Ukraine Crisis: A new Cold War?

Masked men in militaristic uniforms pace in front of hastily erected barricades in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Meanwhile members of the Ukrainian navy call their loved ones from a ship surrounded by Russian vessels in Sevastopol harbour, unable to step onshore of the contested territory. They’re enduring images from a political crisis which has bubbled over into a diplomatic row between Western powers and Russia. Some argue this row is the start of second Cold War.

“Relations between the West and Russia are at the lowest ebb since the USSR disintegrated in 1991.” Explains Dr Taras Kuzio from the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian studies at the University of Alberta. “There is an ideological conflict between the West and Russia and the Ukraine is at the centre of it.” He adds.

Ever since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March this year Vladamir Putin, president of Russia, has been accused of destabilising the Ukraine. He says he is protecting the legitimate rights of Russian minorities in the country, left isolated by the Kiev government after the overthrow of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. Critics however say he is systematically undermining his neighbours.

“The current situation in Ukraine is one of destabilisation in Eastern Ukraine by Putin,” Explains Assembly Member Mick Antoniw, a member of the EU committee of the regions work in Eastern partnership countries. “He is using intense propaganda, special operatives, in order to create division and circumstances which could lead to civil war in parts.”

But why is Putin destabilising the Ukraine? The former Soviet-bloc state used to be a close ally of Russia but the popular revolution by pro-EU supporters in Kiev which started late in 2013 and saw the toppling of the Kiev regime in February this year undermined that relationship entirely.

“Putin is an angry man who is ruled by his heart not his head” says Dr Kuzio. “He wishes to punish Ukrainian leaders for overthrowing his satrap, Viktor Yanukovych.”

According to Dr Kuzio Putin is also keen to flex Russia’s military muscles in a way that will shock and impress the West. While Dr Kuzio says the situation is not yet close to one of civil war he believes that Russia is deliberately influencing and encouraging Pro-Russian groups in the Donbas region.

“Putin is using special forces from GRU (military intelligence) and the FSB (domestic intelligence) to provide logistic-professional support to extremists in the Donbas who were always a marginalised minority.”

Russia argues that it is acting in the best interests of Russian speaking minorities, and has been bolstered by a number of polls which have supported the views of separatists and pro-Russian groups. According to the BBC in March, 93% of those who voted in the Crimea referendum backed joining Russia , similar results have been cited for self-rule polls held in Donetsk and Luhansk with rebels claiming 89% of voters backed independence from Ukraine . But these polls have been ruled illegitimate by the international community. The annexation of the Crimea has been condemned by the UN and recent referenda in the Donbas region have also been criticised for not following international protocol.

“The Crimean and Donbas referendums had nothing to do with democracy or free will and free votes. There was no control over who could vote, no alternative pro-Ukrainian position was permitted, they were held under armed pressure, with mass falsifications.” Adds Dr Kuzio.

With the EU and USA backing new elections being organised by the interim government in Kiev and Russia backing separatist calls from pro-Russian militias in the East of the country it is hard not to draw comparisons between the current crisis in Ukraine and Cold War crises of the 20th Century.

Russia’s moves have seen sanctions imposed by the EU and the USA and its removal from the G8 while countries like Germany are drawing up energy contingency plans in case Russia shuts of the gas supply to Europe.

Sir Graham Watson MEP believes the current diplomatic conflict represents a new Cold War, but it is something that has been brewing since before the Ukrainian crisis. “I fear we’ve been heading into a new cold war for some time.” He explains.

The parallels between Putin’s Russia and Stalin’s Russia are “stark” according to Martin Kettle writing in the Guardian. “Among them are the Russian nationalism, the untrustworthiness, the belief in a zero-sum international game, the fear, the fundamental absence of shared values with the west, the importance of the nuclear stand-off, and the readiness to play adversaries off against one another.”

But, he adds, there are also marked differences between the two. Putin does not have the ideological support of fellow communist countries as Stalin did. He also “presides over a form of capitalist economy that is deeply interconnected with the West’s”. What is bad for the West, argues Kettle, can also be bad for Russia.

“There is no ideological conflict as there was in the Cold war between communism and democracy. It is not the same” explains Dr Kuzio. “Unless you define the new cold war as a battle over values – Western, represented by the EU, Council of Europe, OSCE and NATO versus Eurasianism that is upheld by Putin.”

Mr Antoniw agrees, “Now it is about power and oligarchic and autocratic rule which also requires control of media and electoral institutions. The basis of current Russian or Putin agenda is Right wing, conservative Russian nationalism.”

Despite the differences between the current crisis and the Cold War there are very real fears that the situation could turn to one of civil war and further destabilisation if appropriate diplomatic action is not taken.

Sir Watson wants to see sanctions go further than their current targeting of key individuals in Russia but he’s wary of a traditional conflict, he wants to avoid a scenario where NATO forces intervene against pro-Russian militia.

“In the current situation it is important is to use economic weapons, not military action.” He explains.

“There is no prospect of a traditional war with NATO and Putin,” adds Mr Antoniw “But a vicarious war is already occurring. What is not clear is the scale and whether it will involve direct invasion. From the EU and NATO side, which are not necessarily the same, there is an economic or financial war around the use of sanctions.”

Despite this lack of prospect of an armed conflict Dr Kuzio argues that NATO countries will feel compelled to strengthen their hand in the East of Europe. “NATO and its members will be obliged to increase military spending and deploy units in front line countries like the Baltic States.”

According to Der Spiegel the current crisis has caught NATO powers “flat-footed” . Members of the NATO partnership are rushing to find a solution to demilitarisation in Europe. NATO has already asked alliance members to increase spending to cover additional air sorties and manoeuvers in Eastern European member states. There are concerns that the Ukraine crisis could destabilise a region which has only just begun to recover from the break-up of the USSR and various conflicts which followed it.

While there may not be a new Cold War there is definitely a conflict of ideologies being played out in Ukraine with diplomatic divisions between Russia and the West deepening as sanctions are imposed.

The hopes of the West in overcoming the current situation lie with elections across Ukraine on the 25 May. Publicly Russia has also endorsed the new elections despite Putin’s current destabilisation strategy.

Whatever happens on the World stage fixing the fractured country will be difficult. “Resolution requires decentralisation of policy and local government, direct local election of mayors, local control of finance, In order to achieve this it is essential the presidential elections take place followed by parliamentary elections.” Explains Mr Antoniw. “After the last few months there is a need for re-engagement and reconciliation.”