Friday 24 October 2014

Agonised history won't allow Mother Russia to look the other way

Gerard O’Regan

Published 27/02/2014 | 02:30

A column of Russian T-90 tanks rolls through the Red Square in Moscow during the Victory Day parade in May 2013

Mother Russia must always ensure she is able to look after herself. That is the supreme lesson her people have learned from her all too sad history. When the chips are down, they will always be on their own.

Perhaps this is the case with all countries. But few have suffered as much as Russia – and in relatively recent times. There has been all that heartbreak, provoked by its own internal agonies, during the madness of the Stalin years. But the most searing wound of all was the sheer scale of death and destruction wrought by World War II.

It's usually put down as a neat round figure of 20 million dead – but there is evidence it could be well in excess of that. In any case, this is more than the total of those who died from all other countries embroiled in that great conflagration.

In addition, there was the countless number of ordinary Russian citizens who suffered terrible injuries, both physical and mental, in what the country's leaders ironically still refer to as 'The Great Patriotic War'.

Can the residue of such trauma ever heal? The mark it has indelibly made on the Russian psyche should not be forgotten, as we watch those nightly television pictures from Kiev, and other parts of Ukraine.

A reality of Russian life is that when it looks westwards it realises there are many NATO nuclear warheads trained in its direction – and sometimes its own corresponding arsenal of deadly weaponry can seem but of limited consolation.

It's not all that long ago when the country at least had the bulwark of keeping potential assailants at a certain distance. But that is no more, following the withdrawal of the old Soviet military apparatus in eastern Europe.

As political and military chiefs in the Kremlin observe matters unfolding in the Ukraine, that feeling of having allowed its enemies to come too close will haunt much of Russian thinking.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Russians gradually withdrew from East Germany, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and what was then Czechoslovakia.

In the opinion of many of its leading thinkers, the withdrawal has inevitably increased the military threat to their country. It has brought NATO weaponry to its very borders – with, for example, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania now members of that military alliance. And now Ukraine wants to break away from the Russian 'sphere of influence'. If a strong pro-western government is to achieve power, Kremlin military chiefs will feel they will be dangerously exposed on their southern flank.

From a Russian perspective, Ukraine, with its population of 45 million, has long been regarded as the jewel in the crown among neighbouring states Moscow wants to keep under some form of control.

Despite the tortured history between both countries during the Stalin years, there are many cultural and ethnic links between Russia and eastern Ukraine. An estimated 15 million people still feel an emotional attachment to the old Soviet Union.

Given all these considerations, if a Ukrainian government moves too far and too fast away from the country's Russian heritage there could be much trouble ahead. Beyond a certain point Russia will not go if it feels its core security is under threat.

Of course, there is the other consideration, that Ukraine is a sovereign state and is fully entitled to make its own way in the world. Those willing to risk their lives to forge a democratic future in this troubled region are to be much admired.

However, it is time for a considered approach, the bellicose language from US President Barack Obama warning the Russians against military intervention has been crude and unhelpful.

For good or ill this is an area dominated by Russian sensibilities. Those who live along its vast borders must – perhaps like Finland – be subtle and perceptive in relations with their all-powerful neighbour.

Rightly or wrongly, Russia feels it has the right to influence what it describes as its "near abroad''.

The hope must be that a spirit of compromise and good sense will underpin the policies of whatever emerges from the Ukrainian power struggle; there should be no headlong rush to embrace the EU and every effort should be made to placate the country's huge Russian-speaking population.

Ukrainians who have an unabashed love affair with Western Europe should do everything possible to ensure the ever-dormant paranoia of their big brother neighbour is satiated.

For Mother Russia will never rest lightly if she feels she is becoming encircled by enemies. She will feel the need to protect herself – no matter what.

Irish Independent

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