The United Nations general assembly voted on March 27 ― with 100 votes for, 11 against and 58 abstentions ― to not recognise the results of the March 16 referendum in Crimea. In the poll, most voted for the territory to leave Ukraine and join Russia.
The resolution was put by Ukraine and sponsored by the United States, the European Union and other Western powers, including Australia.
There are certainly questions about the conditions in which the referendum was held ― and of electoral fraud. But the resolution specifically upheld the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine, thereby condemning the unilateral separation of Crimea from Ukraine regardless of the circumstance of the vote.
The resolution’s sponsors have portrayed the events in Crimea since the February 21 overthrow of the Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovich as a Russian invasion, a viewpoint not questioned in the Western corporate media.
Russia and its allies have, for their part, portrayed the events as an act of self-determination.
There is some truth in both versions. Russia did not move any soldiers into Crimea, but the referendum took place with the pervasive presence of heavily armed, masked “self defence forces” that included personnel of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
The Western response has been breathtaking in its hypocrisy. It must have been surprising news to the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan when US Secretary of State John Kerry told CBS TV on March 2: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.”
Muslims in the Central African Republic might have wondered if this was satire, had they not been too busy fleeing the ethnic cleansing being facilitated by French “peacekeepers”.
But Western rhetoric has been more than hypocritical ― it has been dishonest. A complex reality is hidden behind a simplistic narrative, based on resuscitated Cold War propaganda, in which the freedom-loving Ukrainian people overthrew a Russian-backed dictator, prompting a Russian military response.
For its part, the official Russian version of events is equally hypocritical and dishonest.
In Russia's narrative, a Western-backed coup brought a neo-Nazi regime to power in Kiev, intent on ethnically cleansing Ukraine of Russians and Russian speakers.
With alternative voices silenced, this viewpoint informed voters in the referendum in Crimea, a historically Russian territory with an ethnic Russian majority.
This propaganda gains credibility from the presence of the far-right Svoboda party in the new Ukraine government, and of more hardline neo-Nazi groups in the movement that overthrew Yanukovich. It is also strengthened by the West’s visible role in stitching together the new Ukrainian regime.
The reality is that this is not a Cold War conflict between two superpower-led blocks with different social systems. It is very much a post-Cold War conflict between powers of unequal strength ― but equally committed to global neoliberal capitalism.
On the one hand, the Western powers have, since the Cold War ended with the collapse of bureaucratic “socialism” in the Soviet bloc, moved from calling themselves “the Free World” to “the world community”.
From the first war against Iraq in 1991, through the “war on terror”, to the attempts to destroy progressive governments in Latin America, Western policy has been aimed at enforcing a unipolar world order.
On the other hand, since coming to power in 2000, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has pursued a policy of transforming Russia’s ruling class from a rabble of kleptocrats and criminals, enriching themselves by selling off the economy, into a stable capitalist class with real ownership over the country’s rich mineral and energy reserves.
This has involved reasserting Russia as a world power. To achieve this, Putin has used the large military apparatus and nuclear arsenal inherited from the Soviet Union.
He has also used diplomatic alliances with other assertive non-Western powers (such as China), Washington-designated rogue states (such as Iran) and countries with popular, anti-imperialist, socialist governments (such as Venezuela).
As for Ukraine, two decades of looting by oligarchs and the inability of former Soviet state-owned industrial enterprises to compete in the capitalist market with their more technologically advanced Western counterparts left the country impoverished.
Unable to balance the budget, Yanukovich, like his predecessors, sought to mortgage the country’s economy to foreign capital.
Yanukovich promoted the notion that integration into the EU would rescue the population from poverty. However, the association with the EU that he was negotiating would have allowed EU capital free reign in Ukraine.
However, as it was a free trade agreement and not actual EU membership on offer, it would not have allowed Ukrainians to work legally in the EU. Many Ukrainians, particularly from the west of the country, are already working in the EU illegally.
