Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

“The Russian Bear vs. the Teddy Bear”

The port of Sevastopol in Crimea, Ukraine, 
object of current serious conflict between Russia and the West
For the moment nations of the world, including the Philippines, are being  forced to put their respective national problems and crises in the back-burner and attend to what world media term “the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.” This refers to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine over a region of the latter country, Crimea, that Russia appears set to annex---against protestations from the US and European powers---if only to protect the one and only warm-water port for its vast navy, located in Sevastopol in Crimea. 

A friend of mine, who knows both conflicting countries well, has sent this background material---much of it in narrative form---which should be useful to us here in understanding how this terrible conflict on the world stage began and might end---and what are the repercussions on the Iran nuclear talks, the economic recovery in Europe and the US presidential elections.  

He titles it “The Russian Bear vs. the Teddy Bear.”

“Since 1989 until 2008, I travelled to Russia and Ukraine perhaps on an average of at least three times a year.  I got to know and love both countries and people, and the complexities of their relationship with each other.  I want to point out that i am not a typical tourist.  Rather than take guided tours to interesting places, I prefer to interact with the locals, see how and where they live, dine with them in their homes, get to know their families, customs, dreams and aspirations. 

“During those travels, I had the pleasure of meeting and having friendly relationships with many types of people - from farmers to oligarchs to mafia bosses, police, politicians, famous doctors, ballet dancers and sportsmen.  I've driven alone and with others extensively throughout Ukraine and some parts of Russia, sometimes spending the night in small, out of the way villages.  I can regale you with numerous stories and personal experiences - some comic, others sad and some downright scary.

“But I'm writing this because I believe that I know quite well the souls of both Russians and Ukrainians so that perhaps I can provide an ‘insider's view’ of why this conflict is currently happening between the two countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.

“Back in 1954, while Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, then USSR strongman Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine.  I don't know the reason.  Perhaps it is  because Khrushchev was himself a native Ukrainian from Dnieperpetrovsk.  Once, I took the overnight train from Kiev to Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, then a rented car down the winding mountain roads to the beautiful seaside cities of Yalta (site of the famous meeting between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill) and Sevastopol. 

“As the world now knows, Sevastopol is the site of Russia's only warm water naval base.  Sevastopol is on the other side of the Black Sea from Sochi, and it is near Odessa and Istanbul, Turkey, on the Bosporus entrance. The population of Crimea is about 45 % ethnic Russian and about 30% tunic Ukrainians and the rest Tatars who are especially anti-Russians.

“I remember going to the city of Kerch, also on the Black Sea and close to the Russian military base.  I was standing outside my hotel filming the coastline and I was stopped by the local police because he thought I was more interested in shooting the base

“Back in the USSR days, Ukraine was known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union.  Basically a farming economy, Ukraine's land is famously fertile that Hitler, when the Germans occupied this part of the Soviet Union, used to send trains to load up the rich, black soil, particularly in the region around Poltava, and take the soil back to German farms.

“In 1990, the Soviet Union began to self-destruct.  After the tearing down of the Berlin wall and the unification of the two Germanys, Ukraine, and other Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, Czechkoslovakia, Hungary, Moldova and others followed suit.

“The United States and the United Kingdom signed a unilateral agreement with Ukraine a few years later: Ukraine would destroy its huge nuclear arsenal and the US and UK in return promised to defend Ukraine and provide economic assistance.  I remember marveling at the beautiful new 4-lane highways that had sprung up all over the country.  This agreement is now very much in the forefront of discussions regarding the Russian invasion.

“It’s interesting to note that Russians and Ukrainians have always had a somewhat love-hate relationship.  In Russia, I noticed that they derisively called Ukrainians farmers and treat them as their low-class brothers.  The Ukrainians somewhat feel inferior to Russians because they've lived in the shadow of their big brother for so long.  But over the years, when Ukrainians, because of western influence, gradually became wealthy and sophisticated, they lost their natural affinity with Russians who became even more resentful of their neighbors.

Eastern Ukraine, admittedly is heavily populated by ethnic Russians.  Kharkov, the second largest city in Ukraine after Kiev, sits right across the border with Russia.  Kharkov is mainly a university city with about 80 small and large universities there.  The main square in the city is supposedly the largest square in the old USSR and the site of many rallies during the many revolutions in the old days.  I have many dear friends in Kharkov and have spent many memorable times there.  Across the border in Russia is the site of Russian military maneuvers.  They call it an “exercise” but I really think it’s a clear preparation for invasion if necessary.

