Might Ukraine become a nuclear battle-ground?

Dr Frank Boulton

Ukraine has always held a special place in Russian history: Kiev, its capital, was founded when the ‘Kiev Rus’ (descended from Vikings) took the settlement from occupying Khazars in the late-ninth century. A hundred years later it converted to Eastern Orthodoxy under the legendary Vladimir the Great. The 12th century Mongol invasion occupied Kiev and, for rather longer, Moscow: persistent exposure led Muscovites to assimilate a greater degree of Mongol influences even after Ivan III liberated them (and rebuilt the Kremlin with Italian help). Kiev on the other hand turned westward, becoming a fief of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This included the Baltic peoples of ‘Old Prussia’ who the Teutonic Knights in the 14th Century had ruthlessly converted to Roman Catholicism. Kiev and the surrounding ‘Ruthenians’ thereby became increasingly exposed to German influence although largely remaining Orthodox and – apart from an important dissident group – not loyal to Rome. But rivalry between the Orthodox Churches of Moscow and of Kiev became intense, and has persisted.

Fast-forwarding to the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolutions of 1917, Ukraine declared its independence from the infant USSR and provided much succour to the ‘White Russian’ counter-revolutionaries who were eventually overcome by the Red Army. When, in the early 1930’s, Stalin ‘collectivised’ the farms of the until-then dominant and relatively prosperous ‘Kulak’ peasantary, widespread revolt – not limited to Ukraine but most marked there – resulted in the ‘peacetime’ deaths by starvation of millions. It should be no surprise, therefore, that when Hitler’s army marched east in 1941, many Ukrainians welcomed them with open arms. Some Ukrainian nationalists sympathise with fascist ideals today, while on the Russian side there remains a sometimes visceral hatred of things German (and hence, EU). Britons should be familiar with such sentiments within our own islands – from what the English refer to, often with astonishing insensitivity, as the ‘Celtic fringe’.

The break-up of the USSR in 1990 gave a most unfortunate sense of triumphalism among the West – in the US and Europe alike. Free market economics for a while ran wild in several post-USSR nations such as Czechoslovakia; and the Russians took particular exception to NATO and EU expansion eastward. In a tragic series of hostile exchanges, Moscow annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Geogia in 1993. Serbian atrocities against UN-held Srebenica in Bosnia in 1995 led to NATO bombs, and NATO – without UN approval – bombed Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1999. Mirroring the Ukrainian situation after the fall of the USSR, the Serbs are Christian Orthodox allies of the Russians while the more western-oriented Croatian Catholics (some of whom had also welcomed Hitler) still have pro-fascist elements.

The development by the USA of its sophisticated ‘Missile Defense’ system is still resented and feared by Moscow: it should be realised that the whole point of Missile Defence is – in the words of General D O Graham, advisor to Ronald Reagan – to make nuclear war ‘winnable’. Of the two, Russia probably fears NATO expansion more, but EU expansion into the western nations of the former USSR is also seen as mightily threatening.

Among his many needs, Putin has to retain a strong personal ‘image’ among the Russian people who, in their hearts, must realise that against the might of the US Military Industrial Complex they have little chance of success, and while some may rattle a nulear sabre there will be others not so inclined. A cool look at the present scene, which has to include the rise of China and ultimately of India, reveals that the West has far more to gain from an accord with Russia than maintaining threats which the Russians see as behind Western expansionist policies.

Nuclear war between the US and Russia over Ukraine is still very unlikely, but increasing uncertainty will be accompanied by decreasing control over rogue elements or even misinterpretations of intelligence signals which characterised many of the incidents described by Eric Schlosser in 2013. But there is no need for such mentalities to develop. Yes – the Russians are behaving provocatively by flying military aircraft close to NATO boundaries and sailing submarines into the Baltic (and their intransigence over Syria is also difficult to accept). But noises from the US – not confined just to the Republican side, and within two years of the next US Presidential Election – are poorly placed to re-assure Russia. The West, and indeed the whole world, has much more to gain from a Russia-US rapprochment than an increasingly shaky set of fists. Russia is in economic decline, aggravated by low oil prices: the US has to face up to approaching decline, and China should loom large in US strategic thinking.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in 1986 shed radioactive fall-out over large parts of Europe, including the UK, although mercifully sparing Kiev (a very close call), and there have so far been relatively few deaths. Were there to be an unintended exchange of nuclear weapons over eastern Ukraine, the humanitarian fall-out and would be far more devastating. Both sides know this, yet both have advocates intent on lowering the barriers designed to prevent such an exchange. Much more needs to be done than the current very limited withdrawal of heavy conventional weaponry.

The current state of the ‘Blame Game’ throws discredit on both sides. Now is the time to re-assume the true intent of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and disarm ‘in good faith’. The START process needs to progress further; and the admirable initiative by IPPNW to encourage friendly brotherly relations between the ethnically and historically close Slavonic peoples of Russia and Ukraine should be maintained positively and intensified constructively, rather then the pursuit of a centuries-long family quarrel complicated by standing on a nuclear alert. The World works for, watches, awaits and would welcome the demise of these worse-than-useless weapons.