Crisis in Ukraine - Iron curtain made real once again

It is an indication of how powerful, how unaccountable and secure Russia president Vladimir Putin and his circle of oligarchs feel that they can orchestrate such terrible, anti-democratic violence in Ukraine while their pet project — the incredibly expensive, €37.5bn Olympics at Sochi — offers the world a prime-time insight into modern Russia.

It is an indication of the ruthlessness, not by any means used for the first time, that Russia is prepared to deploy to maintain a cordon sanitaire between itself and western Europe, the source of catastrophe after catastrophe for Russia over the last two centuries. Those centuries’ apocalyptic invasions cost almost 50m Russian lives and ensure that Putin’s interventions in eastern Europe — and probably those of his successors for generations to come — have the support of a great number of Russians.

This world view is not incomprehensible, especially as Russia’s citizens are also denied the freedoms some of Ukraine’s 45m citizens exercised by trying to strengthen links with the EU rather than Russia, an entirely valid choice at the root of the escalating violence in Kiev.

Today, the people of Ukraine are discovering — again tragically — the consequences of challenging absolute, uncompromising, autocratic power. That the same lesson was administered forcefully to the people of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, the Baltic states, Chechnya, and, until German reunification in 1990, East Germany in the years after over 30m then Soviet citizens died in World War II. That so many of those countries have, after decades of struggle, achieved an independence unimaginable even a generation ago must offer comfort and inspiration to those demanding change in Ukraine.

Russia’s interventions may be understandable, but they are not acceptable. The wrongs of history are not reason enough to perpetuate another round of outrages or to deny those in eastern Europe their legitimate aspirations, even if that means turning away from Mother Russia to seek the opportunities of the EU.

There is, of course, great difficulty of making this ideal real, of overcoming the realpolitik of the day. After all, Putin’s, armoured divisions still outweigh any censure that can be practically imposed — power that makes much of the criticism as relevant, as effective as the finger wagging of the Skibbereen Eagle which warned in a similar crisis more than a century ago — “the Skibbereen Eagle is keeping its eye on Russia”.

As the death toll mounts, and as the truce declared on Wednesday night by president Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders is already history, the options are limited. Nevertheless they must be pursued if the slide into civil war, or a return to old-style Soviet satellite state subjugation, is to be avoided.

This seems, even in a world dealing with Syria and all of the other tinderbox conflicts in that region, as great a challenge to world diplomacy as any today. Especially as its resolution would feed the growing appetite for change and democracy in Russia, a prospect Putin and his comrades-turned-plutocrats would resist with all the force available to them. A frightening prospect indeed.


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