David Miliband and David Cameron blunder over Russia

The most frightening sight in recent weeks has not been the media’s metamorphosis of Russia from genial, if rather uncouth, bear into snarling wolf, but the knee-jerking of British politicians.

In Kiev and Tbilisi, David Miliband, the foreign secretary, and David Cameron, the Tory leader, displayed their lack of historical perspective, posturing on politico-economic faultlines of which they appear to have barely schoolboy understanding. Russia is a huge country not as far away as we would like, about which our politicians know far too little. That is most acute when it comes to the "near abroad", the former Soviet republics to which George W Bush – and now Miliband and Cameron – would like to extend the Nato membership that the West refused Russia.

It has been said that Russia fears a new encirclement. It does, but it is more than that: for Nato forces to enter Ukraine would for most Russians be tantamount to invasion. For Cameron to equate Estonia and Ukraine, as he did last week, is stupidity.

Estonia’s history, language and culture are markedly separate. Forced into the Soviet Union in the second world war, it has also over the centuries been part of Sweden, and ruled by the Teutonic knights. Its language is related to Finnish.

Ukraine is another matter. Its name comes from Old Slavonicu kraju, meaning "on the edge" – in other words, borderlands.

We stopped saying "the Ukraine" to make it sound more like any other country. To Russians it doesn’t. "The" Ukraine had no independent existence before 1991. Like most borderlands it has been almost continuously fought over, since the early Slav kingdom of Kievan Rus fell to Mongol invaders.

Parts of it belonged for centuries to the vast Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, then much of the west to the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Today, those are the most westward-looking regions, where the language mostly spoken is Ukrainian rather than Russian and the religion is Uniate Catholicism rather than Russian Orthodox.

Kiev, however, remains an anchor in Russo-Slav identity. Far older than Moscow, Kievan Rus gave us the word "Russia"; a statue of its first ruler, Rurik, dominates Moscow’s Pushkin Square. Kiev has totemic status, as Winchester or Runnymede does for England. Of all the losses suffered since the fall of the Soviet Union, those of Ukraine and Belarus have been hardest for Russians to suffer.

Fifty per cent of Ukraine’s population speaks Russian (compared with the 17% who are ethnically Russian). Many Russians – including the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn – see Ukrainian as little more than a dialect, no different from Geordie’s relationship to southern English. Stalin, the Georgian who became Russia’s greatest imperialist, gave the Ukrainians extra territory in 1945 because he considered them inseparable from Russia. He vetoed seats in the United Nations for Canada and Australia unless Russia’s "dominions" got them too. And they did. Never in his wildest dreams did he expect them to vote their own way, let alone achieve independence.

Georgia in Moscow’s eyes is merely a testing ground – from which it emerged victorious. If Ukraine is invited into Nato, the risk is not just a crisis over the Black Sea port of Sebastopol, leased until 2017 to the Russian navy, but also a Russian annexation of the whole Crimean peninsula. That is no more improbable than it would be difficult. Access from Ukraine proper is by a narrow causeway over marshland that could be taken by one battalion of paratroops. Meanwhile, the city of Kerch in the east is less than three miles across water from Russian soil.

Russian annexation would be locally popular. Crimea was not part of Ukraine before 1945. Ninety per cent of its population speaks Russian. Its historic population – the Tatars – were exiled by Stalin and replaced by Russians.

That would invite a Ukrainian civil war, almost certainly bringing in the pro-Moscow breakaway region of Transdnistria in neighbouring Moldova.

This is a minefield over which Miliband and Cameron are trampling without a map. John McCain may see "KGB" written in Vladimir Putin’s eyes but that doesn’t mean what it used to. Russia may be a corrupt pseudo-democracy but it is not communist.

This is a turf war. Russia no longer challenges America for global hegemony but that doesn’t mean it’s going to sit quietly while Uncle Sam parks tanks on what it considers to be its front lawn. To borrow a line from a new John le Carré book: "To ignore history is to ignore the wolf at the door."

[Source: By Peter Millar, The Times, London, Uk, 31Aug08]

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