Russia might intervene in Ukraine if major violence

by | Jun 21, 2014

Professor Johan Galtung is a sociologist, mathematician and the founder of peace and conflict studies.

TBILISI, DFWatch–Right now we have a civil war in Ukraine, says peace researcher Johan Galtung. He warns that Russia might intervene with a ‘short sharp shock’ if ethnic Russians are subject to widespread violence in eastern Ukraine.

Russia is deploying troops along the Ukraine border as violence flared up again between Kiev’s forces and local militia despite a cease-fire. As civilian casualties are mounting we spoke to the experienced expert on peace about the causes for the current crisis, possible solutions, and its implications for the wider region.

DFWatch: Is there a threat of full-scale war in Ukraine, and if so, would the West intervene somehow militarily?

Johan Galtung: Look, what I predicted in March was that Russia will correct the error of Khrushchev and would simply take Crimea back, after a referendum. And there will be a civil war in the eastern part of Ukraine. Right now we have a civil war. One may of course argue who started it, and I think Putin’s argument is very strong. It started not with Maidan, not with ousting the Russian-speaking president [Viktor Yanukovich], but it started in 2004 with George Bush saying that he wanted Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. And the European Union following up and saying that, a link to EU, not necessarily full membership, would be possible. Now, this creates a new situation. And since then, 2004, we have had a war, when Tbilisi under Saakashvili attacked South Ossetia in August, 2008. I think it has been pointed out along the way that it was not the Russians who attacked. The Russians came through the Roki tunnel, but in the meantime, Tbilisi had tried to make it look as if like Russian tanks were in South Ossetia, but they were made of cardboard boxes. They were fake. I remember seeing this on BBC4 in November, 2008.

I think Crimea is one thing, a totally different thing is Russian intervention in Ukraine. If there is anything like big scale violence against Russians in the eastern part of Ukraine, Russia will intervene. But they will probably, I would imagine, do it extremely quickly and withdraw again almost immediately. In other words, it’s a question of a strategy of a ‘short sharp shock’. But of course, Russia is militarily very superior to the rather weak Ukrainian forces. So if you wanted a prediction, this is my prediction. I hope it will not happen.

DFW: So your prognosis is that a big scale war is unlikely?

JG: I could imagine a ‘short sharp shock’. However, we could imagine that there were Russian-speaking Ukrainians who were attacking Ukrainians in west Ukraine, like in Lviv, next to the Polish border, where there are NATO forces lining up near the Polish-Ukrainian border for exercises. And they would also probably reply with a short sharp shock. In other words, there is a limit to the patience of their “mother country” when ethnic Russians are being exposed to violence.

DFW: In this situation, can Ukraine’s ex-Soviet friends, like Georgia and the Baltics, play a role in helping to solve the crisis?

JG: Let us first pay attention to one important thing: They made a mistake in the Geneva conference. Present at the Geneva conference were Russia, Ukraine, United States, and the European Union. What was missing was the Russians in Ukraine. “Ukraine” meant Kiev. And since Ukraine, actually the name itself means at the border, “U Kraina”, and since Ukraine is not one country but indeed divided into two countries – one is Uniat, Ukrainian, the other one is technically Ukrainian, but most of all Russian. Like there also are the Russians in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since you have that situation, you couldn’t in Geneva expect any success, if you invited only western Ukraine, represented by Kiev. They made a mistake. Now, the reason for that mistake is of course in one sense clear. Other nations are operating with states and governments, but eastern Ukraine is not a state. It’s a minority. Some say 10 percent, some say 16 percent. Most agree that they have 25 percent of the industry of all of Ukraine. In other words, by far the technically and industrially most developed.

DFW: Do you think the sanctions imposed by the EU and US’ against Russia will contribute to solving the crisis?

