ASPI misses the mark on Ukraine

ASPI – Australian Strategic Policy Institute – claims to have some of Australia’s foremost strategic thinkers working for it. Number-two ASPI staffer, Mr Michael Shoebridge, appeared on a YouTube video some time back warning about Russian plans to attack Ukraine by moving troops to the Ukrainian border, and the measures to be taken by Ukraine, the US and UK together in response.  

In particular, Ukrainian troops were said to be moving to defend against any intrusion by Russian troops into the pro-Russian holdouts of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas area on the Russian border. The US and UK would be putting warships into the Black Sea.But it never happened.

Russia did move some well-armed 100,000 troops to the border with Ukraine but that was in response to the Ukrainian troop movements. It also moved some warships, but that again was in response to the US/UK moves.

Talk of a Russian threat soon disappeared as a result. Our ASPI strategists have had some problem sorting out cause from effect, it seems.

Ironically the ASPI strategic scenario may also have been killed by some very intelligent strategic thinking from US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken. The US now realises it cannot fight a war on two fronts.

So there is no point fighting with Moscow in the West if the US plans to confront China in the East. It also needs to bud-nip talks of plans for some kind of strategic alliance between Moscow and Beijing.

For Moscow, a return to normality in Ukraine would be a key enticement to the overall improvement in relations with the US. But this would require a US offer to force Kiev to return to the Minsk Agreement of February 2015 when France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine agreed that those Russian-speaking holdouts on the Ukraine border with Russia should have some form of autonomy.

And to allow this autonomy it was agreed at Minsk that Ukraine would make necessary amendments to its constitution. But Kiev said no – that it was unable to make the crucial amendments (presumably under pressure from the ultra-nationalists in western Ukraine) – leaving the nation as conflicted as before.

Ukraine can be divided into three parts. Part of the East – with its heavily industrialised areas of the Donbas bordering Russia – was once Russian. It was gifted to Ukraine back in Soviet days when administrative convenience realistically was more important than lines on a map called borders.

The aim was to inject an industrial proletariat into Ukraine’s largely conservative, agriculture-based society. (The same territorial ‘flexibility’ explains why the mainly Russian-speaking Crimea could also arbitrarily be gifted to Ukraine in 1954 by a feckless Nikita Khruschev.)

Surrounding areas are also heavily Russified. With the Soviet breakup of 1991, the Donbas stayed with Ukraine. Russia, rather generously, made no move to reclaim it. In the West, the Ukrainian regions close to Poland emerged as centres of a virulent Ukrainian/anti-Russian nationalism, with what some also see as fascistic, pro-Nazi tendencies. The rest of Ukraine, centred on the capital Kiev, had remained close to its agricultural Ukrainian-language roots, but prior to 1991 was gradually coming under Russian cultural influence.

The lingua-franca when I visited Ukraine in 1964 was Russian. Driving from Moscow to Crimea and back one had no feeling of having ever left Russia.

But post-1991 Ukraine moved gradually to assert its own identity, largely by turning more to Europe and by trying to revive its own Ukrainian culture and language – something not very difficult since the Ukrainian language happens to be very close to Russian, to the point where it can even be seen as a dialect.

In February 2014 came the US Colour Revolution-inspired Maidan revolution which also turned Ukraine more towards an anti-Russian direction. The Minsk agreement of February 2015 aimed to end post-Maidan fighting between pro-Russian and anti-Russian factions, mainly by Kiev making that promise of local government authority to the holdout pro-Russian areas in Donetsk and Luhansk.

But Kiev reneged on that promise; for a time there was even an attempt to suppress the use of the Russian language. (Imagine Ottawa trying to suppress use of French in Quebec). So the fighting resumed, with both the Western nations and Russia providing the arms to the rival factions, causing enormous damage and loss of life in the Donbas (a loss not unwelcome to Ukrainian nationalists) and leading to today’s uneasy stalemate.

When President Biden met President Putin in Geneva on 16 June, a US promise to pressure both sides to return to the 2015 Minsk agreement while persuading Kiev to rein in the bitterly anti-Russian elements in its military would have gone a long way to removing this cancer. It would also leave Washington free to concentrate on China.

Reports suggest there may have been such a promise. If so it would also be an education for our amateur APSI strategists in the intricacies of international politics.

Another major by-product would be the removal of one of the larger of the US foreign policy hypocrisies. The US has been demanding we must all abide by the international rules of order.

But it has been strongly supporting with arms and funds those who blatantly violated the Minsk 2015 agreement of international rules for autonomy in parts of Ukraine. And it describes as aggression any attempt to obey those rules.