“Other eastern Ukrainian cities, such as Lugansk and Donetsk are also important to the Russians.  The richest man in Ukraine, who is neither of Russian nor Ukrainian ethnicity, lives in Donetsk.

“I might add that generally, the Russians admire the US, while Ukrainiansm love the US.

I was in St. Petersburg in Russia when 9/11 happened.  I was overwhelmed by sympathy calls from friends from both countries.  During the next few days, Arab-looking men were beaten up, stabbed and sometimes shot by the locals.  But this changed when Putin came into power.  His goal clearly is to bring back the glory days of the USSR and regain much of the territory it lost. He wants to rekindle the animosity between Russia and the West.

“I also remember during the early years of my trips there that I was so upset with the CIA for making us believe that Russia was such a powerful enemy to be afraid of.  I felt so intimidated as the plane carrying me from Western Europe was about to land in Moscow. But when I saw dilapidated buildings, telephones that hardly worked, dirty hospitals, shabbily dressed people, etc. I said to myself, "This is our enemy that we're so afraid of?"

Russian President Vladimir Putin
“During the last few days, the situation in Crimea has become worse for Ukraine.  The illegal government in Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine and there will be a referendum on March 16 wherein the Crimean people will choose whether they want to become a Russian satellite or stay with Ukraine.  Undoubtedly, because they outnumber other groups, Crimea could become part of Russia.  Everyone knows that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal is get back all the satellite states that Russia lost after 1990. Poland may be next because it shares a border with Eastern Ukraine.  

But hold on---losing Crimea may not really be a given.  The world has to take into account what I would call the AGE factor.  If you look at the Ukranian militants and others that they show on TV, it’s clear that majority of them are probably aged 40 and beyond.  In other words, the leaders of the separatist movement may have overlooked one thing.  Probably more than half of the population of Ukraine, including Crimea, were born after 1990.  Regardless of their ethnic background, members of this new generation consider themselves Ukrainian, while they speak both Russian and Ukrainian, Ukraine is their country.  In short, it's the elders that are causing all the trouble.  

“The other factor is that the average life expectancy in the region is age 62.  In short, the young will not want to wake up one day and find themselves in the totalitarian grip of Russia.  When I traveled there, I interacted with the young people quite a bit.  They present themselves as proudly Ukrainians and not Russians.  

“Today the world confronts a most problematic situation.  Russia sees the US weakness and divisiveness in its actions.  The Republicans' criticism of Obama is relentless and it’s hurting the US image.  Of course, they have the 2016 US presidential elections as well as an economy in tatters in mind; but unfortunately too, they wouldn't discuss the fact that it was Republican George W. Bush sitting in the House when Russia attacked Georgia, resulting in Georgia’s losing major cities.  At that time, Bush sent out strong warnings but never did anything to follow through.  Same thing now.  

“The US is feeling alone because its western allies are reluctant to move.  All its warnings and saber-rattling are a joke to Putin.  He knows that economically, Europe is not in a position to do anything especially with many economies ailing.  At least, the US sent fighter jets to Poland and Turkey, and soon, warships to Crimea, but how determined it is to act is yet unknown.

“No doubt, the West is slow to respond, and this is playing right into Putin's hand.  What the world needs now is a UNITED FRONT.  The response must be swift, determined, and forceful.  Otherwise, we will see this happening again and again.”


Here’s yet another analysis of the Crimean conflict from another world citizen, this time even more pessimistic about the response of the West and the fate of Ukraine in the light of the aggressiveness of the Russian Bear:

“When USSR disintegrated, Vladimir Putin made his moves:  First to take control of Russia. Then to retake the USSR satellites one by one- especially Crimea in the Ukraine, where Russia has a vital naval base.

“The West. on the other hand, made its intention very clear---to get the satellites away from Russia.

“Putin, a top KGB official in USSR. plotted his moves very well.  He lulled the West into thinking Russia is now okay by allowing substantial oil and gas to flow to Europe through the Ukraine.  Thus, many European countries, some just recovering from serious economic crises, became dependent on Ukrainian pipelines for their oil and gas supplies.

“In the meantime, many Russians moved to Ukraine and Crimea--- purportedly to get away from Russia.

“Putin timed his moves when the US showed weakness in the Syrian situation.  The US made it very obvious that it did not want another war---not after Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Putin made his move in a la Hitler. Russian soldiers moved in.  No European or US military dared to make a move.  Confrontation could lead to nuclear war.  Putin made it known that he would not back down.

“No matter how the West will say the referendum is illegal, it’s a forgone conclusion.

“Moreover, the nuclear negotiations with Iran could collapse with serious consequences


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