New Statesman, 14-20 March 2014
The first Ukrainian I met was called Peter. On my first visit to Kyiv, exactly 20 years ago, Peter introduced himself to me in front of the monument to the 150,000 massacred Jews of Babi Yar. He was a retired accountant from Croydon, but had been born outside Kharkiv, in rural eastern Ukraine. In 1943, when he was sixteen, the Red Army swept south to end the Nazi occupation. Russian soldiers dealt summarily with anyone suspected of cooperating with the Germans.
Peter was drafted. He protested. “Who is this boy?” an officer asked. A village woman replied, “His uncle was our police inspector, who you shot in the orchard this morning.”
Peter deserted at dawn the next morning and walked 2000km west, to Vienna. There a Wehrmacht officer found him a job in military records, writing to bereaved mothers to tell them their sons were heroes of the Reich. He arrived in England, a refugee, in 1947.
This was his first visit back to Ukraine. He looked at the Babi Yar monument strewn with roses. “And my grandfather was a Jew,” he said.
We wait to see how far the new fire that has been lit by Russia’s invasion of Crimea will spread. At first our managerial government was less inclined to support Ukrainian sovereignty than it was to defend a different hearth, that of the City of London. In the end David Cameron was persuaded, with other EU leaders in Brussels, to fall in behind the Polish prime minister and announce cumulative economic sanctions if Russia refuses to talk and ultimately to withdraw its troops.
Managerial politics already look far more reckless than they did a week ago. Leaving aside the fact that this crisis has shown an uncanny likeness to the preludes of both the Second World War and Balkan wars from its first day (Hitler’s insistence on protecting ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland, Milosevic’s on protecting ethnic Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo), it is clear that Putin will have Crimea, and eastern Ukraine too, if he can.
But a more moral imperative holds here too. Foreign policy, at its most primitive, is predicated on a willingness to abide by agreements. And specific agreements do command our actions in Ukraine: the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances and the 1997 NATO Charter on a Distinctive Partnership, which notes that “NATO allies will continue to support Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, territorial integrity…”.
Inseparable from those obligations is the willingness to bear their cost. President Obama’s threat of “significant costs” for Russia cannot be one-sided, if they really are to be incurred. It will eventually cost us all significantly to make Putin’s actions cost Russia enough to make him pull back. Referendum in Crimea; threat of secession; censorship, intimidation and provocation in eastern Ukraine; a transfer of the control of events into the hands of the thuggish and militaristic, illustrate the true gist of his intentions.
Individuals have grasped this far faster than the international community, for it is, always, a deeply private feeling to grasp that something has changed for good and must be faced. That feeling was written on the face of Colonel Yuri Mamchur, commander of Tactical Aviation at Belbek, when he marched his 300 unarmed men up the road to try to regain access to their occupied base; it is in the open letter of Mustafa Cemilev, a leader of Crimea’s Tatars, with its subtextual memory of Stalin’s emptying Crimea of 200,000 Tatars in 1944; it is in the tense expressions of Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar women protesting against occupation in Simferopol.
The weird element to all such situations is that life also goes on. From Yalta my friend Yuri jokes on the phone – “Are you coming to visit Ukraine or Russia?” – and insists it’s quiet there. In Odessa, a Russian-speaking, pro-Yanukovych town, a recent huge pro-Ukraine demo indicates a possibly unexpected fall of the cards, but at this moment my Odessa parents-in-law are not talking to each other (he is Ukrainian, she is from Siberia). Another relation lost his civil service job when the government in Kyiv changed. I asked how he was taking it. I was told he was very happy, spending all his time in bed with his new lover.
Yet if the fire in Crimea is not put out, it will certainly creep across Ukraine, across other former republics, the Baltic states, Europe. At the very least, its destabilising and corrupting consequences will be dire. A pretext of “protecting” ethnic populations – be they Germans, Serbs or Russians – is historically how it sparks. And the only way to put it out, as history tells us, is to show that honouring our guarantees means more to us than the cost of doing so.