Putin in Ukraine ‘not Mother Teresa,’ but he isn’t Hitler either, says UPEI prof; Ukrainian-Russian conflict anything but black and white

Ukraine and Russia are linked by their intertwining geography and history. Maddie Keenlyside photo.
Ukraine and Russia are linked by their intertwining geography and history. Maddie Keenlyside photo.
By Maddie Keenlyside
March 6, 2014

Islander Sharon Labchuk is Ukrainian-Canadian and though she has family in Ukraine, they don’t live in Kiev or any of the cities where most of the action is taking place. Still, times are rough, she said.
“The value of their currency has plummeted, and it’s already very difficult in Ukraine, on an average salary, to even buy the bare necessities of life. So people struggle there to purchase the bare necessities – heating, and food and housing.”
Her family lives in Western Ukraine, where most Ukrainian-Canadians came from. It’s the most nationalistic part of the country, she said.
“There’s a lot of anti-Russian sentiment – not in terms of the Russian people, but the Russian government – centered within that part of the country. They’re very much opposed to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin being involved in Ukrainian affairs.”
Henry Srebrnik, a professor of political science at UPEI, said Ukraine is a torn country which has really had two separate histories.
“The two parts really were never part of the same country until 1945, when the Western Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union. But until then, that Western part was never in Russia. So they’re much more nationalistic and anti-Russian, whereas that eastern part has been Russian for centuries.”
And before Russia the Tatars, remnants of the Mongol peoples who had conquered the entire region in the Middle Ages, called Crimea home. The Tatar Khanate was conquered by Russian tsarina Catherine the Great in 1793, and most of the Tatar people were expelled or killed, he said.
“Crimea in particular was never Ukrainian, and still isn’t ethnically. It’s about 68 to 70 per cent ethnic Russian, and the Tatars are about 12 per cent. It’s attached by a tiny little isthmus to the mainland and it was never part of Ukraine until Khruschev gave it to them in 1954.”
The Russian perspective is more complex than good guy-bad guy stuff, and animosity towards Russia in the Western world has been around for a long time, going back beyond the Cold War. During the Crimean war of the 1850s, Britain’s Punch magazine published editorial cartoons portraying Russia as a bear trying to capture territory, while the British lion tried to stop it, he said.
“As far as Putin’s concerned, those people in the Crimea – and even in the East – are fellow Russians, and he has to protect them. That’s what states do.”
The ousting of Ukraine’s Yanukovych government was an illegal overthrow of a legitimately elected president, he said.
“You can call these people ‘pro-democracy’ all you want, but they overthrew someone who was actually the president. He had been elected in 2010. They didn’t wait until the next election, let’s put it that way.”
When the crowds in Kiev expelled Yanukovych, they were dubbed pro-democracy. But when Russians in Crimea were doing the same, they were suddenly seen as thugs, he said.
Peter McKenna, professor and chair of UPEI’s political science program, agrees.
“Those elections were monitored by the European Union and they were deemed to be fair
and free, so yes, he’s been overthrown in a coup. There’s no doubt about that.”
However, that doesn’t justify Russia invading Ukraine, he said.
“That’s a clear violation of international law. “
The question is: what do you do about it? NATO, Western Europe and the U.S. don’t currently have the stomach for any sort of military intervention or confrontation, and sanctions are not going to have the Russians shaking in their boots, he said.
“But at the same time, the stock market has responded fairly negatively to this intervention, this incursion into Crimea. The Russian ruble has fallen several percentage points.”
Nobody wants to go to war over Crimea, and nobody wants this to turn into a nuclear confrontation. If the world didn’t want to intervene in Syria, then they’re certainly not going to intervene in Crimea, and Putin knows this, he said.
“I assume the Germans are still interested in the natural gas that they’re getting in Russia. The only way out of this is that cooler heads prevail, and some sort of diplomatic compromise can be arrived at.”
But nobody can predict how this will unfold, and if a shooting war breaks out between the Russian troops and Ukrainian forces loyal to the interim government in Kiev, then who knows where this is going to go? McKenna said he doesn’t think anybody wants to see that.
“And I’m pretty sure the Russians don’t want to see that either… I think it’s in everyone’s interest to dial back the rhetoric and to try to find a way out of this.”
Foreign Minister John Baird’s words the other day were a bit over the top, he said. “Saying this is equivalent of what happened in Sudetenland back in 1938, when the Nazis moved in and occupied Sudetenland, I don’t see that. That’s equating Putin with Hitler. I mean, this is not Mother Teresa, but he’s not Hitler either.”
Rhetoric is not very constructive for diplomacy, he said. And Russia is nervous that Ukraine is going to turn towards the West, particularly NATO.
“So there’s a geo-strategic concern there on the part of Vladimir Putin. It’s about trying to control Ukraine, but not occupy Ukraine.”
A big problem is that Western countries just don’t really know what to do, he said.
“And what can you do? I think it’s fair to say that Crimea is exactly what happened in Abkhazia, that region in Georgia. So it looks to me that the game plan is to at least maintain some sort of control over Crimea, and I can see why. Because there’s a major naval facility there that the Russians use for their Black Sea Fleet, that absolutely has to be protected, from a strategic standpoint.”
Labchuk pointed out that Ukraine has a long memory of painful relations with Russia. In the 1930s, a famine called the Holomodor – in which the Soviet Union under Stalin systematically starved the Ukrainian population – remains a big point of contention in Ukraine, she said
“Essentially it was a genocide. That was engraved in the Ukrainian memory.”
The Soviet Union, now Russia, seems to want to interfere greatly in Ukrainian affairs, she said.
“Anything from trying to destroy the language and the culture to trying to take over and run the country, essentially. They look at Ukraine as still a Soviet satellite, and would like to see that relationship continue.”
And, Srebrnik said, it’s a conflict that’s not going to end anytime soon.