“A European Ukraine is in Russia’s national interest”

Following Parliament Street’s ‘Russia vs the West’ debate in the Palace of Westminster on Wednesday, Paul Nizinskyj speaks to former BBC World Service, now freelance, Ukrainian journalist Bogdan Tsioupin about Putin’s ‘Anschluss’ and why a prosperous Ukraine in NATO and the EU is in Russia’s best interests.

Sunday InterviewAs a third generation Ukrainian, I did not at any point tell Mr Tsioupin I no longer speak the language in any useful capacity, though I think he already guessed this and was kind enough to entertain me with the story that the town my name is ultimately derived from – Nizyhn – is synonymous in Ukraine with top quality cucumbers. Serendipitously, the patron saint of Nizhyn is also St George, which is convenient for me from a patriotic point of view.

But the humerous chit-chat about prize phalluses masks a very deep concern in Bogdan’s heart for the direction his country is headed and the centrifugal forces currently threatening to tear it apart. My highly patriotic grandparents, from the western tip of Ukraine, lived long enough to see their fatherland fulfil its centuries-old quest for independence (only briefly and incompletely realised for a few fleeting months in 1917) in 1991, yet a return of Moscow’s age-old game of destabilise, divide and conquer, now risks relegating this to a 23-year footnote in this Breadbasket of Europe’s history.

As accepted by all our panelists at the ‘Russia vs the West’ debate (historian Orlando Figes, Charles Tannock MEP and Tory MEP candidate Daniel Hamilton), Ukraine is a highly valued territory, which has made it a prime target for a leader who is busy reestablishing the Russian Empire in a Eurasian Economic Union and who declared the breakup of the Soviet Union to be the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. But, as Bogdan points out, there is often agreement at these sorts of debates because of one very important omission.

“There are so many of these debates about Ukraine in London now that I don’t really get time to attend all of them,” he says. “I realised there were no Russians represented there, apart from one young Russian woman who was visibly disappointed, but I would like to hear or see more Russians at these events so they could try to explain what is going on and why. Either they don’t want to come and hear or they have nothing to say and either reason makes me sad and worried. I’m old enough to know it’s very difficult change other people’s minds but, at least sometimes, you get a clearer picture of the reasons for the other side’s actions. But it looks like the Russian side is closed now for any reasonable discussion of this troubled situation.”

Another point of agreement among the panel was the understanding Ukraine is, if not currently engaged in, then at least headed towards a state of civil war – which places the Ukrainian government in an almost intolerably delicate position of attempting to find the right balance of force in facing down armed Moscow-backed insurrectionists in the east without giving Putin a casus belli in protecting its kindred Russian speakers from the force of ‘fascist’ Kyiv. “I was working in Donetsk just last week,” Bogdan says. “Civil war is still too horrible a term for Ukrainians to accept at the moment, as that implies they are prepared to kill each other. I think people prefer to say they have violence inspired by or directed from abroad – they still think it can be avoided and, if the ways or channels of influence and arms supply could be reduced or cut away, then there would be a political way of relieving the situation.”

During the debate, Daniel Hamilton made a powerful comparison between a statement issued on behalf of the Russian government regarding the annexation of Crimea and that of the Soviet government in 1939 regarding its half of the Polish state divided between Hitler and Stalin – in both cases the justification rested on protecting minorities kindred to Moscow (most of the Polish territory annexed by Stalin is now in Belarus and Ukraine).  But Bogdan says there are other historical comparisons. “It’s compared very often to the Munich Agreement and I’ve looked into this myself,” he says. “There is also the Anschluss with Austria and how, in Crimea, parts of the population were glad to see Russian soldiers there and how Putin was trying to use the terms of protecting Russian speakers and Russian interests in other countries – very much as Hitler did with German speakers in Czechoslovakia.

“There is also the even more horrible comparison, because it is fresher in the memory,  of the former Yugoslavia and the eagerness of Serbian nationalists to use the military to protect ethnic Serbs and form a greater Serbia. I think many Ukrainians worry that what Putin would like is for Ukraine to turn into another Bosnia – a country half destroyed by war and patched up in this confederation which no-one is happy about and can’t provide a better life for its people.” Putin has accused the West of hypocrisy over its handling of the Crimean crisis, and our panelists all accepted there were hypocritical elements in Western foreign policies – but then Putin was the man who crowed about how no country should interfere in Syrian affairs.

One particular case he has pointed to is Kosovo and the eagerness of many Western countries to recognise its sovereignty after the Kosovan Assembly voted to declare its unilateral independence from Serbia in 2008 – in a move remarkably similar to that of the Crimean Parliament earlier this year. But Bogdan says there are only superficial similarities. “I think it would be wrong to compare the situations,” he says. “If you want a total comparison then you would have had to seen Albanian special forces landing in Kosovo and sending in their forces without insignia to support fellow ethnic Alblanians – that didn’t happen. First there was a serious political process, then an armed struggle, elections and an international political process. What we had in Crimea was foreign forces landing on that part of Ukraine, hijacking the Parliament, where the most important decisions were taken behind closed doors.”

Armed intervention on behalf of the West was ruled out by the panel as a way of dealing with the crisis and the solutions put forward included tougher sanctions on those involved in the Putin government and even entertaining the Russian President’s proposal of a federal Ukraine in order to satisfy the aspirations of ethnic Russians in the east. But Bogdan says the goal of Western foreign policy should be to create a situation which allows the Ukrainian people alone to decide how their country is organised.

“After the debate, I went past Downing Street, where there have been Ukrainians protesting for two months now,” he says. I was talking to them and they told me the British media and politicians are sympathetic to Ukraine and it’s all very good but the feeling is that words aren’t enough. Although they hear the right words and noises from the government, the situation is so desperate and people are so worried about this turning into a real war with the Russians or a civil war inspired by Russia, people are forced to demand more.

“Moral support and sanctions are not seen as the most effective way to stop the violence. But whatever the problems in Ukraine, the way they are resolved should be decided by the Ukrainian people themselves, without pressure from Moscow or advised by the West and Europe. The most effective way of resolving international grievances is to give the people of that country complete control of the situation.

“Putin might also find that, in the long run, a Ukraine aligned with NATO and the EU is in Russia’s best interests – and Poland is a perfect example of this. At the end of the 1990s, GDP per person in Poland and Ukraine was roughly equal – today it is $3,500 in Ukraine but $13,000 in Poland. Poland went through serious reform and showed things can be done and has been inspiring to many Ukrainians. Poland has also just celebrated 10 years in the EU and is a growing example of a country that went through war, then Communism and was able to turn itself back into a successful European country. I would be in Russia’s national interest for Ukraine to in the club so it’s a stable, prosperous neighbour with good markets for gas and people rich enough to buy Russian and happy enough to be peaceful neighbours.”

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