Direct comparisons between Ireland and Ukraine are not common. However, the current Ukraine crisis – which flared dramatically this week – bears a remarkable resemblance to the situation on our divided island. Ukraine, like Ireland, has a large and powerful neighbour to its east together with a minority population closely associated culturally, linguistically and ethnically with that neighbour.
For several centuries, Ukraine was an intrinsic component of an expanding Russian/Soviet empire and enjoyed at best provincial autonomy. Independence was achieved in 1991 with the break-up of the Soviet Union. This presented few problems at the time for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, since the new republic remained closely aligned to Russia and the latter’s Black Sea fleet even continued to be based in Crimea. All this changed in February 2014 when the democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown in a legally dubious manner by the pro-European opposition. As a result, Russia annexed Crimea after a hastily arranged referendum and eastern Ukrainian districts centred on the city of Donetsk established an administration separate from Kiev.
The resemblance to the Ulster crisis of 1912-1922 is striking. Admittedly, the six counties of Northern Ireland were separated from the rest of the island prior to the legal establishment of an Irish Free State, so international law was not contravened in the partition of Ireland, unlike in the case of Ukraine’s loss of Crimea or (potentially) its eastern provinces.
On the other hand, London’s policy from 1920 onwards was probably more blatant in many respects than that currently being adopted by Moscow, for example, Ukraine’s borders have been subject to frequent alterations over the centuries unlike the island of Ireland which is a clear geographic unit. In addition, Crimea had never been a part of Ukraine prior to 1954 and few Ukrainians have ever lived there. Also, Russia is not currently demanding that Ukraine’s eastern provinces be partitioned and incorporated into the Russian Federation but only that the rights of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population be fully protected.
It is incontrovertible that maintaining international law is fundamental to relations between nations. It should be evident, however, that the West’s policy on Ukraine is not only hypocritical in this regard but is also counterproductive.
No one would dare to describe Putin’s post-communist Russia as a paragon of democratic virtues. Nor can it be denied that the shooting down of flight MH017 over eastern Ukraine last summer was anything but a hideous war crime for which Russia must bear a large responsibility. Nevertheless, modern-day Russia is genuinely struggling to promote the common good of its citizens under difficult economic circumstances. It is also reasonable to surmise that Russian people are not inherently anti-western.
Like all countries, however, Russians are ready to defend what they see as their national self-interests. Rightly or wrongly, they believe a hostile government in Kiev would be inimical to those interests. In this they would seem to be no different from the British in relation to Ireland or the Americans in relation to Cuba. It follows that it was foolhardy for the EU and the US to support the overthrow of the Yanukovych government last year. The position taken by the EU on that occasion was clearly anti-Russian and failed to take into account that a portion of the Ukrainian opposition to Yanukovych consisted of extreme right-wing elements, some with neo-Nazi credentials.
Rise of jihadist Islam
Now is not the time, therefore, for the West to be picking a fight with Russia over Ukraine. All sides will lose from such an approach at a time when the world is beset by much more pressing problems. Not least of these is the rise of jihadist Islam, which poses as strong a danger to Russia as it does to the West. Joint action by Russia and the West is essential to combat this threat and that posed by the potential break-up of Syria and other countries in the Middle East.
However, instead of co-operation there is deadlock at the UN Security Council. Furthermore, increasing damage is being inflicted by a series of economic sanctions imposed by both sides. Among these is the blanket ban on the import of EU agricultural products to Russia, which has adversely affected Irish farmers by causing a drop in the international price of milk and other foodstuffs.
It is time to remove these sanctions before they do further damage. What is needed is an international agreement legalising the annexation of Crimea and guaranteeing the rights of the Russian-speaking minority in a non-partitioned Ukraine. In exchange, Russia must commit itself to becoming a more full and responsible member of the international community.
If only the constitutional issue on the island of Ireland could be resolved as easily.
Dr Niall Holohan retired in 2014 as Irish ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He had previously served in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. The views expressed are his own