In Ukraine and elsewhere, politicians betray our dream of peace

Kevin Rafferty says a resolution to the Ukrainian crisis will require sacrifice that's in short supply

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 March, 2014, 4:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 March, 2014, 2:39am

Surely the prize for the most cynical news item of the week should go to the announcement from Oslo that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Admittedly, it was for his work in proposing how to get rid of Syria's chemical weapons, but even that deal has come unstuck.

Events of the past few weeks in Ukraine have shown how fragile the state of the world is, how interdependent, and yet how badly served it is by leaders of all the biggest countries. If there were a Nobel Anti-Peace Prize, Putin might win it, but there would be too many leading contenders.

Give credit where it's due. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, were barefaced in denying that Russia controlled the well-drilled troops who seized control of Crimea.

If there were a Nobel Anti-Peace Prize, Putin might win it, but there would be many contenders

But these troops are Russians. Their appearance coincided with the arrival of tens of trucks carrying teams of commandos from Russia across the Strait of Kerch.

Apologists for Putin claim the US and President Barack Obama have been guilty of worse atrocities against innocent civilians, and cite the "illegal war" against Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, regime change in Libya and killing of thousands of civilians in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Do thousands of wrongs make Putin's actions right? And if we are checking bloodstained hands, how many Syrian civilians have died because Putin blocked UN resolutions to take aid into besieged areas?

Putin and Obama are not alone in betraying dreams of peace. China has been busy denouncing Japan for its aggressive rewriting of history while announcing a 12.2 per cent increase in military spending to 808 billion yuan (HK$1 trillion). Even according to Beijing's figures, China's spending has repeatedly risen in the past 10 years while Japan's defence spending has remained flat.

North Korea this week fired seven missiles into the sea from its east coast without giving prior warning and, according to South Korea, a Chinese passenger aircraft passed through the rocket's trajectory seven minutes later.

Japanese politicians, meanwhile, have been conducting a verbal war against their ugly facts of history, with plans to rewrite the books, without recognising how self-defeating this is.

To go back to Ukraine, it may be stretching things to say that Ukraine is a Sarajevo moment, referring to the start of the first world war when anarchist Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Some reporters feared that such a dangerous impasse had been reached when unarmed Ukrainian soldiers faced the supposedly not-Russian soldiers on the airfield where they were supposed to work. Luckily, the shot was fired in the air.

There are awkward questions for everyone. Ukraine, meaning those in control of the government in Kiev, has to accept that Russia has reason to be concerned about the considerable numbers of Russian speakers in the country. But they point out that the dead in Independence Square came from all communities, including Russian speakers from Crimea, Armenians and Jews.

Ukrainians do not want to be split or be on the front line of a new cold war. They say that they would like to be part of Europe.

But is the European Union prepared to pay the price, even if Putin will back down? And if he won't, will the EU pay the even bigger price of helping the ailing Ukrainian economy to its feet in the face of Russian sanctions, and threatened cutbacks to gas supplies?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel claimed Putin seemed to be "in another world". But will German companies agree with her if they are deprived by sanctions of trade and investment opportunities in Russia? Will the brave financiers of the City of London and property agents in Mayfair go along with losing the business of Russian oligarchs in support of David Cameron's hostility to Putin's démarche?

For the semi-detached Obama and his increasingly isolationist Congress and people, it should be a lesson that in a globalising world - as John Donne wrote centuries ago - any person's death diminishes me. What is at stake in Ukraine is principles of sovereignty and the future world order.

China and Japan both find themselves in the same boat. China, Russia's most reliable ally, according to Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations, has said a "soft ' nyet'" to Putin's intervention in Ukraine. Japan's Shinzo Abe had been cosying up to Putin. Will either - or both - dare tell Russia to back off?

For the helpless United Nations, it is another nail in the coffin of a system where any of the five victors of a former war can defy world opinion and humanity at will.

Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives, Osaka University