Is Ukraine a turning point to equal the fall of the Berlin Wall?


The headline photograph is a section of the Berlin Wall, Danke Gorbi (Thanks Gorbi) refers to the changes in Russia brought about by Mikhail Gorbachev. Photograph by RIA Novosti archive, image #428452 / Boris Babanov / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0

By Russell Bruce

Have we reached a period as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall? Much changed in international relations and geopolitical considerations in the years that followed. Russia was changing. There was opportunity to consider the cold war was over and dialogue and engagement would seek a progressive move towards democracy in the east. In a stark contrast to Putin’s press shutdown today Russians in 1991 were demanding more democracy, taking to the streets in large numbers, enjoyed a relatively free press and had access to western media.

The Wall fell on 9 November 1989 and on Christmas day 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. Mikhail Gorbachev resigned and Boris Yeltsin became president of the ‘independent’ state of Russia.

Gorbachev’s period in office was short compared to the impact of the changes he set in motion. The liberalisation he brought about created demand for more than he was prepared to offer. There was a willingness to allow the republics to resurrect their former flags, such as the Estonian tricolour of blue, black and white. Gorbachev’s main aim was the restoration of a weakened Russian economy. He was ruthless in weeding out communist officials unhappy with the changes but the pace towards democracy was too slow for Yeltsin whom he had brought into the Central Committee Secretariat in July 1985.

The Warsaw Pact countries were leaving this construction of the USSR, intended as a bulwark to NATO. Following the fall of the Wall the communist governments in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania and Bulgaria set their own course as independent republics. The Warsaw Pact was declared over on 25 February 1991.

The changes prior to 1991 involved processes that continued long after the end of the Soviet Union. The government of Poland engaged with the Solidarity trade union. The Baltic Chain was a peaceful protest where an estimated 2 million people joined hands across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in August 1989. The last country to overthrow their communist leadership was Romania in the violent revolution that overthrew the Ceaușescu repressive dictatorship.

Last days of the USSR

In August 1991 Gorbachev’s vice president Yanayev, defense minister Yazov and others mounted a coup of the Soviet old guard. Gorbachev was forced to stand aside, fearing for his life. After 3 days the coup collapsed, the organisers detained and Gorbachev reinstated as president. Russians had access to CNN and Gorbachev listened to the BBC whilst held in his Black Sea holiday retreat. The organisers of the coup wanted to stop Gorbachev signing a new union treaty that would change the Soviet Union into a confederation of 15 independent states of which Russia would be one.

In the end the coup failed and Gorbachev on his return signed the union treaty. Some think Gorbachev went along with the coup organisers to see if the coup might win. In the end it didn’t but still Gorbachev’s days were numbered and by 25 December 1991 the USSR was over.

The Gorbachev Foundation, Moscow

Far from ending up as other soviet leaders had done Gorbachev at 91 is head of the Gorbachev Foundation. Following Putin’s invasion Gorbachev called for an end to hostilities. Both Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa, who died in 1999, had Ukrainian roots. Relatives of Raisa are reported to still live in Ukraine.

When they joined the EU

Leaving behind Russian influence was a lengthy process for most of the Eastern republics. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia joined the EU in 2004 along with Slovenia which had been part of Yugoslavia. Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007.

When they joined NATO

The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO in 1999. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia joined in 2004. Albania and Croatia joined in 2009.

Did these countries ‘belong’ to the former Russian Federation?

That’s the thing with empires they are not for ever, they come and go with constant changes. There is no basis for continued inclusion without the democratic consent of populations. Something we clearly understand in Scotland but about which Westminster has a Putin style of understanding. In an autocracy like Putin’s Russia consent is not sought, incorporation is maintained by whatever force is required. (Note: Albania, pro China at the time, left the Warsaw Pact in 1968. Slovenia and Croatia were also not Russian republics.)

Has the West pushed Russia too hard?

It is a common enough thought among many looking in from the outside and short of historical understanding. Former republics freeing themselves of continuing Russian influence chose to seek alliances that would protect their independence in the long term. Joining the EU and/or NATO provided that security and these choices were a matter of national decisions to safeguard their independence.

Short of historical understanding?

