4th March 2015

How will History view Ukraine

The difference between News and History

On its centenary there is a renewed interest in the First World War, its causes and its aftermath. With the passage of time we see it as pointless slaughter of men that may well have been avoidable but this is to ignore the nationalism and pride that it first engendered. Emotions were so aroused that the voices of dissent were drowned out with white feathers and talk of it all being over by Christmas. It was only as the war ground on that its awfulness led some to label it as the war to end all wars. However it wasn't until the rise of the Nazi and the end of the Second World War that anything was done about it. The generation that won that second war were determined not to allow it to happen again. Where the Germans were punished with massive reparations after the First World War they were given help with reconstruction after the second. We accept this logic today but it was a significant break from previous generation's reaction to the pains of war. It was not just reconciliation, institutions were also created to prevent or minimise the international problems such as IMF, the World Bank, the UN, the forerunners of the EU and the International Courts of Justice. At the centre of these was the universal declaration of human rights. A convention agreed at the UN in 1948 but widely adopted around the world and in the UK as the Human Rights Act. Today the Human Rights Act is held in contempt by some for its favouring of the least desirable, highlighted by prisoners who win compensation. That the law judges the rights and wrongs of such cases in isolation may anger some people but it is beholden to a higher principle that has contributed to the global peace, imperfect as it has been, of the last 70 years. Thus one of the benefits of history over news is the time and distance to strip away emotions and draw conclusions accordingly. There is no guarantee that the lessons learnt will be just. They can quite easily be manipulated to promote nationalism or other emotions but that is another argument. The arguments over the Human Rights Act highlight a trend around the world that our generation is forgetting the lessons drawn at the end Second World War. It has always been in the politician's and journalist's toolbox to whip up emotions to win an arguments but the post war generation knew that it was not at any cost.

The reason for these musing is the current problems in Ukraine that have parallels to the conflict of 100 years ago. This conflict is immediately touched by the emotions engendered by Russia's involvement but how may history view it? Notwithstanding the arguments of both sides this is civil war between peoples who had lived together peacefully. As with all civil wars the cause is both trivial and profound. In this case it is about a minority language and identity. This is tied up with emotional view of history but in a modern European country this should not be too difficult to resolve. It has been made more difficult by Russia's strategic interests and the anti-Russian rhetoric of the current Ukrainian government could not have helped. Early on the West could have taken a detached position and urged caution so that Ukraine could have avoided this bloodshed but instead it has provided military advisors and maybe weapons to fuel it. One of the events to the lead up to this war was the consternation due to Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula but this was foreseeable in Geo-political terms given the risk to the Russian Navies Black Sea Fleet. Whatever the right or wrongs the West should have been sensitive to this.

With Russia giving full clandestine backing to the rebels this is an unwinnable war and increased escalation can only lead it to spreading further afield. Logic would suggest that now is the time to back away and accept the federalisation of Ukraine. Whether this is seen as capitulation or appeasement depends on Russia's greater ambition and currently this difficult to determine despite the myriad of 'expert opinion'. The events in Georgia and now Ukraine would suggest a Russia reacting to events rather than instigating them and any territorial ambition limited to the Russian speaking areas. This interpretation will be disputed by others but the Russia of today does not have an illogical justification for expansion that the former Soviet Union did. Then others point to Putin's mental state or his appeal to Nationalism to deflect attention away from the state of the economy. If this is the case then this is all the more reason to treat him with kid gloves. There is the matter of principle that a sovereign state should have the right to determine its own affairs but this a principle that west has choosen to ingnore in the past as with the cases of Kosovar and Grenada. Whatever the truth we are seeing an increasing number of briefings in the media by politicians and ex-officials warning of impending doom. This all has the feel of the run up to the second Gulf War and its dodgy dossier. With this track record it becomes difficult to judge if there is a real threat or if we are being softened up for more armed intervention. With no real ideological principle at stake this is a war that does not need to be fought.

Notwithstanding this positive view of Russian intentions there are actions that can be taken including the beefing up of NATO's defences on its eastern borders and providing military training to the Ukrainian armed forces once the crisis is over. But more importantly is the winning of the hearts and minds of those Russian speaking populations within the EU; mainly in the Baltic states. If these people start to feel they are the enemy then the whole situation changes.

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