Peter Hitchens: When will they ever learn?

With the crisis in Ukraine escalating ever more towards a renewed Cold War – perhaps even a hot one – between Russia and the United States, Peter Hitchens is getting very depressed. Paul Nizinskyj spoke to him to find out why.

Sunday Interview“It’s worse than I feared, seeing what’s going on in the Crimea,” Peter sighs. “I just despair.” When we spoke over the phone this weekend, the Crimea was already looking like a tinder box, just waiting to be lit in the friction of the West and Russia’s tug of war over Ukraine. In the hours since we spoke, however, the situation has escalated alarmingly.

In response to the armed installation of pro-Russian Sergey Aksyonov as Crimean Prime Minister, pro-Russian militants attempted similar occupations in the east of the country and the Russian Senate voted to approve the use of Russian forces in Crimea at President Vladimir Putin’s request.

Each new report appears to suggest everything Hitchens was most dreading from the pit of his stomach – a repeat of the civil wars in Libya and Syria – is about to happen. And, to echo his Mail blog post last week, he believes ‘simple-minded Western intervention’ is the cause. “The main thing Western governments have failed to do is understand what’s going on in the country,” he says.

“I don’t know what history they’ve been reading but Ukraine never established its full sovereignty. Its currency is a joke and its economy is beyond a basket case. It only exists because of current Russian weakness and only came into existence because of profound Russian weakness when the Soviet Union collapsed. The idea Ukraine can be pulled away and turned into another Poland in NATO and against Russia is ridiculous.”

Ukraine's linguistic and cultural divisions are reflected in its voting patterns.

Ukraine’s linguistic and cultural divisions are reflected in its voting patterns.


As a third-generation British Ukrainian descended from fiercely patriotic and anti-Russian grandparents from the west of the country, this is not easy to listen to. My paternal grandfather fought both the Nazis and the Soviets in the Second World War in an attempt to establish his country as a truly independent, sovereign nation, and would no doubt have had something to say about that, had he not died in 1985.

But, if nothing else, this only serves to bring into focus the deep divisions within Ukraine, which, even I have to admit, questions its ability to continue to function as a nation state.

“Anybody who is remotely patriotic must feel sympathy for those Ukrainians that their culture has been trampled on by Russians,” he adds. “But if you don’t have a political vehicle to serve your interests, you’re gone. We can’t try to remake the map of Europe in ignorance of the past and ignorance of the present. Did we really think  Russia would like us to make NATO allies out of its borders?”

We turn to the almost surreal situation of Guido Westerwelle and Catherine Ashton handing out bread in the streets of Kyiv during the protests in Independence Square, which I suggest is somewhat Palmerstonian, albeit as bun diplomacy, rather than the gunboat variety. “It’s not even Palmerstonian,” he blasts. “At least Palmerston did what he did in Britain’s interests. But in what conceivable way does this intervention benefit Britain?”

The Ukrainian language and culture was promoted in the Habsburg Empire from the 18th century - in stark contrast to Russification in the east.

The Ukrainian language and culture was promoted in the Habsburg Empire from the late 18th century – in stark contrast to the Romanovs’ Russification policies in the east.

But surely, Ukraine’s strategic position and historical status as the ‘breadbasket of Europe,’ makes it in European interests to have on side?

“What is the EU now but an extension of German foreign policy by other means?” he says. “It’s a German interest. Ukraine is fantastically strategically valuable now as the gateway for colossal new gas and oil fields around the Caspian Sea.

“But we don’t seem to be able to see others as they might see us. Can you imagine if the US suddenly found someone was calling for the renewed secession of the Southern US states or to return the southwest to Mexico or demanding new governments there? They wouldn’t take kindly to that.”

Anyone who has seen electoral maps of Ukraine will know voting patterns split the country in two between pro-EU west and pro-Russia east. Could the crisis be solved by a separation into two states?

“Crimea is the only place in the country with a huge preponderance of Russians,” he says. “Most of the country is a reasonably happy mixture of people. The country wouldn’t split easily like Czechoslovakia. The Czechs and the Slovaks each lived in their own lands and I fear it couldn’t be done in Ukraine without the most terrible population movements.”

Conservatives of every stripe will no doubt be concerned by the defeat of legitimate authority in the overthrow of Victor Yanukovych who, however unpleasant, was elected by the Ukrainian people. Ukraine’s new prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, however, was chosen by the protestors’ Maidan Council – reminiscent, perhaps, of the insurrectionary Paris Commune of 1792 or the spontaneous soviets (workers’ councils) that sprang up in the February 1917 revolution challenging legitimate governments. Neither ended too well.

With Yatsenyuk himself warning Ukrainians with the words “welcome to hell,” in reference to the “extremely unpopular steps” he would have to take to get the country back on track, how long before the Maidan turns against him, too?

“He may be speaking more truth than he knows,” Hitchens says. “What goes around comes around, what you do to others, gets done to you. How stable can a government be when it’s ruled by the mob? It would be all too easy for Crimea to become a blood-soaked place,” he adds. “You try to warn people as a newspaper columnist but no-one pays any attention.

“William Hague isn’t a fool and the Foreign office have people who must know something but they continue to act like 12-year-olds, labelling one side as the good guys and the other as the bad guys. Are these people cognisant of what they’re doing?

“The more I read history and the more I see it happen, the more I’m convinced of the real stupidity. The people who are actually in the know are excluded from decision-making, as we saw in the Iraq War. Libya is now a failed state. No-one goes there now. The people who egged on the people against Gaddafi, they don’t go to see what they’ve done.

“When will they ever learn?”

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