JG: The sanctions are not working at all, and in a sense they are ridiculous. First of all, there is no such thing as “isolated Russia”. Russia is a very big country, as we all know, population-wise not among the biggest, but it has an ally in China, and China is enormously big. In addition, it has the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as a de facto military alliance in which India, Pakistan and Iran are observer countries. So, as a matter of fact, it’s close to 50 percent of humanity. There is no such thing as “isolated Russia”. The economic sanctions will have an economic impact, temporary. On the Moscow stock exchange. But I don’t think the Russian economy is that dependent on its stock exchange. It’s more dependent on the export of gas, of course, and it has an alternative market if the European market should disappear, and that market is being made now.

Then comes of course the point that the European Union and NATO are at odds because the European part of NATO is very much dependent on Russian gas. Not all of the countries are, some more than others. Germany particularly. And this point was made firmly by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who refused to cooperate with the United States in the invasion of Iraq. In other words, since he represents some forces in Germany, it’s very difficult to believe that there will be stronger sanctions than targeting individuals and bank accounts and travel possibilities. The United States does not depend on Russian gas, and of course, it is arguable that it could supply Europe with gas from the very dubious sources that they have.

DFW: How can the Ukraine crisis affect the wider region? Can it spill into other countries, into the Caucasus? Can it affect Georgia, for example?

JG: The similarity to Georgia is obvious. And I have mentioned several times that Abkhazia and South Ossetia as alliance to Crimea, and, if you will, to east Ukraine. It should be mentioned again that Khrushchev gave Crimea as a gift in 1954. His wife was Ukrainian. He was not himself Ukrainian, but born in Ukraine. And I think he wanted to integrate the Donetsk basin. It could be partly that, and partly to celebrate the Cossack peace 300 years earlier. And to keep the Soviet Union together by being generous to Ukraine. And my feeling is that that was the major point for a certain Josef Dzhugashvili, when he as Stalin saw a point in having Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a part of Georgia. The solution to Ukraine is the same as the solution to Georgia: A federation with very high level of autonomy for the Russian-speaking part. So that means, Abkhazia and South Ossetia would have a high level of autonomy. It means that the administrative language is Russian, also in east Ukraine, and that Georgian is secondary, while Ukrainian will be secondary in the eastern part of Ukraine.

But the whole time, the border to Russia would be very open, and kind of similar to the European Union, that they could go across the border and stay for a few months and try to find work. If you don’t find work, you go back again. Then they can come back again and make a new stay, if they want. It means in a sense redrawing the map of Ukraine and Georgia. If you can imagine a map with the Russian-speaking parts who have a different color inside of them. The problem with Washington is that they don’t have such maps, they have only maps of states. I have often discussed this with U.S. politicians, and they say: “Look, the world is a state system.” The people they call Taliban are mainly Pashtuns and are living in the southern part of Afghanistan and northern part of Pakistan, and they are divided by a border drawn by the British empire.

If Washington had studied the nationalities of Ukraine they would also have understood why the presidential candidates – Tymoshenko in the western part and Yanukovich in eastern Ukraine – project a precentage of the votes going from zero to one hundred, or from one hundred to zero. In other words, you are dealing with two countries. Eastern Ukrainian politicians are smart. They would make a truce. In the western part, open border with the European Union, but not membership. I don’t think the European Union is interested in having Ukraine as a member. One can imgine a relationship, the western part, and in Ukraine you would have to be very careful and see to it that it doesn’t mean they accept credit from “the troika” – IMF, the European bank, and the European Commission. They would become as indebted as Bosnia-Hercegovina is today. At the same time, gas would flow, and then the eastern and western parts could make some gains, mutual interest. The Ukraine we have today does not pay its bill to Russia. They owe enormous amounts of money. Russia would have all kinds of reasons for stopping the flow of gas, economic reasons, simply because Ukraine doesn’t cancel the bill.

And if we apply this to Georgia, we could imagine similar possibilities. Abkhazia and South Ossetia being given certain advantages inside a very loose federation. So we are talking about loose-knit nations with high level of autonomy, Ukraine and Georgia.

I think that Putin made a tremendous mistake in treating the Tatars so badly when he annexed Crimea. He should have immediately announced high level of autonomy for the Tatars, who the Russians have treated so badly.

