The end of the Cold War was supposed to bring an era of global peace and understanding so secure that the great nations of the world would be able to beat their arms into ploughshares – or at least into lavish welfare programmes. Remember that? When was the last time you heard the phrase “peace dividend”?
That was going to be the material reward for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the glorious realisation that there would be no Third World War, and thus no endless arms race on which countries would have to spend vast proportions of their GDP. All the money that had gone into missile development, “Star Wars” defence systems and the proliferating technology of counter-intelligence could now be used at home for the benign purpose of improving civilian well-being. Democratic values and free-market economics could simply be allowed to produce their miracles of mass affluence and personal liberty in a climate of universal agreement.
As we watch events in Ukraine, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and decide whether to laugh or cry over that short-lived daydream, we must come to terms with the fact that a great many powerful countries – including the most powerful one on earth – seem to be behaving as if that momentary fantasy actually came true. Barack Obama began his presidency with a tour of Eastern Europe in which he announced explicitly what America’s intentions were in the wake of the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. The long-range missile shield with which the United States had intended to guard those countries would be abandoned. After all, the threat was gone: Russia was no longer to be regarded a bellicose enemy. So Europe, which had relied so long on American military power, would have to be responsible for its own defences.
In other words, you can spend your own money on armaments from now on. The worldwide ideological battle between the US and the Soviet Union is over, so there’s nothing in this for us. We’re out of here. Bye bye.
The European Commission and Baroness Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (a title that could be set to music by Gilbert and Sullivan), were largely irrelevant. They say that all politics is local, which may or may or not be true. But it is certainly the case that, when it comes to it, all foreign policy is national.
Ukraine – a large, populous country which forms the critical, hazardous bridge between a neo-imperial Russia and a deluded European Union with fantasies of superpower status – is still in chaos. The biggest player in this game (which, incidentally, is poker, not chess) was Mr Putin, as the US president effectively acknowledged by telephoning him after the negotiated “agreement” with the EU foreign ministers was reached.
This is, in fact, only the latest hand which Putin has played in the new global power struggle. Ever since the Assad regime was allowed to gallop gleefully over Mr Obama’s “red line” by using chemical weapons on its own people – thus showing the world that you could now openly defy America and suffer no consequences – Putin has believed himself (not unjustifiably) to be on a roll.
That this ex-KGB autocrat, presiding over a country with a dying population and an economy entirely dependent on the price of oil, has become the world’s most powerful head of state (and its self-appointed chief peacemaker, of all things) is entirely attributable to the vacuum which has been left by America’s retreat. It is quite true that the US could not militarily intervene in Ukraine (or in Georgia). But it is the void, that deliberate withdrawal from the global stage, which allows the new Imperial Russia to march across it with impunity.
Putin clearly felt confident that he could reclaim those countries which he believes to be within Russia’s own sphere of influence, and justifiably respond with outrage when they got ideas of their own about being modern self-determining European states. There is a vacancy for world domination – and Putin, wearing his most implacable face, has put down his marker. Which raises the interesting question: back in the day, was Soviet aggression always about territory, rather than ideology?
Nor is Russia alone in this new imperial confidence. China is threatening Japan – America’s established ally – over territory, in a way that would have seemed unthinkable a generation ago. And, ironically, it was to Asia that Mr Obama claimed he was shifting the attention of his foreign policy. In the absence of American leadership, it seems that any state looking for an expansionist adventure or a public relations bonanza can take a punt.
And, of course, al-Qaeda has noticed, too. The failure of the West to support the early stages of the Syrian resistance to Assad provided a splendid opportunity for it to stage a takeover of the rebellion with a ready-made case: the West has abandoned you to the regime that murders your children with poison gas. We are the only ones to whom you can turn for defence.
So tell me, those of you who have demanded for years that America and the West should end their “domination” of geopolitics, and their interference in the affairs of far-flung nations: is this what you wanted? A free-for-all for rogue states, lunatic extremists and long-dead imperial powers, in which the lives and freedoms of populations caught up in the murderous power play would count for nothing?
Over Syria, every crackpot and despot in the world saw America dither and shamelessly contradict itself – and in the end, do nothing. Every rebellious dissident in an autocratic country now appreciates that he and his fellow protesters are on their own, with only the feeble attempts of a collective European negotiating machine standing between them and annihilation.
If Ukraine – or Syria for that matter – eventually finds its way to some form of stable democracy, it will have been with precious little help from the West, which seems to be either uninterested (America) or useless (the EU). So I ask again: is this what those who longed for a post-American, post-Western world had in mind?
Without a shot fired, opposition units surrounded and took control of parliament, the Council of Ministers building and most important, the Presidential Administration building, when they discovered early in the morning that the riot police who had been guarding the sites were gone, an opposition leader said.
“[The opposition] today controls all of Kiev as we have taken control of all government quarters,” Andriy Parubiy, commander of the opposition forces, told thousands of people in Independence Square. “We told those of [the police] who are decent and honest that they may join us.”
Friday night embattled President Viktor Yanukovich reportedly fled to Kharkiv, the industrial stronghold of Yanukovich’s ruling party in eastern Ukraine, where he was expected to hold a conference with supporters.
Saturday’s events marked what could be an end to this week’s violent confrontation in central Kiev, which left more than 100 dead and hundreds injured but symbolized a victory for the opposition. The dramatic standoff with the government started in November after Yanukovich refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union and instead chose closer economic and political ties with Russia.
Ukrainian lawmakers made their way to an urgent session of parliament, walking past protesters in masks and helmets who were armed with makeshift shields and clubs. The lawmakers were expected to pass new laws to accommodate the new realities, the most important new measure being a law on impeaching the president.
The streets of central Kiev, where the government complex lies and which previously had been protected by thousands of riot police, were empty and unusually quiet Saturday morning, with some groups of protesters patrolling them.
The president’s headquarters were also surrounded by opposition guards. They said the government guards were still inside the building but there was no conflict, and the protesters were ordered to stay outside and protect the building’s perimeter. Igor Melnik, a 45-year-old auto mechanic from the western town of Sambar, wearing a green military helmet, voiced determination:
“We were bracing for a bloody battle today, but the police are all gone and the victory is ours!” Melnik said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “But the war is not over for us until Yanukovich is captured and put on trial.”
“But technically, since he is still in Ukraine, he remains president. As for the impeachment procedure expected to be launched, it will need the support of two-thirds of the lawmakers and a long procedure involving action by the Supreme and Constitutional courts.”
“Russia’s role in our conflict shouldn’t be underestimated as the Kremlin may still intervene in some way,” Bondarenko said. “The best outcome for all will be Yanukovich’s voluntary resignation, but he then will need guarantees of secure passage to some place where he will feel safe. Now he is only 25 miles away from Russia’s border [in Kharkiv]”.
The previous few days saw fierce fighting between riot police and the opposition. At least 20 of the protesters killed were shot by snipers. The opposition holds Yanukovich personally responsible for the carnage.
Friday night thousands of protesters in Independence Square rejected the peace deal signed by Yanukovich and three protest leaders. The deal provided for an early presidential election, the reduction of presidential powers and amnesty for all protesters. On the same day parliament fired Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko, who had reportedly given orders to suppress the opposition by force.