Russian fighter jets on alert over Ukraine

Military might: Russia’s response to the situation in Ukraine is ominous © PA

Tensions were mounting all last night in Ukraine. Western nations warned Russia to back off as it flexed its military muscles on the border. Is Europe heading for a dreadful new conflict?

Events in Ukraine are escalating dramatically. The country is facing a new crisis: a counter-revolution in the semi-autonomous republic of Crimea, backed by a belligerent Russia. Ukraine’s geopolitical fault lines are being tested, perhaps even to breaking point, and there are growing fears that if Russia intervenes, so too could Europe, and even the US.

On one side of this perilous divide are eastern separatists loyal to Russia, where the former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich, has fled. On the other side are western Ukrainian nationalists who want to move closer to the European Union, and its promise of democratic values. Bitter clashes are erupting between the two, most notably in Crimea, which used to be Russian. Armed men have stormed its parliament, and the Russian flag now flies there defiantly.

The separatists are clamouring for Putin’s protection from so-called ‘extremism’, and say they will defend the capital city of Simferopol until ‘the last drop of blood.’ History is not easily forgotten in this part of the world, and many accuse the nationalists of collaborating with the Nazis during World War Two.

But nationalists – along with Muslim Tatars in Crimea who trace their ancestries back to Genghis Khan remain fiercely loyal to Ukraine, their animus towards Russia stretching back to Stalin’s brutal deportations.

Russia’s sabre-rattling has further antagonised the situation. Despite demands from the Ukrainian interim president, Olexander Turchynov, that Russia stay out of Ukrainian affairs, Russian fighter jets are now on ‘combat alert’, and Putin has mobilised 150,000 troops close to the Ukrainian border.

Upping the ante

Is Ukraine on the brink of a terrible new conflict? Civil war is a distinct possibility, and the eyes of the world are anxiously following each development. It is significant that the White House has urged Putin to ‘end provocative rhetoric and actions’ and one newspaper warned this week that the situation poses ‘the most serious threat to the West since the end of the cold war.’ Given Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, armed intervention, and civil war, cannot be ruled out.

But Putin is bluffing, argue others. Provoking outright civil war is not in his interests; he simply wants to stir the Ukrainian pot so that a democracy inimical to Moscow’s own authoritarian leadership does not take root. Besides, Putin will be branded a hypocrite if he invades, after his objections to Western intervention in countries like Syria. The international community is also keen to avoid conflict: John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, has insisted that the struggle for Ukraine’s future is not an extension of the cold war.

You Decide

  1. Will events in Crimea lead to a new cold war?
  2. Would it be better if Ukraine was partitioned?

Activities

  1. Using a blank map of Europe, mark where you think Ukraine, Russia and Crimea are. Check to see if you are right.
  2. Research the original Crimean War of 1853-56. List three long-term effects it had on Europe.

Some People Say...

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.’Sun Tzu”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does it really matter whether Ukraine is divided in two?
Ukraine used to be a part of Russia for centuries, and some believe that a return of the pro-Russian parts of Ukraine to the ‘motherland’ could ease the situation. But tensions are running high and many commentators have warned that dividing a country in half is no mean feat: it will surely result in violent clashes and bloody war.
Could all this signal a return to the cold war era?
The US has made it clear that this is not a return to the cold war, but it is unclear how the West would react if Russia invaded Ukraine. Putin once described the break up of the Soviet Union as ‘the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century,’ and continues to exert great influence over the former Soviet colonies.

Word Watch

Crimea
Between the 18th and 20th centuries, the peninsula belonged to the Russian empire, and was a favourite location for the tsars on account of its Mediterranean climate. Between 1853 and 1856, The Crimean War was fought, which was essentially an effort of the major West European powers to ‘contain’ Russia as the Ottoman Empire declined. Long after the emergence of the Soviet Union, Crimea remained part of the Russian federation. Only in 1954 did the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (himself a Ukrainian) hand it over from Russia to Ukraine.
Genghis Khan
The founder of the vast Mongol empire, established between the 13th and 14th centuries. He repeatedly wiped out whole settlements in his quest for territory, and killed so many people that historians now think he contributed to the removal of nearly 700 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

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