and a helicopter gunship – were shot down and a Canberra bomber damaged, during and just prior to the Kargil conflict. The IAF aircraft were fired on by Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry, using, what were assessed to be, Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Given the relentless US policy of strategic ‘containment’ of Russia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it was inevitable that, pushed to a corner by American and NATO pressures, the Russians would reach a position of saying: “Thus far and no further”.

    The erratic nature of the policies of President Boris Yeltsin and his advisers like Yegor Gaidar and Mr Andrey Kozyrev, immediately after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, evidently encouraged the US and its NATO allies to erode Russian influence in the Balkans and undermine Russian credibility in Kosovo. Simultaneously, members of armed Chechen separatist groups were openly welcomed in western Europe. Yeltsin’s incompetence in Chechnya and his inability to deal with the expansion of American-led influence just across Russia’s borders, contributed to his being eased out of office and replaced by Mr Vladimir Putin.

    Even as the Russians tried to increasingly integrate former Soviet Republics economically and strategically, the US and its NATO allies held out lucrative offers for economic integration with the European Union and membership of the NATO military alliance. Russia faced a challenge of economic isolation and military encirclement. The Russians have responded by developing economic partnerships with former Soviet Republics and the establishment of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation.

    The economic and security inroads made by the EU and NATO have, however, significantly eroded traditional Russian influence in its immediate neighbourhood. These Western moves, which the Russians naturally regard as strategic encirclement, have resulted in former Warsaw Pact members – the Czech and Slovak Republics, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland – joining NATO In the Balkans, Croatia and Slovenia are now NATO members. Moreover, the former Soviet Baltic Republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have joined NATO.

    There are also moves to consider EU and Nato membership for Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Georgia. Ukraine was ruled by Russian tsars for three centuries prior to the formation of the Soviet Union. It was regarded as part of the sphere of Russian influence. Its eastern region bordering Russia was increasingly populated by Russians. Ukraine’s Crimean region was transferred by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev from the Russian Federation to Ukraine in 1954, as a “gesture of goodwill”, marking the 300th anniversary of Ukraine being a part of Tsarist Russia.

    Sevastopol in Crimea is vital strategically to Russia, constituting Russia’s access to the warm waters of the Black Sea. Former President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine and other Ukrainian leaders inevitably played off the Russians, who promised plentiful supplies of energy, against the EU, which promised prosperity. Mr Yanukovych signed an agreement in 2010 extending the lease of Sevastopol till 2042. The quite evidently American-backed movement that resulted in the ouster of Mr Yanukovych, led to the takeover of Sevastopol and the Crimean region, with a Russian majority population, by Russia.

    The US-led attempts to contain Russia have been marked by inconsistencies. The dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the independence of Kosovo were justified by Western powers on the lofty grounds of respect for “human rights”. But, today these same powers are raving and ranting against the “separatists” of the Russian minority in Ukraine, who are seeking independence, or merger with Russia.

    There is little doubt that Russia today faces serious internal problems arising out of falling birth rates, alcoholism, drug addiction, declining life expectancy and corruption. But, it will be a historical error to underestimate Russian resilience in the face of adversity. Attempts to dominate and marginalise the Russian minority in Ukraine will be fiercely resisted and reinforced by support from across the Ukrainian-Russian border.

    What is needed is a realistic political solution involving a united, but federalised Ukraine. More importantly, attempts at ‘containment’ of Russia, will have to be eschewed and the expansion of NATO across Russia’s borders ended. Given the imperatives of stability and energy security, responsible European countries like Germany and France will recognise this. Will the Americans do likewise?


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