Colombo Telegraph

The Return Of Great Power Conflicts

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

The Cold War ended rather abruptly and we thought we were in a one-superpower world led by America, but this was not quite true since the global hegemony of American capitalism sort of crashed in 2008. At the same time globalisation, global supply-chains, and new technologies made the earth pretty flat for everybody. So the jargon changed; the world was declared multipolar with no one in pole position. But China was rising to economic superpower numero uno; hence the argot had to be modified again and even Lee Kwan Yue remarked in a TV interview that the principal issues of the Twenty-First Century were climate change and managing the Sino-US relationship. Thus again, there was confusion, was it a bi-polar or multipolar?  Or maybe tri-polar since the European Union, taken as one unit, is the world’s largest economy. Then quite unexpectedly the last two months saw a fourth kid, militarily powerful enough to match America’s nuclear arsenal, pushing and shoving his way into the party.

In military muscle there are four big global players now, rather like before the Great War when there were five; the British Empire, the German Reich and Austro-Hungarian Empire, France (Third Republic),  Imperial Russia and across the pond, the United States. The similarity is more remarkable than just numbers. The Cold War divided the world into two camps, but they were two great ideological camps. In the old pre-WW1 days it was nations and empires; the age of imperialism when great powers carved up the world, colonial territory and natural resource wealth. The struggle in the days before the Cold war was not for ideological hegemony by this or that –ism, it was just power, plunder and glory. Now in a matter of months, if not weeks and days, we seem to have returned to something similar to the old world; nationalism and Great Power politics, instead of ideology.

Of course it is wrong to overdraw parallels. The crucial difference lies on the other side of the world, epitomised by China and including all of Asia to which this Century is said to belong. There are many other growth centres too to justify the appellation multipolar. Yes, this is not the same world as 1914. Nevertheless on the European and Atlantic fronts the similarity is interesting. NATO, to begin with, was the military counterpoise to Soviet power and the Warsaw Pact. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, NATO apparently served no purpose; it should have withered away, but it did not. NATO transformed from an ideological protagonist to a territorial one. American and European capitalism has no ideological opponent in Europe anymore; so what opponent does it have? A territorial and national adversary, Russia; NATO has no enemy except Russia which is its sole raison d’etre. Back to basics, we are back to the world before World War, but with rearranged protagonists; the Chinese may be having a bit of a laugh.

The Empire Strikes Back

Gorbochev’s miserable misrule presided over the systematic degeneration of the USSR while Yeltsin’s weak and ineffectual buffoonery oversaw its actual disintegration and the privation of the nation’s resources to crooks and oligarchs under the supervision of the US Treasury and MIT’s Economics Department; the greatest theft of public money in human history. From the mid-1990s the West has been pushing ever closer in and pushing Russia ever closer to the wall. Even the three Baltic States sitting on Russia’s doorstep have been drafted into NATO membership. This is rather like Puerto Rico joining the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War.  Now, 25 years after the USSR went up in smoke, Vladimir Putin, a stout and autocratic leader is repelling encroachers, attempting to rewrite the balance of power in Europe and assert Russian nationalism.

Donetsk Oblast in Eastern Ukraine. The two provinces just north of Donetsk and the one
to the south-west also have large ethnic Russian minorities. Crimea is in the extreme south

Crimea returned to mother Russia at express speed and pro-Russian demonstrators are on the march across eastern Ukraine. Several hundred pro-Russian demonstrators occupied city government buildings in Donetsk City, in Donetsk Oblast (Province) in eastern Ukraine. An independent republic is their aspiration; they urged Putin to send troops to the region as a peacekeeping force. So far there have been major no clashes, but demonstrators in Donetsk and a dozen other cities in eastern Ukraine (especially Luthansk and Kharkiv) demand a referendum to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, seemingly, in an effort to mimic events in Crimea. At this time of writing the Kremlin has not explicitly endorsed this but Ukraine seems to be disintegrating. Western media dwells the story that these take-overs are incited by agent provocateurs infiltrated into eastern Ukraine by Russia, which no doubt is true, but apart from this, in any acse the eastern provinces are clearly in revolt.

