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Advice to Canadian politicians and media: Take care with support for Ukraine rebels

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Rioters in Kiev - Wikipedia Photo

You can bet money that when trouble is brewing abroad things are always far more complicated than local enthusiasts for one side or the other make them out to be.

Here in Canada we have many citizens, including a number of prominent politicians who ought to know better, proclaiming noisy support for the violent protests in western Ukraine, demonizing Russia and demanding Canada play an active role in in ensuring the success of the rebels’ campaign.

Well, so be it. Revolutionaries usually seem romantic from the safe seats, even when they turn out not to be very nice people -- Che Guevara is often cited in this regard. Alas, as it was in Sri Lanka, so it is in Ukraine and ever shall be, world without end.

It is ironic and even mildly humourous to hear people like Alberta's Hair Apparent to the premier's job, the magnificently coiffed Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, proclaiming support for free speech in Ukraine while spearheading an unconstitutional legislative campaign to suppress it at home.

What may not be as apparent, though, is why it is dangerous for someone with his influence to do so.

Even to a layperson who has not followed post-Soviet eastern European politics with much engagement, let alone passion, it is obvious that the situation in Ukraine is far more complicated than people like Lukaszuk and Cold-War-style Russia-bashers like federal ministers Chris Alexander and John Baird pretend it is.

How so? Well, here are four points to keep in mind as you try to figure out what's happening in Ukraine:

First, many of the revolutionaries in western Ukraine, which includes the capital of Kiev, are not very nice people.

Indeed, quite a few of them are neo-Nazis. This includes the far-right Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector) that has played a prominent role in the rioting.

The western media has downplayed this to the point of ignoring it. A New York Times video shows young women bringing tea and food to PS fighters, declaring them to be the finest of Ukrainian manhood and expressing their hopes to marry one. So romantic! Nary a word about their political convictions, though.

The Globe and Mail has written one article that, while trying to soften them a little, actually discusses this reality. Otherwise, most such commentary is restricted to obscure corners of the Internet, ignored or inaccessible to many readers.

Protesters in Ukraine are often characterized as "pro-European," which sounds suitably modern and progressive to Canadians. According to the Wikipedia's piece on Pravyi Sektor, though, this isn't true as far as the far-right PS radicals are concerned. They don't like Western Europe because it's not fascistic enough.

Second, both Ukraine's geography and politics are divided along ethnic, religious and linguistic lines.

An informative map provided by the Washington Post illustrates this. The farther west you go, the more militant the anti-Russian sentiment. The farther east, the less it matters. In the west, Ukrainian is spoken; in the east, Russian.

So here we go again, as we disastrously did in Afghanistan -- which, thankfully, was farther off the well-trod path to nuclear war -- calling for intervention in a civil war we don't understand and thinking it's all about ideology and western democratic values.

"This is about politics, yes, but it's also about identity, about the question of what it means to be Ukrainian," writes the Post's foreign affairs blogger, Max Fisher. "Ukraine’s ethno-linguistic political division is sort of like the United States' 'red America' and 'blue America' divide, but in many ways much deeper -- imagine if red and blue America literally spoke different languages."

Writing in Slate, Fred Kaplan observes that "apart from right-wing nationalists, the Ukrainian people are evenly divided on whether they want to lean west at all. … The eastern and southern parts of the country have deep roots in Russia, dating back not just to Soviet times but to Peter the Great. Their land borders Russia, their factories and farms are intertwined with Russian markets."

Religion can also be added to this volatile mix. In addition to being primarily Russian speaking, the east is dominated by the Orthodox churches. The Ukrainian-speaking west by the various schools of Catholicism. There is of course a long history of conflict between these two Christian camps. That said, this is another topic about which it is astonishingly difficult to find current information on the supposedly omniscient Internet.

Third, there are signs that the Ukrainian rebels in the country's west who our media and politicians are romanticizing will turn on ethnic Russians and other minorities.

Certainly leaders of the rebel groups have publicly vowed to fight Russians and Jews to the death. Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported Saturday that a prominent rabbi in Ukraine is advising Jews in Kiev to leave the city and, if possible, get out of the country.

Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman said "there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions," Haaretz reported, also quoting Edward Dolinsky, head of the country's umbrella Jewish organization, describing the situation in the country as dire. The Israeli Embassy in Kiev has advised Ukrainian Jews to remain in their homes.

Are our naïve politicians and media outlets celebrating racist and anti-Semitic proponents of ethnic cleansing?

Fourth, Russia cannot be expected to ignore the Russian community in Ukraine and its strategic interests.

Naturally, this will be described in Western media as the resurgence of Soviet imperialism, and there are indeed elements of this in the Russian response to date. But, really, would the United States or Canada do any different if a similar situation was developing on their borders?

Russia still feels the sting from what happened in the Balkans, when NATO was able to hammer the Russians' Serbian cousins without consequences in 1999. Russian President Vladimir Putin proved Russia had had enough of that when he put a stop to Georgia's invasion of South Ossetia in 2008.

It is hopelessly naïve to assume Russia will now tolerate widespread ethnic cleansing of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and a strategic disaster right on its western doorstep. We may have forgotten what happened on June 22, 1941; the Russians assuredly have not.

"It is extremely unlikely that Putin will shrug his shoulders and let Ukraine go west," observed Kaplan in Slate. "Ukraine is an existential matter for many Russians, especially for Putin, who has described the Soviet Union's collapse as 'the greatest geopolitical catastrophe' of the 20th Century."

A senior Russian official ominously told Britain's Financial Times last week that Russia is prepared to fight to protect the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine's Crimea region and the naval base there that is home to the Black Sea Fleet. About 60 per cent of Crimea's population is Russian.

Ukraine "will lose Crimea first" because Russia will go in to protect it, "just as we did in Georgia," the FT quoted the official, whom it did not identify.

Such a situation should in fact create a conundrum for Canadian policymakers requiring some finesse to unravel.

The question our leaders should be trying to answer is this: How can we encourage more democracy and strengthen democratic institutions in Ukraine, not to mention ties and trade with the west, while discouraging neo-fascism and racism, and reducing the possibility of understandable strategic paranoia by Russia?

We won't get there, though, with the knee-jerk Cold War posturing we've been hearing from politicians like Lukaszuk, Alexander and Baird.

And we won't find the right balance by refusing to make distinctions between genuine supporters of democracy and neo-Nazi thugs, as in the romantic and deceptive picture painted for us by the Canadian media during the past few weeks.

I am no expert on Ukraine, as someone is certain to point out. But I know enough to see a warning flag that is apparently invisible to the Harper and Redford governments, led by their 1960s geopolitical mind-set to encourage violence abroad.

And how odd, considering the rage they express at much more peaceable and benign disagreements over oil policy, environmentalism and labour rights here at home.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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