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     Aug 15, '14

Putin's double standards in Ukraine
By Brad Williams

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

The tragic downing of a Malaysian airliner in July and Russia's lack of cooperation in allowing investigators into the crash site and continued funneling of heavy weaponry and other arms to rebels forces in eastern Ukraine have further exacerbated tensions between the Kremlin and the West. Russia's policy towards Ukraine is hypocritical and driven by the fear of a rival military

alliance extending its influence all the way to its vulnerable western border.

To be sure, all the major disputants in the Ukrainian crisis have evinced a willingness to separate policy from principle. The United States and its European partners regularly trumpet the virtues of democracy but found little difficulty in accepting the unlawful overthrow of the democratically elected, albeit highly corrupt and increasingly authoritarian Victor Yanukovych. The West again ignored principle when it came out against the campaign by pro-Russians in Crimea, who constitute a clear majority of the troubled peninsula's population, to reunite with Mother Russia.

However, it is the Russian president's double standards that are especially breathtaking. When minority pro-Russians in eastern Ukraine realized attempts to replicate the successful campaign of their Crimean brethren would not turn out as hoped, they took up arms, with Russia's support. President Vladimir Putin has been highly critical of Kiev's attempts to maintain territorial integrity. How might he have responded to a separatist movement in Russia?

One need not hypothesize for we only need to look back to recent history to find the answer: with brutal force. Russia's campaign to quell the separatist movement in Chechnya was accompanied by widespread atrocities and other human-rights abuses, followed by the installment of a local strongman who rules the troubled Caucasus republic with an iron fist. Putin's calls for Ukraine's adoption of federalism also diverge from his own practice. It is under Putin's watch that Russia underwent a significant recentralization of power, turning hitherto elected provincial leaders into political appointees.

The Kremlin's position on eastern Ukraine can be largely explained by the long-standing fear of NATO's creeping eastward expansion. When Ukrainians overthrew Yanukovych, signaling a desire for closer cooperation with Europe, alarm bells rang in the Kremlin. Previous NATO encroachments into the territories of the former Soviet empire in eastern and central Europe have placed the alliance's military assets increasingly closer to Russia and have been met with regular denunciations from the Kremlin. It is partly fears of unchecked foreign influence that prompted Stalin to establish his European empire in the first place.

To get a sense of Russian fears, forged through a tortuous history of foreign invasions, one might imagine how the United States would respond to the presence of unfriendly forces on its borders.

In the Kremlin's thinking, a federal Ukraine with substantial powers devolved to a pro-Russian east would keep NATO military assets away from the Russian border. An unstable Ukraine wracked by civil war - fueled by Russia - would keep the alliance further away, preserving a valuable strategic buffer.

While these fears do not excuse Russia's actions in eastern Ukraine, they do help to explain them.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Dr Brad Williams is Assistant Professor at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong.

(Copyright 2014 Brad Williams)

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