Monday, January 30, 2017

If Russia isn’t supposed to protect Russian minorities, why doesn’t NATO do it?


The governments of Western Europe and North America have spent the first years of the 21st century complaining about Russian threats and aggression, and the major media have gone along for the ride. The march to Cold War II increased dramatically when the US government incited and funded a revolution in Ukraine in 2014, then accused Russia of aggression when it acted in the anticipated way by defending Russian minorities in Eastern Ukraine (Donbass region) and Crimea, and by protecting its strategic military assets (warm water ports, access to the Mediterranean Sea) in the Black Sea. By taking action to protect minorities, Russia was acting on the precedent set by NATO when it claimed RTP (right to protect) in Kosovo in 1999.
The US and other NATO countries accused Russia of violations of international law when it made a restrained defense of Russian minorities in Donbass and conducted a referendum in Crimea, which led to Crimeans choosing to join Russia rather than to continue under a political regime that didn’t offer a promising future. Californians are in a similar situation now as they start to talk about independence as an alternative to living in a nation that elected Donald Trump as president.
The legitimacy of Russia’s actions have been debated extensively elsewhere, so the topic will not be covered further here in great detail.[1] Instead, I will discuss a simple way the new cold war tensions could be de-escalated if the US were interested in pursuing it.
In an editorial by Julia Ioffe published in New Republic in 2014,[2] the writer pointed out what she thought was an obvious hypocrisy in the Russian policy that always claims to be defending Russian minorities in states along its borders. She described in detail the egregious human rights abuses that exist in some NATO allies, but she did so without making any criticism of the NATO partners that turn a blind eye to the abuses:

In a February 2012 referendum, Latvians roundly rejected Russian as an official second language. It is analogous to what happened in Ukraine after Yanukovich fled the country: The parliament overturned a law that would have granted official status to the Russian language... In Estonia, things are far worse. Ethnic Russians are somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of the population. And yet, after Estonian independence in 1991, they were not given citizenship, even if they were born there. Russians who weren't living in Estonia before Soviet times are given a gray passport connoting their official status as “aliens.” They can't vote in national elections and have trouble finding work.[3]

She contrasted these abuses with similar ones carried out in Ukraine, then pointed out in her “gotcha” line that Russia has taken no military action in the Baltic countries (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia) that belong to NATO:

And where is Putin when you need him? Where are the Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms patrolling the streets of Tallinn... And what, if you want to be cynical about it, of Estonia's strategic importance? ...But Estonia, you see, is part of NATO. As is Latvia, as is Lithuania.... So is it about protecting Russian speakers, or is about getting away with whatever you can get away with?

Or is it about doing what you can while being fully aware of the differences between Ukraine and the Baltic states? Russia supplied weapons in Donbass and held a referendum in Crimea—without needing to “invade” it because it already had military bases there under a pre-existing treaty with Ukraine. It was able to do this because Ukraine was not part of NATO, but Russia could take no such action in the Baltic states to protect Russian minorities because they belong to NATO. Putin obviously doesn’t want to start WWIII over problems with Estonia, and he is quite aware that their sovereignty is a settled matter. Another significant factor is that the human rights abuses in the Baltic states are much less of a concern than the violence, threats of violence and chaos that were evident in Ukraine in 2014. The problems in the Baltics are related to language rights, citizenship rights and so on. These are not the sorts of problems that call for military intervention. The revolution in Ukraine, however, was violent, and it was followed in May by a day of ethnic rioting that ended in fifty deaths inside the Russian Trade Unions House in Odessa, most of them ethnic Russian, while police stood by either impotent or unwilling to intervene.[4] These distinctions are all obvious to people who know the issues, so what is the point of the editorial in New Republic? The tone of it hints almost at a rejoicing in the fact that there are some places where ethnic Russians can be abused with impunity.
Interestingly, the writer seems to suggest that the reluctance to start a war with NATO is a reason to scoff at Putin, or she implies that Ukraine should be in NATO because, as we are all supposed to know, it would be such a great thing if the whole world got more involved in helping the neo-Nazis, holocaust deniers and kelptocrats running the illegal regime in Ukraine[5] (the president was never correctly impeached according to the requirements of the constitution)[6].
The writer also fails to make any distinctions between the Baltic states and Ukraine. The former were never a part of the original Soviet Union when it achieved recognition as a sovereign nation. They were illegally annexed during WWII as a defensive measure against German invasion. After the war there were provisional governments in exile that continued to fight to end the occupation, but since this was not part of the deal worked out by Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt at the end of the war, the Baltic states remained in the Soviet bloc. Late in Gorbachev’s rule, as claims for independence arose in all the Soviet republics, the Baltic states were the first to rise up with the most legitimate claims for independence. Gorbachev recognized that they had unique claims to sovereignty, just as the Kingdom of Hawai’i still has a claim that it has been illegally occupied since 1898 (no treaty of surrender exists, unilaterally annexed by a foreign nation)[7]. Putin also knows that the independence of the Baltic states is a settled matter. Later they joined NATO, and that is a fait accompli. Nothing can be done to reverse the situation, and why would Russia want to try anyway?
Ukraine and Crimea, on the other hand, have a history that is much more entangled with Russia culturally and economically, and Ukraine is not yet a part of NATO or the EU. The roots of Russian culture go back to the ancient capital in Kiev, and Crimea, mostly culturally Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar, was assigned to the Ukraine Republic by Khrushchev in the 1950s when no one imagined the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was just an internal re-assignment on the map.
Furthermore, there is debate about whether Ukraine is a recently constructed nationality because it has always been ethnically diverse and under the rule of various powers throughout history. The name even means “borderland.” The first nationalist movements were tainted by their collaboration with Germany during WWII, and the present wave of nationalism has seen a whitewashing of national heroes who were really collaborators and participants in genocide.

