With over 40 people killed in the city of Odessa in Ukraine after right-wing forces burnt alive ethnic Russians holed up in a building, there are dangers of further disintegration of this former Soviet country. The eastern regions with the industrial nerve centre in Donetsk are asking for a referendum for an autonomous republic, and this is after the region of Crimea voted to join Russia. The Ukraine government has stated that it has lost control of parts of this region, and has ordered its forces to curb all dissent, declaring a war on its citizens, which will only further the possibilities of civil war.
This phase of conflict is linked to the idea of regime change and merger with the West and started in the industrial region of Donetsk against the Oleksandr Turchynov regime that was hurriedly installed after the elected regime of Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown by protests where neo-Nazi groups were active and supported by the West. Now, four neo-Nazis are in the cabinet and calling for militia to suppress all opposition.
Western countries are scurrying to organise talks but these cannot be successful if they are framed keeping only the interest of the West and the regime that came in through a coup in mind. This narrative blames Russia for fomenting ethnic Russians to revolt, believes there are Russian troops from across the border, and does not want to engage with ethnic Russian leaders in peace talks. Russia is rejecting any peace talks that will not have dissenting sides and president Putin argues that holding presidential elections slated for May 25 in such turmoil will be partisan. Moreover, Russia is unlikely to agree to talks while the US clamps individual-specific sanctions on members of the Russian political class. Without Russia, no peace talks can be successful.
If peace has to be brought to Ukraine, then the talks will have to be inclusive, genuinely support a federal autonomous and independent Ukraine, be able to create a cohesive internal consensus and keep away from all external interventions. If not, Europe will see once again the split of the country, unnecessary bloodshed, ethnic cleansing, new economic recession, arms build-up, decline of free trade, rise of gas prices, all of which will have to be tolerated in the name of a new cold war, which comes with the privileging of an exclusive concept of national security.
Another question is that why is there such bloodshed now when there was none when Ukraine separated and became independent from the Soviet Union and Russia in a bloodless revolution? The answer lies in recent history. Ukraine’s transition from authoritarian Soviet systems to a market one like that of other former Soviet States was led by the Western troika of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), International Monetary Fund and European Union (EU) but many promises were not kept. These countries were de-industrialised, went through shock therapy, destroyed their middle class, and state subsidised systems. Ultimately, when Ukraine for example was neck deep in debt, it’s economy broken, starved of gas, it was Russia and Putin that has continuously bailed them out. But economic distress strengthened right-wing forces who always blame the other, beginning from minorities and linking them to the enemy nation across the border.
The second promise by the troika was to keep Nato away from Russia’s borders; it was also broken as Nato comes up to surround Russian borders. Moreover, there’s no such national consensus on joining the EU. It has bitterly divided the population primarily along ethnic lines.
Presidential elections on 25 May are unlikely to bring any consensus. In fact, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko who is a candidate for the presidential elections has called for the formation of more militias to confront protest movements in the East (Mitch Potter, Toronto Star, April, 2014, reported in Truthout, May 6, 2014).
The truth is that the two sides involved in the Ukraine issue are not willing to be either flexible, or compromise. Both remain embedded in their own narrative that wants to exclude the other. This means that Ukraine will only split faster and be bound by new antagonistic borders. Further, this can have a negative impact on other countries of the former Soviet space. This does not bode well for the international political system.
So what will be the consequences of this new break-up? It means that both conventional and nuclear disarmament will suffer and an arms race can start once more. The much needed focus on environmental needs, climate change and social sectors will take a back seat. The trade and financial flows that had been initiated globally will decline. In fact, the idea of globalisation will be questioned as state-focused nationalisms will develop.
Further, nationalism and national security states with their surveillance, draconian laws and anti-democratic stances will increase in Russia, the West and world over. Russia will look for traditional allies like China; even though China and India do not support the break-up of nations, they will have to take some position vis-à-vis the Ukraine issue.
India and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) have a role to play before all hell breaks lose. India especially has been keen to be seen as an international player. To be a leader it should take a clear position in favour of inclusive peace talks. India can get great power status not by making a strategic alliance with a super power but by showing leadership when two sides in the international system cannot reconcile differences. India can play a mediating peace role.
India should use BRICS and the G20 to push its position. They should call for immediate international meetings to stop all violence, to ensure there is no Cold War, to ensure that countries maintain their secular, plural and multi-ethnic heritage. But for this initiative, India and the BRICS need a leadership committed to these ideals both internally and in world affairs.
The writer is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.