Thursday, 6 March 2014

Cold War II? I hope not.

I enjoyed watching the Sochi Olympics. I enjoyed the opening ceremony better than the one at London 2012 although that was good as well. Russia had clearly been waiting a long time for this opportunity to show itself off to the global community and here was a showcase of Russian culture with the sound of Alexander Borodin's Prince Igor providing an atmospheric opening to proceedings evocative of the Russia of the 19th century rich in its ballets and literature before it made way for the chaos of the 20th Century. When the national anthem was played with the raising of the tricolour I was powerfully reminded that this was the first post-Soviet Olympic Games held on Russian soil. Yes, the setting of these Olympics raised some eyebrows: of all the places to host it why did the Russians choose somewhere far south in the Caucasus Mountains where it was much warmer? Surely further north in the heart of Russia where colder winters are better known would have been more apt, like the Ural Mountains. Nonetheless, this was very much Russia being exhibited and what a statement they made of it as they went forward and claimed the top medal-haul with 13 golds. Russia can certainly look forward to more great sporting festivities with the Grand Prix taking place in the same city in August and the World Cup all over the country (well, the European part), four years from now. So having invested in the most expensive Winter Olympics ever Russia is making significant progress in the 21st Century.

Sochi - Russia living the dream?

At least that's what we'd like to think. But Russia can hardly be seen as progressive right now. The Kremlin's suppression of gay rights was of course the big social talking point throughout the Olympics with people taking to twitter to ask Mr Putin if he was enjoying watching the double-luge (which is NOT a mixed event!). But as the Paralympics dawn it is events on the adjacent coastline to Sochi which is threatening to overshadow Russia's reputation. If ever there has been more evidence in recent years of the old Soviet Union's legacy in Eastern Europe the struggle in the Ukraine between those who want closer integration with the European Union and those who want to remain integrated with Russia possibly absorbed says it all. Are we about to witness an event that means the Cold War now has to acquire 'I' as a suffix?

It is desperately sad that the crisis in the Ukraine is happening at all. Of course it is only two decades and less since the Yugoslav War and the Kosovan crisis and I have memories clear as day of that time in the 1990s as I was growing up. But we're now at peace and we entered the 21st Century with these old conflicts and Northern Ireland's troubles just about in the past. So why all of a sudden is our continent now about to see another military struggle? Well what we are looking at is the threat of a civil war of the kind that divided America a hundred and fifty years ago. This is a seemingly east-west split with the big dispute being over which trading bloc Ukraine should be part of and this could ultimately partition the country completely. Crimea is strategically significant for Russia because of course it cuts off the eastern coastline of Ukraine from the rest of the Black Sea and beyond and Russia still maintains military barracks on the peninsula. Despite pleas from the White House, Russia is now occupying the Crimea in a notable violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and this can only further alienate Putin from the West.

Ukraine's current divide

It could be so much different because if Moscow really wants to make Russia a great country, it should listen to the cliché, 'with great power comes great responsibility'. Of course Russia could do better than this. It could be a country that values its international reputation more than any imperial posturing. But we are where we are and now the Crimean parliament has paved the way for a referendum on re-joining Russia. It is an unfortunate turn of events but perhaps, and this is only my reading, Kiev should allow this to take place as it may help to diffuse the situation more peacefully. On the other hand it won't be the end of the journey. More people in eastern Ukraine will demand the same thing and so the pressure to partition the country becomes greater. Not good. But then that might be better for the people in western Ukraine as they can get on with enhanced European integration.

But spare a thought for all those caught in the middle, those Ukrainians native or otherwise that simply wanted their country to remain the reasonably peaceful nation it has been for the last 23 years. Putin should just leave Ukraine alone as it does Russia no favours. One day maybe we'll see Russia grow economically and politically enough to follow its former satellite states on their journey into EU membership. For now Russia and Ukraine will have to find a way to resolve this crisis mutually while Western leaders need to approach it with the best possible diplomacy. There's little else I can suggest for such a precarious situation.

Pro-EU demonstrators in Kiev

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