Headquarters of the Euromaidan, Kiev, Jan. 2014. At the front entrance there is a portrait of Bandera. The Euromaidan was the name of the movement, created and funded by the US, to effect regime-change in Ukraine. The Euromaidan's "activists" are followers of Stepan Bandera, a WW II Ukrainian Nazi-collaborator and war criminal. This is why it is said that US supports Neo-Nazis in Ukraine, whom they call "nationalists." Bandera was a fascist, who opposed the Soviet Union. The KGB assassinated him in 1959. The Americans supported his rehabilitation by backing Ukrainian Maidan in 2014.
      Finally, a lot has happened since the Baltic states won their independence and joined NATO. Russia has watched NATO expansion continue, and has grown strong enough to stand up to it. The US-instigated coup in Ukraine (a violation of international law that preceded the alleged violation in Crimea) was the last straw, and Russia reacted. The legality of the reaction is debatable, but in contrast with all that America has done to assert its interests abroad, Russia’s actions have been minimal, restrained reactions to provocations on its borders. Since NATO was the first to normalize resort to RTP as an excuse for intervention, perhaps it is time to judge such interventions not on ambiguous technicalities and subjective justifications but on their outcomes. Unlike the many interventions carried out by the US since 1999, there has been no civil war in Crimea. There are no waves of refugees fleeing in dangerous boat journeys across the Black Sea—no bombardments of television stations and infrastructure, or “accidental” strikes on foreign embassies. A passenger jet was shot down, but the NATO-Ukraine sponsored investigation keeps finding excuses to dismiss evidence provided by Russia that shows Ukrainian forces shot it down. Recently, a new group of 25 journalists, former civil aviation pilots and researchers from Germany, the Netherlands and Australia have demanded... “a new investigation [that] should include independent international researchers able to overcome governments’ reluctance to disclose information.”[8]
The results of the intervention in Donbass are hypothetical—one can’t say what would have happened without Russian assistance—but it’s likely that the Russian minorities there are glad they had some protection—though what came from Russia and the international community has not been enough. The Minsk agreement has been broken again this month (January 2017) as Ukraine has been accused of backing militia attacks across the disengagement line.[9]
It is evident that because of the different history and context, Russia has entirely different rationales for its reactions toward the Baltic states and Ukraine. The most stunning thing about the New Republic editorial is that it describes in shocking detail how badly Russian minorities have been treated in the Baltic states, yet it completely avoids calling for justice or making the obvious critique. What it doesn’t say is more significant than what it does say. Why do Europe, NATO and the US not insist that the Baltic states uphold the high ideals and human rights that they always claim as the justification for their domination? Why is this not a pre-requisite of being allowed to join the club? Why do they prefer to constantly dwell on only Russia’s internal problems? Why is there no robust UN peacekeeping force, made of soldiers from neutral nations, in the Donbass region?
Such concerns for protecting minorities were never on the agenda when Turkey joined NATO decades earlier, so no one should be surprised by this inaction, but if NATO members insisted that the Baltic states grant citizenship and full rights to its Russian minorities, this gesture would go a long way in reducing tensions between Russia and the US. But who wants to insist on human rights when the military-industrial-congressional complex needs to increase the percentage of GDP that NATO members spend on defense? This editorial writer who set out so smugly to show Russian hypocrisy actually succeeded, unintentionally, in underscoring the hypocrisy and disdain for human rights within the NATO alliance.

Notes


[1] Gary Leupp, “The Utter Stupidity of the New Cold War,” Counterpunch, January 10, 2017.
[3] This situation is described in more detail in a 2016 report by Human Rights Watch: “Human Rights Watch submission to the Committee on the Rights of the Child concerning Estonia,” November 21, 2016.
[4] Roman Goncharenko, “The Odessa File: What Happened on May 2, 2014?Deutsche Welle (DW), May 2, 2015.
[5] Josh Cohen, “The Historian Whitewashing Ukraine’s Past,” Foreign Policy, May 2, 2016.
[7] Dennis Riches, “Hawaiian Kingdom, American Empire: An Interview With Professor Keanu Sai,” Mint Press News, January 4, 2017 (interview conducted in August 2015).

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