by John Metzler
Weirs Times Columnist
UNITED NATIONS – While America seems transfixed on a spate of six separate Mid- East crises, there’s been far less attention paid on the brewing storm in Europe. Thus as politico/military efforts are focused on trying to sort out Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Lebanon and Iran, Washington policymakers have been blindsided by fast unraveling events in Ukraine. We had better take notice of a very dangerous situation.
Though there’s been some reporting on the seesaw struggle between Russian-backed separatists and the Kiev government over territory in eastern Ukraine, the UN Security Council has remained laser focused on this dangerous situation where more than 5,000 people have been killed and over a million people have been displaced from their homes.
France’s UN Ambassador Francois Delattre warns the country is slipping into a “spiral of violence,” with the renewed rebel attacks.
Ukraine’s current political fault line between East and West is historic. The eastern parts of Ukraine tend to be Russian speaking, Orthodox, and tend to look to Moscow as their political mentor. The western part of Ukraine, tilts to Western Europe, especially Poland, and is Catholic. The Kiev government and the majority of the population want closer ties with the European Union, not Moscow.
At the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine, formerly a constituent republic of the old USSR, became an independent country but with this built-in ethnic divide.
Last year, events unraveled, first with the Ukrainian majority ousting a corrupt Moscow-centric government, and then bidding to join the European Union. This was a line too far for Russia. Vladimir Putin mobilized his military proxies.
Just a week after the successful Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin went for a geopolitical encore and took back the disputed Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. During the spring and summer of 2014, Moscow-backed separatists seized large swaths of Ukrainian territory which bordered Russia and proclaimed “independent People’s Republics.” During the same period in July, separatist forces shot down a Malaysian civilian (flight MH 17) airliner killing all 298 passengers and crew.
In September a cease-fire was established. The Minsk Protocol’s short-lived benefits however were soon overshadowed by renewed fighting and what diplomats see as a “deepening political stalemate.” UN Under Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman warns bluntly, “Ukraine as well as its neighbors and the broader region, cannot afford the current, violent status quo.”
While Western economic sanctions against Russia have tightened, the real threat to Moscow is not Western rhetoric nor political posturing but the dramatic drop in petroleum prices. Given that Russia is a major energy producer and exporter, and has based its budgets on oil prices being over $100 per barrel, prices have now fallen to below $50. In other words, Moscow’s primary revenue has been nearly cut in half, causing a tumble in the national currency the Ruble and a recession.
But Ukraine’s economy is far from robust; the country has long been on the intravenous of IMF loans. Last year Ukraine’s already weak economy saw negative 8 percent GDP growth. The local currency the Hryvnia fell by 50 percent.
In the current flare-up, almost 50 civilians were killed and another 150 wounded when Russian-backed rebels fired rockets which hit the city of Mariupol.
During an emergency meeting of the Security Council, British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant advised, “In the last few weeks, Russia has transferred to the separatists hundreds of additional heavy weapons, not just rocket systems, but also heavy artillery, tanks and armored vehicles. Hundreds of Russian regular forces and Special forces continue to operate on Ukrainian territory in clear violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
“Russia arms the separatists, it finances them, it advises them and it fights covertly alongside them. What it has not managed to do is to get its separatist proxies to stick to Russia’s deceitful narrative, ” he added.
American UN Ambassador Samantha Power stated, “The Russian Federation had then denounced the attacks while continuing to play the international community as fools and condemning Ukraine.” Putting the case succinctly Ambassador Power added, “This offensive was made in Moscow.”
Naturally Moscow begs to differ. While Russia asserts that, “force alone could not solve the conflict, “ it demands that the Kiev government open a “dialogue” with the separatists. Yet one must concede that complex cultural and religious emotions are intertwined with Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions in Ukraine.
Maybe Lithuania’s UN delegate Raimonda Murmokaite put it best when she stressed, “The onus is on Russia to put an end to this senseless war.” Indeed so.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).