When an airliner is blown out of the sky by people who want part of their country to break away, it’s time to actually take things seriously. This isn’t just some country. We are talking about Russia here and its southern border with Ukraine. The West (and that includes us) will now demand that the Russians disown their out-of-control compatriots in Ukraine. We will be treated to experts suggesting that this is evidence of the war mongering of the Russians, the instability of Putin and the need for Ukraine to move towards the EU with haste.
I am writing this morning from the Balkans and as a result, have been listening to different interpretations of what has been going on globally. Many of these views are more understanding of the Russian interpretation than the western one. Over the years, having spent some time in Russia, I have been aware of the very different ways the Russians and the West view the same events.
When seen from the Russian perspective, Ukraine is just another example of the gradual but definitive encroachment of the West into all things Russian. Russia and Ukraine are not different cultures. They are part of the same broader Russian/Slavic family. Our narrative is that the Russians are happy to keep Ukraine unstable and that what happened to the Malaysian airliner was the risk Russia was running by arming the separatists with sophisticated weapons.
Seen from the Russian side, it isn’t the Russians who are doing the destabilising but the Americans.
For them, the Americans arming and financially supporting an opposition in Ukraine would be like the Scottish Nationalists being financed by Russia. How do you think London and Washington would react to that? How do you think they’d react to the idea of a Russian puppet running an independent Scottish state from Edinburgh?
This is how close Ukraine is to Russia.
Now when you think about it in those terms, do you think Putin will back down and do what the West wants him to do?
Many in Russia believe that ultimately Ukraine is simply a pawn to keep Germany away from Russia. They believe that the only real alliance in Europe is one between an energy-rich Russia and an energy-impoverished Germany, between a technology and manufacturing-rich Germany and a manufacturing-poor Russia. These Russians regard an alliance with Germany as the logical geopolitical relationship for Europe in the first half of the 21st century. They regard the EU as a relic of the 20th century, necessary to protect western Europe under the umbrella of Nato both from itself and ultimately from the Red Army. With this threat gone, many Russian strategists argue that an alliance between Russia and Germany is going to happen.
Such a coalition would terrify America because it would mean that America would no longer be a player in Europe. This is why America heightens the fears of those who would have most to lose in such an alliance – such as Poland. Therefore Poland gets all the best American military equipment, gets the US investment and regular US pats on the back. By destabilising Ukraine, the Americans can heighten the regional angst of the Poles and also line the Germans up against the Russians in defence of a Ukrainian state, which is little more than an IMF supplicant propped up by IMF/EU loans to cover the day-to-day pilfering of its home grown kleptocracy.
Again when seen from Moscow, further south on the other side of the Black Sea, America is happy to allow its ally, prime minister Erdogan, in Turkey to tear up the Turkish constitution, jail opposition politicians and questioning journalists, and allow him to do the very thing that they scolded Putin for doing, staying in power by jumping from prime minister to president and back.
While Erdogan makes a mockery of Ataturk’s Turkish republican values, America sells Turkey the finest military hardware because Turkey promises to put manners on Russia’s ally in the region, Assad in Syria. Furthermore, the Turks and the Persians have hated each other for millenniums, so a strong Turkey keeps Russia’s other ally, Iran, in check.
America’s other ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, lends its support to al-Qaeda and its various Sunni offshoots such as Isis in Iraq, revealing that America is either very capable of playing both sides or is terribly out of its depth in the region. All the while, America’s biggest ally in the region, Israel, pulverises Gaza, but Gaza itself is held by Iran’s ally Hamas and thus is a pawn in Iran’s regional game.
Hamas were out of favour with Iran for not backing Assad in Syria at the beginning, but now with Assad securely in power after an unbelievable 150,000 people have been killed in Syria, Hamas has to cozy up to Iran again. The Hamas embrace of Iran was made more urgent by the eclipse of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Qatari-financed movement in Cairo, which is now on the run.
This grotesque geopolitical chessboard, where each conflict can be seen as a proxy war for something else is the kaleidoscope through which the world is seen from Moscow and Washington and indeed the other capitals of major world players from Beijing to London.
All sides have their narratives, allies and interests. All desperately want to remain in control and are happy to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by their allies. In all cases, innocents are killed. So the Americans look the other way in Gaza, while the Russians discount the killings in Aleppo. The French get all hot and bothered about Ukraine while ignoring the fact that its own troops are up to their eyes in the civil war in Chad and southern Libya. Britain lectures Russia on intervention in Ukraine while ignoring the fact that their troops are in Afghanistan.
Maybe it’s because I am in the Balkans 100 years after Gavrilo Princip killed Franz Ferdinand and kicked off a global conflict, but the unstable alliances of 2014 look equally as fragile as they did in 1914.
Sometimes when you are living through historic times you don’t realise it, but last week’s events from Ukraine to Gaza and Iraq do have a momentous feel to them.