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Editorial: Russia, Ukraine and Crimea

As always at times of international crisis, we are bombarded by strident propaganda from both sides – propaganda that skilfully combines half-truths, distortions and outright lies. In Ukraine and Russia the resulting mix is emotionally potent enough to set working people speaking slightly different languages at one another’s throats.

Each side summons the revered ghosts of World War Two to its ranks. Pro-Ukrainian scribblers present Putin as a new Hitler. Russian propaganda calls the change of regime in Kiev a ‘fascist coup’ and casts Russia as a heroic knight setting out once again to save Europe from fascism.

Although there are some parallels between post-Soviet Russia and Weimar Germany, Putin is hardly an adventurer on the same grand scale as Hitler. He is, rather, taking advantage of disarray inside a neighbouring country to reincorporate marginal territory with strong historical ties to Russia (as he did in Georgia in 2008).

Of course, the breakdown of the previous consensus against the diplomatic recognition of secession has encouraged such border adjustments. If the Western states can help Kosovo secede from Serbia, asks Putin, why should Russia not help Crimea secede from Ukraine?

Russian talk about a ‘fascist coup’ does have some basis in reality. The ‘Maidan’ movement may well have started as a peaceful protest of citizens against the corrupt and oppressive government of President Yanukovych, but it was the violent clashes between police and armed insurgents that finally brought that government down. And it was semi-fascist groups of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists – in particular, the Right Sector led by Dmytro Yarosh – who played the leading role in the insurgency and were rewarded with posts in the new government.

What strains credulity is the claim that Russia’s annexation of Crimea has anything to do with resisting fascism. Even before the annexation local militias were quite effective in keeping Ukrainian ultra-nationalists (and all other ‘Maidanites’) out of the peninsula. If there is a threat of ‘fascism’ in Crimea, it comes from Russian ultra-nationalists – like the men who dress up as Cossacks and whip opponents of the secessionist regime. Such people are also active in the current protests in the cities of Eastern Ukraine against the new ‘Orange’ government. For example, Pavel Gubarev, a leader of the pro-Russian protests in Donetsk, is a former member of the fascist organisation Russian National Unity.

Why then has Putin annexed Crimea? There are strategic and economic interests at stake.

Crimea is crucial to strategic control of the Black Sea. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based at Sevastopol and other Crimean ports. Russia leased the bases from Ukraine, but the term of the leasing agreement was to expire in 2017 and the agreement was unlikely to be renewed.

A great deal of Crimean real estate is Russian-owned. In late February Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development called on Russian capitalists to invest $5 billion in infrastructural projects in Crimea (port infrastructure, roads, etc.). Gazprom is interested in rich oil and gas deposits off Crimea’s coast, as are such Western companies as Exxon, Shell and ENI.