WORDS | David Yao.
Eastern Ukraine has certainly seen better days. With the large amount of coverage on the crisis and the recent Malaysian Airlines tragedy, it is easy to switch off and ignore the situation. When Russian President, Vladimir Putin appears on Australian television screens he is often mocked from a far away distance at his outrageous policies and actions. This is easy for us to do. For the people of Eastern Ukraine, their reaction is much different.
The Donbass Region in the Ukraine has been caught in a violent uprising as large waves of ethnic Russian rebels living in the region have taken up arms to fight for independence. Over 2000 civilians have died in the conflict since April, while 155 800 people are internally displaced.
The rebels, backed by Russia, have drawn international attention for shooting down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in July this year, killing all 298 people on board. The separatists have not openly admitted responsibility for the attack which occurred above rebel-held territory, but their commander Alexander Khodakovsky has confessed in an interview that they were in possession of the same missile system that brought down the airline.
There is no doubt the separatists aspire to govern the region with a strong emphasis on ethnic Russians, such as official recognition of the Russian language. However, tanks and weapons flooding in from the Russian Federation bolster the rebels whilst Russian artillery units fire at Ukrainian soldiers from across the border.
We have already seen pro-Russian forces take over the Crimean Peninsula and declare a ‘referendum’ in which 96.77 per cent of the population voted in favour of joining Russia. Alarmingly similar to the Russian offensive in Georgia in 2008 which led to the expansion of two Russian spheres of influence (in the name of freeing Abkhazia and South Ossetia), Moscow’s current goal is to exert its dominance into former Socialist Republics as a counterbalance against Western attempts to form alliances with them.
Since the Cold War, the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) have successfully used soft power to build alliances with former Soviet nations, recruiting into their ranks Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and the Baltic states. Conceived as a military alliance led by the United States to counter the rise and expansion of the Soviet Union, NATO’s primary objective remains containing a resurgent Russia in the 21st century. The escalation of conflict in the Ukraine will definitely prompt Western powers to consider accelerating the construction of a Missile Defence System in Europe, which will have the capability to intercept missiles from Russia.
In the meantime, Ukraine is losing territory and thousands of civilians have already died. The army is trying to prevent the loss of key regions of the country. Just like Russia’s onslaught against Georgia when it sought a greater alliance with the West, President Putin is now punishing Ukraine for trying to attempt the same. There are now only two options on the table for Ukraine: either surrender to Russian superiority and allow Moscow free reign, or reach out to the international community and seek help to end this conflict.
As history has proven, a policy of appeasement has failed to satiate the hunger of expanding superpowers. Hitler did not stop in his tracks after British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain offered part of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. Hitler unleashed a catastrophic world war which resulted in over 20 million deaths.
The downing of MH17 was not a unique instance of a civilian aircraft being shot down during conflicts. Korean Airlines Flight 007 was blasted from the sky by a Soviet fighter jet in 1983, resulting in the deaths of 269 people. Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down over Iranian airspace by the United States Navy Ship USS Vincennes in 1988, killing all 290 people on board. Neither event was an impetus for greater military action.
This boils down to the ultimate question: should we take action to defend Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty? Australia could take up supporting roles in an intervention led by NATO to restore Ukraine’s borders and force out pro-Russian separatists. However, putting Australian boots on the ground will have far greater implications than any previous conflict in which we have fought. Unlike the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam, the opponent in this conflict possesses over 1500 strategic nuclear warheads each capable of wiping out a major city in the world. Russia’s nuclear arsenal could potentially end civilisation as we know it.
Sitting by idly while the butcher’s knife swings across Eastern Europe gives Russia an enormous confidence boost. Putin will be pleased to know that all future military action will be ignored by the West. International efforts to punish Moscow by suspending it from the G8 and imposing trade sanctions have yielded no results – Russia has responded with its own sanctions against the US, the EU and Australia.It is evident that strongman Vladimir Putin does not flinch from pinpricks to his body.
Some manner of Western intervention in Ukraine would demonstrate that the international community stands ready to defend a democratic and sovereign nation from neo-expansionism.
Even then, it is difficult to see Australia making even a sizable contribution to a NATO-led campaign. The United States, the United Kingdom and France are equipped with much better technology and manpower to lead any military campaign.
The jury is still out on whether we should intervene, so for the moment we as Australians need to observe the situation closely and be prepared for anything. After all, Edmund Burke wisely warned that, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”