It is often overlooked, or simply not known, that for the first two years of WWII Russia and Germany were allies. Poland has very bitter memories of that period. Russia attacked Poland in September 1939 from the east, 16 days after Germany invaded from the West. Matters changed when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. As WWII drew to a close there was a rush towards Berlin which left Germany divided and Eastern Europe under Russian control. Gorbachev’s republics included many states that had not been Russian before 1939 but had been assimilated in the great post WWII carve up.

Why does everyone know Germany invaded Poland in 1939 but not that Stalin’s Russia also invaded Poland in 1939.

Is Russia reverting to history? Not only did Russia invade Eastern Poland in 1939, In November 1939 Russia invaded Finland, then in June 1940 invaded Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania incorporating them as soviet republics. These countries fell into Russian areas of influence under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Finns put up a spirited resistance and the Red Army suffered heavy casualties. Russian forces were not as powerful as Stalin thought and as Putin is now finding in Ukraine. In the end Finland was forced to give up 9% of its territory to Russia west of Leningrad. Concerns that Russia under Putin could be looking at a more extensive land grab in Europe are not without foundation.

NATO countries are increasing the amount and lethal capacity of weapons to Ukraine. Most has come from the US. Statista produced a graph of the major contributors

The biggest transfer of arms/weapons to Ukraine is from the US. Second is the small Baltic state of Estonia pushing the UK into third place. Statista wrote that ‘the military aid committed to by the country [Estonia] amounts up to 0.8 percent of the small nation’s GDP. This is far more in relative terms than any of the pledges of the other top donors to Ukraine, even when combining military, financial and humanitarian aid commitments.’ You don’t hear that on the BBC.

To be fair the UK has made significant contributions of armaments to aid Ukraine. This is a position that has wide public support particularly in the wake of the atrocities committed by Russia, which marks it out from other current UK policies and legislative plans. There are other reasons why the Johnson government is keen on arming Ukraine which we will come back to.

We wrote earlier on in the conflict how Western countries underestimated Ukraine and overestimated Putin’s Russia. In reality most of that was at the political level. Western countries had been active on the ground training Ukrainian forces since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Early on in the war it was clear training of Ukrainian special forces had produced teams that were capable of and did destroy Russian special forces sent into Ukraine. At the political level understanding of Ukrainian capability gradually gained credence along with realisation Russian capability was much less than had been assumed.

The evidence of Russian atrocities hardened attitudes against Russia. It was something we had seen before in Russian campaigns over the years in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria. Why was Ukraine different? Whilst it is true Ukraine was seen as a European country the big difference was in reality that Ukraine was a country increasing likely to bury Putin in the shit.

Putin has got that message but nothing will deter him from continuing to attempt to wipe Ukraine off the map. Heavier arms are now flowing and Ukraine is pacing itself for the upsurge in Russian activity. There is no certainty Ukraine will win but it is looking increasing possible despite the mix of Russian advances countered by Ukraine advances. This is a war like none before which is why major powers, defence analysts, defence academics, military and the defence industry are all paying close attention to how and who will win this war and what strategies and weapons have proved effective.

Where does the UK fit and have influence?

As a member of NATO the UK has chosen to play a strong part in the defence of Ukraine. It is a counter to the issues of Londongrad and Russian influence in right-wing politics in England. The US has been clear in its concern for Russian influence in politics in London. It is also true Russia influence and money are at play in the US. The UK’s problem is its complete disconnection with the EU. If trade and movement of goods have suffered greatly it is also true that UK influence with key EU states at a geopolitical level are more than a little frosty.

There is no prospect of rUK rejoining the EU in immediate decades, although Scotland has realistic prospects following a successful independence referendum. The Labour party under Starmer is equally clear Brexit is the future. What Starmer has failed to understand or articulate is that whilst rUK remains outside the EU there remain opportunities to forge positive relationships with the EU that would mitigate at least some of the damage Johnson has created.

It is extremely likely we will see further defence cooperation between EU states in the months and years ahead. Whilst the UK is part of NATO and takes part in NATO exercises Johnson’s instinct, and probably that of his successor, would be to stand on the sidelines of growing defence integration in the EU. ‘Global Britain’ is a bit player on the world stage in geopolitics as well as trade.

No longer being a reader of the Scotsman I only came across this article by SNP defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald MP by accident. It is well worth a read

Being inside provides influence and that offers an independent Scotland, that happens to be strategically located in the North Atlantic, both economic advantage and defence protection as a member of both the EU and NATO.