By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Context counts, and context means geography and history. The dramatic Russia–Ukraine situation cannot be understood without a sense of history, by which I mean contemporary history, not the pre-revolutionary (pre-1917) history that was invoked by President Putin.
What contemporary history, that is to say, post-Cold War history shows is a combination of reckless adventurism and hypocrisy on the part of the West. Whatever one may think of Russia’s actions, they have been a defensive reaction to a trend that dates back to the turn of this century and Millennium.
Sri Lanka, like China and very much for the same reasons, is allergic to separatism and irredentism and stands for state sovereignty. That said, real world history cannot be ignored. Among those who accuse Russia of violating state sovereignty and supporting separatism by recognizing the breakaway enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk are those who triggered the breakup of former Yugoslavia and its plunge into civil war by recognizing the claim to independence of Croatia and Slovenia.
Furthermore, the West violated a UN Security Council resolution and shepherded Kosovo to the status of an independent country.
The Kurdish areas of Iraq operated as a de facto separate state under Western military auspices as did the Kurdish areas of Syria until the Turks intervened militarily.
Russia never forgot how it was treated by the West in the post-Cold War period when it was friendliest towards the West, to the point of compliance. It is precisely during this period that Yugoslavia was bombed into separate countries. While the case of Bosnia could be counted as a legitimate humanitarian intervention, the case of the Kosovo war by the West was one of exaggeration and fake news.
Russia contributed by the nerveless Yeltsin administration caving into Madeleine Albright and advising Milosevic to give up fighting, while Fidel Castro had told him he now had an advantage because NATO, having failed to eliminate the well dug-in Serbian military through its air-war, now had to invade on the ground and could successfully be resisted. Russians were seared by the conduct of the West as well as by its own supine leadership, and swore that they would never go back to the Munich-like policy of appeasement of Yeltsin.
It is when Russia was best disposed towards the West that every Russian apprehension about its own security was brushed aside and the borders of NATO rolled-up towards the Russian border. Worse, this was the time that the West actually double-crossed Russia and the UN Security Council. It was not Putin but Medvedev who was President when Russia went along with the UN Security Council resolution on Libya, which was for the humanitarian relief of Benghazi. Instead, Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power succeeded in overriding Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ advice and steamrollered the Obama administration into a regime -change action in Libya, culminating in the lynching of Ghaddafi which led to the exultant remark by Hillary Clinton, “we came, we saw, he died!”. President Obama has since said that Libya was the mistake he most regretted.
The US transgression of the UN Security Council Resolution and the double-cross of the Russians on Libya, pretty much finished the Medvedev Presidency and activated the return to highest office of a much tougher Putin.
The decision to support Syria’s Bashar Assad was taken because Russia saw how the destruction of states by western military intervention had led to the emergence of ISIS which threatened Russia itself and the stability it had achieved by defeating jihadism in Chechnya.
As the map showed the eastward shift of NATO driven by adventurists such as Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili, Putin took the decision to secure the pro-Russian regions as a buffer and balancer. This was also the case after the bloodily violent upheaval in the Ukraine, involving openly pro-Nazi militia, and the ouster of a democratically-elected President who had decided on an economic deal with Russia instead of the EU. US Ambassador Victoria Nuland’s communications encouraging of regime-change is in the public domain. Putin’s Crimea move and the support of Russian-speaking irredentist movements in the Donbass was a response.
In short, the map does not show Russia moving towards the West but a hostile military alliance NATO moving towards Russia, even in periods where Russia had a policy and leaders soft on the West. Putin’s latest move is tactically offensive but strategically defensive. It is not the initiation of a process but a response to it. Putin didn’t start it. He means to contain it.
*Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary to the Russian Federation