An Australian analyst a couple of months ago issued a widely noted warning about Russian plans to attack Ukraine and outlined measures for the US and UK to take in response. Ukrainian nationalist forces were said to be moving towards the pro-Russian holdouts of Donetsk and Luhansk on the Russian border. The US and UK would be putting warships into the Black Sea.
But it never happened. Russia did move some 100,000 troops to the border with Ukraine. It also moved some warships. But, overnight, talk of a Russian threat disappeared. It appears the Australian’s strategic scenario was killed by the strategic thinking of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
The US now realizes 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 via an offer to return to the Minsk Agreement of February 2015 would be welcome. Under that pact France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine agreed that those Russia-speaking holdouts on the border with Russia should have some form of autonomy.
For this it was agreed that Ukraine would amend its constitution. But Kiev now says no.
Ukraine can be divided into three parts. The East, with its heavily industrialized areas of Donetsk and Luhansk bordering Russia, was once part of Russia. In Soviet days, when administrative convenience was more important than borders, it was gifted to Ukraine.
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.)
In the West were the regions close to Poland that have emerged as centers of a virulent Ukrainian/anti-Russian nationalism, with what some also see as fascistic, pro-Nazi tendencies.
The rest of Ukraine centered on the capital, Kiev, had remained close to its agricultural Ukrainian-language roots but 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 with the unraveling of the Soviet Union in 1991 Ukraine moved gradually to assert its own identity, largely by turning more to Europe. In 2014 came the Maidan revolution which also turned Ukraine more in 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 promising to grant local government to the holdout pro-Russian areas in Donetsk and Luhansk.
But that required constitutional revision and, under pressure from still bitterly anti-Russia elements, the changes to the constitution to allow such limited autonomy were refused.
For a time there was even an attempt to suppress the speaking of Russian.
The fighting resumed, with both the Western nations and Russia providing the arms to their rival factions, causing enormous damage and loss of life before leading to today’s uneasy stalemate.
When President Biden meets President Putin in Geneva on June 16 a US promise to pressure both sides to return to the 2015 Minsk Agreements while persuading Kiev to rein in the bitterly anti-Russian elements in its military would go a long way to removing this cancer.
A by-product would be the removal of one of the US foreign policy hypocrisies – the one that claims we must all abide by the international rules of order while the US itself is supporting those who violated those Minsk 2015 rules in Ukraine.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat with postings to Hong Kong and Moscow. After postgraduate studies of Japan’s overseas investments he moved to Tokyo in 1969. There as correspondent for The Australian he came to organize Australia’s pingpong breakthrough to recognition of Beijing. This was followed by three long-term professorships at Japanese universities. In 1967 he published In Fear of China. He speaks Chinese, Russian, Japanese and Spanish.