Keeping eagle eye on tensions between Russia and Ukraine  

Keeping eagle eye on tensions between Russia and Ukraine  

A Ukrainian soldier at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels, Donetsk region, Ukraine. US president Joe Biden has warned Russia's Vladimir Putin that the US could impose new sanctions against Russia if it takes further military action against Ukraine. Picture: AP Photo/Andriy Dubchak

In 1898, the Skibbereen Eagle famously cast its eye on the emperor of Russia. Ever since, Russian ambassadors to Ireland avidly read Cork-based titles, just in case the eagle rises again from the ashes, to hover over the Kremlin. The eagle, or rather the double-headed eagle, is also the oldest emblem of Russia.

Back in September, when this paper published my article critical of Russia's pressure on the Baltic states, the Russian eagle rose to defend the 'Motherland'. The offending article, which drew the Russian ambassador's ire, focussed on just one aspect of the current tensions between EU/NATO and Russia: The relationship between Russia and the Baltic states. Other articles of mine touched on the situation in eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and Belarus. Elsewhere, I have mentioned Swedish defence assessments of Russian military exercises in the Baltic Sea area, along the Arctic Circle, and down the northeast Atlantic coastline, past Belmullet. The naval service has confirmed the recent presence of Russian ships off the Mayo coastline in the area where transatlantic cables are at their shallowest, and consequently most vulnerable. One snip and bye-bye internet.

The tensions are historical. The question is, how far back in history are we prepared to go? In 1898, the year of the Skibbereen Eagle's famous headline, Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Crimea, and Georgia were all part of the Russian empire. Russian president Vladimir Putin goes back much further. In his essay, 'On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians', which was published on July 12 last, he draws on a wider and much older historical perspective. His concept of the oneness of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples is the key to understanding Putin's thinking on present Russo-Ukrainian relations.

However, if we were to consider that Ukraine should reunite with Russia on the basis of historical and cultural ties alone, we would open a Pandora box of biblical proportions. Where would it end? We Irish learned the hard way that the study of history is essential to understanding tAhe present, but should never be the template to decide our future.

In his essay, Putin did not make a distinction between the eastern parts of Ukraine (the Donbas region, where there is an ethnic Russian majority) and the rest of Ukraine. Since Ukraine is now an independent nation, whose independence is recognised by the UN, the only legal basis for changing its status is by the will of its people. Some commentators have suggested splitting the country in two. There is, however, no Ukrainian national consensus behind this proposal.

Putin has been criticised for issuing Russian passports to the population of the Donbas region and for welcoming the separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk into the United Russia Party. Sounds familiar? Sure, the Irish government have been doing the same for years in Northern Ireland!

The red line, of course, is that the changing of international borders by force, or coercion, is no longer acceptable. In establishing the United Nations, the international community has committed itself to the rule of law in resolving territorial disputes. The right of self-determination of peoples is also enshrined in the UN Charter. From time to time, Putin raises the issue of spheres of influence. However, this concept, which became popular during and after the Second World War, has no moral or legal basis.

Ukraine has the moral support of the EU and NATO, but not sufficient practical support to ensure its national integrity or ultimate independence. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and NATO is not obliged under a mutual defence treaty to come to its aid. The US has given military assistance by way of technical support and equipment since the 2014 war started. This aid has boosted Ukrainian defence, but is not enough to restore its control over eastern Ukraine or even to eject the Russians from Crimea. In particular, the US will not give the Ukrainians enough Javelin anti-tank missiles to negate the threat of Russian armour completely. These missiles, which are also in service with the Irish UNIFIL contingent in Lebanon, have a range of 2.5km, and could be decisive if there is a Russian intervention in Ukraine over the coming months.

Nor have EU sanctions succeeded in getting the Russians to withdraw to the internationally recognised border. As the EU is increasing its dependency on Russian gas, it is not in a good position to be imposing anything other than limited sanctions on Russia.

From Skibbereen to Sevastopol, from Cork South Central to Gorky Central Park, the world has suddenly become a more dangerous place.

  • Colonel Dorcha Lee (retd), defence analyst

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