The formal Russian demand is that a federal system be introduced in Ukraine so that the people in the east have autonomy and can manage their affairs. The ethnic groups within the Donetsk Oblast are: Ukrainians 2.75 million (57%), Russians 1.85 million (38%), and other minorities 5%. Hence ethnic Russians do not constitute a majority even in Donetsk Oblast while they are 39%, 26% and 25% in the other three eastern provinces where their numbers are significant. Conversely, ethnic Russians made up nearly 60% of the population of Crimea. A federalist demand will not be viable unless it wins the support of  a third of the ethnic Ukrainians in these provinces; this seems to have been achieved.

Russian interest is not only concern for ethnic Russians in Ukraine but also the strategic need for a buffer to keep NATO at bay. Given the dicey military balances in this region it is fair for Russia to demand that NATO keeps away from the whole of the Ukraine as well as Belorussia and the three Baltic slivers. On the other hand, ethnic non-Russians throughout the region are in a panic about the intentions of the Russian Bear. Those old enough to remember that a single gunshot in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 lighted up a conflagration that lasted four years and cost 10 million, will appreciate how perilous the new turn of events are. Now, like then, a single misstep may release a spring loaded with decades of anger and frustration.

Ukraine’s plight

The troubles in its eastern regions make it impossible for the government in Kiev to impose the harsh economic measures the IMF is demanding, now compounded by a gas price hike of 80% imposed by Russia’s gas giant Gazprom which also wants settlement of outstanding bills of $2.2 billion. As conditions deteriorate the existence of Ukraine as an independent becomes problematic. If it falls apart will the tanks roll in? It will then be more a matter of pacification than conquest. Russia will not allow anyone else to send troops except with its consent – for example UN peace keepers.

There are three important lessons for Lanka in all this. Settle minority conflicts expeditiously; grant devolution, autonomy or whatever the term in vogue, and allow people to manage their affairs in their areas of domicile. Second, don’t mess around with the legitimate security and internal stability concerns of great powers (or in our case, regional powers). Cuba learnt in 1962, JR in 1987, al Qaida in the post 911 years, and Kiev last month when it drove out a legitimately elected pro-Russian president in a coup d’état whose final stages may have been orchestrated by fascist gunmen and ultra-rightwing agent-provocateurs.  These, and especially Indira Gandhi in the 1980s, are lessons for Lanka’s next government to memorise. It is too late now for the Rajapakses; they are too far gone in other directions, denying devolution and damaging the Northern Regional Administration, to be able to retreat or retract. In any case, this sibling regime may already be altogether on its way out.

There is also a third lesson for great powers wishing to bring about regime change in small countries. It is not enough that a regime has lost moral legitimacy; constitutional legitimacy in the process of change is a sine qua non. (Except when the regime flouts legitimacy or holds on by the barrel of a gun). The West, especially the EU, desperate for regime change in Kiev encouraged months of civil disobedience and brought the government to a halt.  But Victor Yanucovych was a legitimately elected president, and the demonstrators and the West failed to have him removed by legitimate constitutional means. (He was also a shameless kleptocrat, it’s the same story everywhere, but that’s beside the point). He was driven from power illegally; then, inevitably, the Crimean crisis and Russian meddling, then troubles in the east, and now perhaps the demise of independent Ukraine.

This is an especially important lesson for the great powers which pushed through the anti Rajapakse resolution in Geneva to assimilate. Our regime has long ago lost its moral legitimacy, it is riddled with kleptocrats, but it is still constitutionally legitimate. Regime change is on the agenda of the great powers, but they would be making a cardinal mistake if they encourage anyone to resort to unconstitutional methods. Of course I want to see the back of this regime, but only by constitutional methods, unless the regime rips up its own legitimacy, for example by subverting elections or resorting to military repression.

Back to Home page