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Matthew Parris

Leave Ukraine to the Russians

We don't know what we're doing. So let's stop doing it

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

‘You can’t always get what you want,’ chorused Mick Jagger, ‘but if you try some time/You just might find/You get what you need.’ The danger with Ukraine is that the western powers will get what they want, not what we need.

I write this as one who has travelled in Ukraine, loved the country and seen that its people (though poor) are talented and energetic. Any reference I make to basket cases refers to the Ukrainian state, not the country’s human resources. What we say we want is for Russia to withdraw from Crimea and turn away from the rest of the country too, which we hope to take under the West’s wing. There follow three good reasons why such an outcome, should we get it, might not be what we need.

First (as Sir Christopher Meyer argued in the Times this week), Russian sentiment over the Crimea runs deep: deeper than some idle pretext for a power grab, and rooted in the Russian imagination. As is often remarked, Russia’s loss of this territory happened as late as 1954 and at the time was neither intended nor interpreted as a ceding of sovereignty, because Ukraine was then so firmly under the Soviet heel as to be essentially a Russian possession. It was really only after the dissolution of the USSR, when Ukraine began to drift (marginally) away from Moscow’s control, that the full significance of the redrawing of boundaries (for essentially administrative reasons) was brought home to Russians within and outside Ukraine.

This year that drift looked like gathering pace. Last month on the streets of Kiev it brought open rupture. The fresh elections that had been agreed (with EU involvement) only hours before what was tantamount to a mob-instigated coup, would have brought time to negotiate the future status of the home port of Russia’s vital Black Sea fleet and the Russian-speaking people in Crimea. All at once, Moscow faced a fait accompli.

I submit that the response — effectively to occupy the Crimea — has been proportionate and understandable. For external powers like America and the EU to try to thwart this and pressure Moscow into a retreat would look to me (were I Russian) like an intolerable interference. Anyway, it would fail. Unless Moscow ends up with effective control over Crimea, or at least rock-solid and reliable influence, we in the West will by our stance have engendered deep and lasting resentment in Moscow without any comparable gain for ourselves.

Secondly, I would go further than concede the Crimea to Moscow. I would also hesitate before giving any appearance of a readiness to take the rest of Ukraine under the wing of the West. Politically and economically the country is a basket case, and for Moscow an expensive one.

When I travelled about a decade ago in Ukraine I gained the impression of a big and weighty — not to say monumental — state superstructure resting upon the spindly props of an agricultural sector primitive to the point (in parts) of subsistence farming; and industry, mining and infrastructure composed of inefficient rust-belt mid-20th-century post-Soviet monoliths that any liberal free-market government would have to endure a couple of decades’ massive pain and protest to close down. Retail and commerce looked stuck way back in the last century. There was little sense of competitiveness. Millions would need to be sacked and huge disruption wreaked upon citizens’ lives before any kind of corner was turned. Consider what unexpected difficulty West Germany had in digesting East Germany — and remember that East Germany was one of the former Soviet Union’s most advanced economies; Ukraine was (and remains) one of its least. Britain’s brutal 1980s Thatcherite revolution would seem a tea-party by comparison.

Western commentary has spoken sunnily about the need to ‘secure’ the Ukrainian economy by means of loans — as if Western help were some kind of investment, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy a stake in a potential modern European country. But it would not be an investment; no loan, however large or on however generous terms, would fix the problem. Ukraine has come to rely on massive subsidy. Russia has historically provided this. Why should we be panting to take the burden upon our own shoulders?

The task may be onerous, the cost tremendous and the timescale long, but idealists and neoconservatives might still argue that if we could finally bring about the creation of a liberal, free-market democracy in one of the world’s biggest countries, then the challenge would be worth shouldering.

But I doubt — and this is my third argument — that transformed national cultures can be created by external subsidy, training or intervention. If this is really the Ukrainian spring, we should ask ourselves how the Arab spring, the Iraqi spring or the Syrian spring are working out. Experience is not encouraging.

I support — we all should — those forces in Ukraine who want to throw off autocracy and corruption and embrace modern democracy. But I don’t know — do you? — how strong or potentially united they are, what parts of the Ukrainian population they represent, or what calibre of leadership they can look to. I didn’t easily, when I visited, see it happening fast. If it can, if it does, I suspect this had better be home-grown, and fought for, rather than imported.

We do an idealistic, fragmented and perhaps immature movement for democratic values no good by adopting national postures that seem to offer the reformists material support as well as external cheerleading when the going gets tough. We made that mistake after the first Gulf war when many reformist Iraqis, encouraged to break cover, died as a consequence. The West should take care not to put its mouth where its money isn’t, as we once did in Hungary.

Do we understand what we’re doing here? You know the answer to that. I rest my case.

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