Statement on Ukraine (March 2014)

On the Situation in Ukraine

Minden, 5. March 2014

We are observing the developments in the Ukraine with great concern; in particular, the ways some media outlets and politicians are currently stirring up a revival of the East-West conflict.

Once more the world is divided into 'good' and 'bad'. The 'good guys are the uprising people of Ukraine, who demonstrated for democracy and association to (and membership of) the European Union. The 'bad guys' are once again 'the Russians', who are trying to stop this process through violence and the threat of military intervention in Ukraine. Neither is wrong, but the picture is much more complex. In fact, many protesters demonstrated on the Maidan because they were fed up with the corruption and arbitrary rule of the government of Yanukovych. They see themselves as only partly represented by the opposition parties – a strong element of the protests of recent weeks was the distrust people felt against all parties and all politicians.

The growing militancy of the protest, or rather; the relegation of the nonviolent protesters into the role of mere supporters of the heavily armed militias, providing them with food and medical aid, has gone hand in hand with the growing influence of fascist, russophobic and antisemitic groups.

The common denominator shared by all protesters – the removal of Yanukovych – would probably have already broken down if the threat by Russia did not unite the fronts once more. The Ukrainian military is now mobilising it's reservists, and ex-premier Timoshenko is threatening Russia with NATO intervention. This threat is not based in reality (as she probably knows), but the statement reflects the heated and violence-prone mood in Ukraine.

On the other side, the Russian rhetoric is equally directed towards confrontation. Russia declared it's right 'to protect it's citizens abroad', and followed up on this declaration with deeds. According to media reports, the number of troops in the Russian bases on the Crimean peninsula has increased. Speculation about a possible invasion by Russia into Eastern Ukraine, and the separation of Crimea from Ukraine are blooming in Western and Eastern media, based, we are told, on plans developed by Russia earlier. The memory of the conflict in Georgia has been awakened where - with the help of Russian troops – the minority territories of Southern Ossetia and Abchasia were split de facto from Georgia and against its military resistance.

The sanctions now declared by the USA against Russia also add to the escalation of the situation, because they express the unequivocal positioning of the USA in the conflict – Russia is to take all the blame.

The National-Ethnic Face of the Conflict

The Ukraine is a multi-ethnic state of people. Russian is a widely spoken lingua franca. As Ukraine looks back on a eventful history, since before the founding of the Soviet Union, with parts of it belonging to Austria-Hungary and others (e.g. the Crimea) to Russia. The time of Stalin and the crimes perpetrated during that era haven't been forgotten, and are used by Ukrainian nationalists as an anti-Russian argument. So far, Ukraine has managed to balance the difference between its Ukrainian West and the Russian East, at least at a superficial level. However, the uprising against Yanukovych had a clear anti-Russian face, and for a long period there were - alongside the anti-government protests - also pro-government demonstrations. It is understandable that people who feel connected to Russian got concerned when the new government in Kiev as one of its first acts announced a law making Ukrainian the only official language.

Conflicts of this type can be found in many countries in Eastern Europe, and the area of the former Soviet Union. No matter what their real causes are, conflicts are quickly explained in ethno-national categories, and political mobilisation takes place on these lines accordingly. When governments try to create facts out of violence, this usually leads to flight and 'ethnic cleansing'. A simple change of government is not itself a solution; the careful creation of governance systems that strengthen the rights of minorities and decrease ethnic tensions are needed.

The Strategic and Economic Face of the Conflict

The Black Sea is bordered by countries that are members of NATO, countries that would like to become members of NATO (Georgia, now perhaps also Ukraine), and Russia, with its military bases in the Crimean region, which is also the harbour for the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Russia’s interests in the Crimea, and its interest to prevent Georgia or Ukraine becoming members of NATO or EU, are to be understood on the basis of its old thinking in lines of the bloc confrontation. It can also call on old assurances given to Gorbachev in 1990, that the influence of NATO would not be extended to the borders of Russia.

The East-West conflict has survived the breakdown of the 'real, existing socialism', and Russia usually acts, especially since Putin came to power and despite G8 membership and strategic alliance with NATO, as an opponent of the West – from Kosovo to Syria, and now in Ukraine. That the EU made mistakes in its dealings with the Ukrainian uprising is even admitted by politicians – on the 4th March Norbert Röttgen, chair of the German Foreign Committee in Parliament said they should have considered the Russian interests.

One other thought; Russia's concern about its military base on the Crimean peninsula is, from a standpoint of realpolitik, not very different to Cuba or Costa Rica trying to close the US bases on their territories. We do not want to be misunderstood; from a pacifist point of view no military base or military presence in a third country is something to be approved of, and this statement also must not be misunderstood as justification of the Russian course of confrontation. But some of those who today loudly condemn Russia would, with equally loud cries, express their solidarity with the USA if, for example, Cuba be crazy enough to question the presence of the US on its island.

Should we now be thankful of the fact that, while in this particular conflict the two super powers are confronting each other directly, the US has not threatened military intervention in Ukraine but merely prepared sanctions? Fortunately, some European countries – the German being one of them – still favour mediation and the need to find a peaceful solution.

A Logic of Peace, applied to Ukraine

A logic of peace instead of a logic of deterrence or security would mean that all efforts are made to de-escalate the conflict. In the West, you can hear that 'most mediators' have been 'burnt' in the last weeks. That is only true when you think of Russia as the addressee. Because the Ukrainian government defines itself as 'pro-West', western governments still have influence on the new leadership there. They should use this influence to push the Ukrainian government;

  • to end the military mobilisation,

  • to scrap the controversial law on language and confirm instead the old, existing law,

  • to create an inclusive transitory government in which all regions of the country and all political orientations have a seat,

  • to invite the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to support the creation or – if necessary, reform of - minority laws that allow all parts of the population equal participation in the state, as well as – if they wish so – self determination in affairs that concern them.

  • to actively support a process regarding the future of the Crimean, and make explicit that they would agree to a widened special status of the Crimean region (which is already an autonomous province) if that is necessary.

To Russia, comparable demands and proposals are to be made;

  • to immediately stop to all military acts that may be considered aggressive,

  • the continuation of bilateral talks with the new Ukrainian leadership which seem to just have begun,

  • cooperation with international mediation. The OSCE or the Council of Europe may be two candidates for such mediation, because they are organisations in which both Russia and Ukraine are members.

Russia must be convinced that it would have more to lose than gain in the event of military intervention, and that the alleged 'protection of Russians in Ukraine' would not be served by such intervention. Apart from areas where Russian troops would take control, the most likely consequence of intervention would not be greater safety for ethnic Russians in the Ukraine; on the contrary, the result would be the triggering of an ethnic conflict that could very easily lead to displacement and flight.

Another opportunity for de-escalation would arise in the form of a civil observation mission, based on the model of the Kosovo Verification Mission of OSCE, and best sent by the OSCE. This should be a mission with larger numbers and a more active mandate, not just the small number of observers currently being discussed.

In recent years, tensions between the West and Russia have increased. This can be seen not only with the Russian government under Putin, but also with many political advisors in the USA using terms and modes of thinking related to the Cold War. This is a very dangerous development, which must be stopped before a new Cold War begins, where worse things are only prevented by military deterrence. A logic of common security and the courage to trust the other side - instead of the dangerous logic of deterrence - helped to end the Cold War almost thirty years ago. Today, it is true that security cannot be achieved with arms. Security can only exist if people make the first step towards the other side – and be it against the will of their governments.

Christine Schweitzer, Executive Secretary of the Federation of Social Defence, Germany

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