In sum, loose federations, in which each part relates to its neighbors outside Ukraine, and then the two parts relate to each other.

DFW: It’s a good possibility maybe for Ukraine, but Georgia has several times offered Abkhazia and South Ossetia wide autonomy but they categorically refuse, because they say that they are now independent states. And they even don’t want to talk about this with Georgia.

JG: I know. I’m not sure it’s so hopeless, though. They insist they are independent states, but nobody has recognized them. Another term is confederation, which is very loose federation. And they could benefit from being at the same time part of Russia and part of Georgia. So I’m not so sure that it’s smart of them just to insist that they are independent. I can understand it, but I’m not sure that it is wise.

DFW: Yes, but there are slim chances for this confederation too, because they don’t want to talk with the Georgian government at all, at this time. Maybe in the future.

JG: You know, among the veterans of the wars we have that lack of confidence.

DFW: The European Union and the United States are supporting reforms in Georgia and its neighbors, also to some degree military cooperation. Why are they doing this? What are the West’s goals in the Caucasus, and particularly in Georgia?

JG: I think it can be put quite simple. There was once an agreement between Ronald Reagan on the one hand and Gorbachev on the other, and then between George Bush the father and Gorbachev, and by and large the agreement was that the Soviet Union would withdraw from Eastern Europe and the United States stay out of it. What then happened was what we usually call the implosion of the Soviet Union – it ceased to exist. One can say much about the reasons for this. I can give you my one sentence explanation: They simply failed to define ‘commonnness’. The goal was so unclear that the idea of a huge and Communist Soviet Union – it was not only that it was difficult to attain it, but they didn’t even know what it was. It was a country without a meaning. It imploded, and the administrator of it was Gorbachev, and I think much praise should go to him for having done it practically speaking without violence, except Transcaucasia and the Baltic states.

However, the problem was that the substitute was organized, called the Commonwealth of Independent States, and it could serve as an umbrella. I think Putin should somehow make it clear that it should not be a Russian commonwealth. We can actually learn from England: The Commonwealth is not called “the British Commonwealth”. It’s simply the Commonwealth. It is a meeting place. Such meeting places are important. Take as example Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia broke up into six republics, Serbia then split into Kosovo and Serbia. It’s deeply divided.

In the beginning, they were hostile to each other. But there is something called the Yugo States. They meet, sometimes nostalgically. There is something to be learned from that. And as I said, Putin made a very big mistake by not giving autonomy to the Tatars. I think he has also made a mistake in not trying to make CIS non-Russian, a neutral space where the parties can meet, because what happened was that the Americans thought, when the Soviet Union imploded: “the Cold War is over, and we won”. And since they interpreted the Soviet Union’s disintegration as a victory for Capitalism, what they didn’t understand was that the Soviet Union was searching for something. It didn’t quite find it. So they simply wanted to treat the Soviet Union, meaning Russia, the same way as they had treated Germany and Japan after the Second World War: as an enemy that had capitulated.

And Yeltsin did exactly what they wanted: put all the former state companies at the disposal of Western capital, much of it with a base in Israel, and in addition to that, put all the raw materials in Russia at the disposal of the West, exporting it so that the West could up its devalued markets. The success of Putin stands on the rebirth of Russia, as opposed to the Yeltsin capitulation, stands for the independence of Russia. And of course it is hated by the West. Those who are dreaming of getting some kind of Yeltsin type back have simply not understood anything of Russian mentality at all. Nor have they understood Putin; who is an extremely talented and intelligent and quick chess player, in politics. While the Americans are playing in a very linear way, and for them it was natural that of course, we follow, when the Russians withdraw, in Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, the Baltic states, Slovenia. And now, the Russians are no longer in Ukraine and Georgia – we follow up.

This was done with an insensitivity to Russia. And here we are, the Ukraine crisis. Now we see what happens, due to U.S. ignorance, U.S. failure to understand a lot of complex things. And U.S. failure to use not only the map of states, but the map of nations.


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