The EU also crafted the agreement to weaken Ukrainian economic ties with Russia, prompting Russia to make Yanukovich a better offer ― in which politically unpopular austerity would not be demanded immediately.
The multi-faceted protests erupted on November 21 after this about-face.
They were initiated by people who genuinely, if naively, supported the EU agreement. But they were quickly joined by people disgusted with the corruption and repression of the regime, and the oligarchs behind it. As the protests grew larger, police violence was used against them.
The differences between the west and east of Ukraine are as much economic as ideological or ethnic.
The east was the industrial heartland of the Soviet Union and its industry is still oriented towards Russia and other former Soviet countries. An EU agreement meant greater unemployment for this region.
However, the far-right Ukrainian nationalist groups present in the movement against Yanukovich are very much a western Ukrainian phenomenon.
Furthermore, their insistence on supremacy of the Ukrainian language clashes with Ukraine's reality. Not only are there many ethnic Russians in the east, but many ethnic Ukrainians in the west speak Russian as a first language.
Both Russian and Ukrainian ethno-nationalists have staged violent protests in the east of Ukraine, but these have been small. Most in the region seem wary of both nationalisms.
Crimea has a different history. It was never part of Ukraine until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it from Russia to Ukraine. It was a move both arbitrary and, given that both Russia and Ukraine were then part of the same state, meaningless.
Svoboda initiated a resolution by the Kiev parliament to make Ukrainian the only official language, which was later withdrawn. This prompted Russian ethnic nationalist protests that, promoted by Moscow, gained traction. The “self defence forces” carried out a coup, installing a pro-Russian regional government.
Moscow’s encouragement of these protests may have initially been for leverage with the new Kiev regime. Their EU and US backers strongly hinted at the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO in the future. Putin was not going to stand by and let Russia's Black Sea Fleet home port become NATO territory.
Problematic as the referendum was, it did likely reflect majority opinion. However, it did not reflect the opinion of the indigenous Crimean Tatar minority.
Between 1783 and 1939, Russian settlement and ethnic cleansing reduced the Crimean Tatars to 20% of the population of their homeland. Then in 1944, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported the entire population to Central Asia.
Officially allowed back since the late 1960s, in reality the return of Crimean Tatars to their homeland only became possible after Ukrainian independence in 1991.
The Putin government has made several assurances to the Crimean Tatars that their national rights will be respected. But given this history, and the rise of a Russian ethnic nationalism no less fascist-orientated than its Ukrainian counterpart, the Tatar community is unlikely to be convinced.
Reuters reported on March 26 that Crimean Tatar leaders were raising the possibility of holding their own referendum on seccession from Russian Crimea.
Having spent 13 years failing to defeat Afghan insurgents armed with improvised explosive devices, Western powers are unlikely to go to war with nuclear-armed Russia.
This is a practical, not moral call ― the US is simply too weak at this point in time to lead a war against a far stronger power than Afghanistan or Iraq.
The economic sanctions announced so far have also been largely symbolic, directed at individuals. The EU is heavily dependent on Russian hydrocarbons. The French arms industry and British banking sector both do profitable business with Russia. Serious sanctions against Russia would damage powerful interests in the EU.
The UN resolution was not binding. On the same day, however, the International Monetary Fund announced US$18 billion in loans to the new Ukraine government, the BBC reported.
Loan conditions include cutting gas subsidies, which will hit the poor. Such attacks on living standards will raise tensions between the new government and the crowds that brought them to power.
These tensions were apparent on February 27 when politicians from the new government were booed by protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square. However, tensions have become muted in the face of conflict with Russia.
With Svoboda taking junior ministries in the new government, the neo-Nazi Right Sector street fighters are well placed to capitalise on such tensions.
Ukraine has become a flash point in the clash between Russian and Western interests. Its people, in the east and west, are being used by outside powers ― neither of which have their interests in mind.