The Ukraine crisis is not as simple as the US and EU would like us to believe

If the US and EU are taking sides, they need to make sure they're clear about the side they are taking

Published 07 March 2014  |  
(AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

Those of a certain age will remember Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party – the Russian equivalent of President – taking off his shoe during a debate at the United Nations in New York and banging it on the desk in front of him. This occurred in October 1960 because the incensed Russian President demanded a right of reply to criticism of the Soviet Union being made by the Filipino delegate, who Mr K vehemently accused of being a "fawning lackey of the American imperialists".

The Cold War was nowhere near the boil at this point and it's sad to say that after a relatively brief period of friendlier and closer rapport lasting from the early 90s to mid-noughties, we might well be veering towards a sharp chill in relationships over the current crisis in Ukraine.

Mr Khrushchev, despite some bombast from both sides, came to establish during his years in power (March 1953 to October 1964) practical, if not always warm, ties with a number of American politicians including Richard Nixon, whom he considered a hardliner whilst Vice President, and President Kennedy, whose assassination he deplored and with whom he had hoped to build a closer relationship.

At great personal political cost – though he did not realise it at the time – Mr Khrushchev had the very good grace to agree to keep secret, clauses in the settlement over the Cuban Missile Crisis. The clauses required the removal from Turkey of United States missiles as a quid pro quo for Russia's removal of missiles from Cuba.

The clauses would later come to light in 1971, shortly before Mr Khrushchev's death – he had been in de facto house arrest since falling from power – highlighting his lack of sophistication in foreign affairs as the United States had proclaimed the agreement their "victory".

Ups and downs of politics? Yes, in a democracy but much more potentially dangerous in the likes of Russia before Perestroika, "restructuring", associated with Mikhail Gorbachev after 1986 and even more so when Nikita Khrushchev was cutting his political teeth in Ukraine. In Ukraine, memories of Mr K are likely to be much harsher and less favourable than now held in Russia.

Although born in Russia in 1894, Khrushchev's family moved to the rapidly industrialising Donetsk (then Yuzovka) area of Ukraine and by the age of 20, he was a highly paid and skilled metalworker. Soon after Russia's 1917 Revolution he became keenly involved in politics, joined the Ukrainian Communist Party and achieved rapid promotion.

Fortunately for Khrushchev, his talents were wanted in Moscow after 1930, so he escapes blame for the severe Soviet famine of 1932-33, caused mainly by Stalin's policy of compulsory farm collectivisation. The famine was worst felt in Ukraine and there called Holodomor – "extermination by hunger". In 2002 the findings of the Kyiv Appellation Court stated that the number of direct deaths in Ukraine numbered 3.9 million and there is widespread belief there that Stalin used the famine as a deliberate policy to curb Ukrainian independence.

One of Khrushchev's main achievements in Moscow was the construction of its famous underground amongst other projects. He also however, played a prominent and initially enthusiastic part in Stalin's Great Terror, arresting tens of thousands and executing a good portion and in 1938 he was rewarded by being made de facto leader of Ukraine. Western Ukraine also called Eastern Poland with Galicia, were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union after Hitler's Pact with Stalin in 1939.

During World War II, Ukrainian factions fought alongside the Germans and particularly after 1943, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, joined Germany's SS in hunting down and killing Poles and Jews – as well as Russians. This is separate from the Crimean Tatars, many of whom also fought alongside the SS.

Mr K would continue bloodily fighting the OUN after the War – until about 1950 – once he returned to Ukraine and harshly suppressed any resistance to Moscow, however moderate.

Surely this happened so long ago that it is hardly relevant to what is taking place in Ukraine today? Not in the least as it is remembered only too vividly by both sides. At a memorial service to mark the end of the War in 2013, now deposed President Viktor Yanukovych appealed to all Ukrainians to unite and put aside their differences, irrespective of what side their families had fought on.

His appeal addressed as much a visible divide between a West and Central Ukraine wishing to join the EU and NATO - tomorrow won't be soon enough - and the East and South of the country who look to Russia as their cultural base and, feeling increasingly threatened, their protection.

Ordinary people in the country's predominantly Russian-speaking East refer to their compatriots in Kyiv and the West as "fascists" and/or "Nazis". On camera, the leaders of Ukraine's far-right come over as reasonable men, though their more youthful supporters talk of the Russians (and Jews) being forced to "leave".

Channel 4's Matt Frei described this far-right as "the hard men of the barricades, the masters of the Molotov cocktails", just before interviewing Dmytro Yarosh, leader of Pravy Sektor and now a Deputy Secretary of National Security in Kyiv's new government.

Another feature for Channel 4 News highlighted just how much power the far-right, especially members of Svoboda, now hold in Kyiv: Andriy Parubiy – National Security Secretary; Andriy Mokhnyk – Ecology Minister; Ihor Shvaika – Agriculture; Oleh Makhnitsky - Prosecutor General; and the real plum, Oleksandr Sych – Deputy Prime Minister.

Pers Anders Rudling of Lund University and an expert on Ukraine's extremist factions, told Channel 4 that there were now seven ministers in Kyiv's new government linked to the extreme right and that the EU - and America, he could have added - needs to pay greater attention to the people they are supporting, stating:
"It doesn't help Ukraine to be selective and ignore this problem. Russia is using this to legitimise their unjustified aggression; I am not backing that aggression by speaking about the rise of Svoboda."

Have we been here before in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to mention but three places where we have gone in with good intentions and taken a stance which we have later come to regret through lack of sufficient analysis? We'll no doubt find out soon enough.

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