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Want to understand the conflict in Ukraine? Compare it to Ireland

11 February 2015

10:03 AM

11 February 2015

10:03 AM

What seemed this time last year to be a little local difficulty in Ukraine has metastasised to the point where a peace plan drafted in Paris and Berlin may be all that stands in the way of war between the West and Russia. Over the months, many of those watching, appalled, from the safety of the side-lines, have combed history for precedents and parallels that might aid understanding or offer clues as to what might be done.

Last spring, after Russia snatched Crimea and appeared ready to grab a chunk of eastern Ukraine too, the favoured comparisons were with Nazi Germany’s 1938 annexation of Sudetenland. It was a parallel that seemed all too plausible, given the Kremlin’s statements about the need to protect Russian ‘compatriots’ wherever they might live. The Baltic States, with their sizeable Russian minorities, were not the only ones immediately on edge.

Now, with Moscow threatening to dust off its nuclear warheads, alarming parallels have been drawn with the Cuban missile crisis – those 13 days in October 1962, when John F. Kennedy faced down Nikita Khrushchev and the world held its breath for fear of a third world war. It is not only retired British generals who are describing the conflict as it has developed in and around Ukraine as giving rise to the most dangerous situation in Europe in their lifetime.

When the British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, accused Putin of ‘acting like some mid-20th century tyrant’, he may have been overcompensating, rhetorically, for accusations that David Cameron had become a mere diplomatic ‘bit-player’ and a ‘foreign policy irrelevance’, but his sentiment went largely unchallenged. It was of a piece with the Western consensus that Russia’s President harbours ambitions if not to put the Soviet Union back together again, then at very least to rebuild the Russian empire as it was under Catherine the Great.

These are grand comparisons, and there may be slivers of truth – though no more than slivers – in all of them. But there is another parallel that cries out to be drawn. It is at once more illuminating, more modest and less comfortable – especially for a UK audience – than any mentioned so far. What is more – to strike a rare note of optimism – this parallel might also contain the germ of at least an interim solution.


A clue might be found in the view that prevails in the US Congress, where Ukraine is seen as the latest former Soviet republic trying to break free from an overbearing imperium that refuses to let go – a view that is propelling President Obama to supply Kiev with weapons. The parallel I have in mind is Ireland, or rather – to be specific – the evolution of relations between Great Britain and Ireland over the past century or so, that has left Northern Ireland with the status it is today.

This is how it works. For Russia read Great Britain; for Ukraine read Ireland, and for the ‘pro-Russia rebels’ read the unionists of what is now Northern Ireland. If you turn a map of the island of Ireland on its side, you have something like a miniature version of Ukraine. This is, of course, no more than frivolous coincidence. But the ‘rebel’ region of Ukraine, as it stands today, is about the same, proportionally, in area and population, as Northern Ireland is to the Republic.

Like the north-eastern counties of Ireland, this part of eastern Ukraine has long held the greatest concentration of heavy industry in a largely agricultural land. Like what is now Northern Ireland, eastern Ukraine’s economic ties with its far-bigger neighbour are much closer than those of the rest of the country. Its cultural affinity – which in eastern Ukraine is partly religious (Orthodoxy), and partly a matter of looking east rather than west – is also much greater with Russia than it is with, say Poland, or erstwhile Austro-Hungary, which is the direction western, and increasingly central,  Ukraine, chooses to face. Compare Northern Ireland, with its Protestantism and its close ties of kinship across the water.

As in Northern Ireland, where the unionists are just about holding on – as the unsettled quarrels about flags, marches and such symbols of identity all too painfully show – Ukraine’s easterners may well be doomed by history. They have been an ever more beleaguered minority ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But in deciding what to do, Moscow’s dilemma is similar to that of any Westminster government faced with those stubborn Paisley-ites. It is one not of imperial ambition, but of imperial lag. There are obligations of identity, dignity and loyalty that are owed. Simpler though it might seem, they cannot simply be cut loose.

A fair measure of autonomy inside a federal Ukraine would seem a reasonable solution, but it is not one that Kiev, mindful of the country’s fragility, has so far countenanced. So long as the vast majority of Ukrainians consider themselves Ukrainian (which they do, just as both sides of the Irish divide consider themselves Irish), Kiev wants to preserve a unitary state.

As with Ireland after the Easter Rising and a bitter civil war, however, the time when a united Ukraine was possible may already be past. And if this is so, and an effective demarcation line comes into being, then it could be that this part of eastern Ukraine will gravitate to Russia, with a status similar to that of Northern Ireland within the UK – the alternatives, full independence or reconciliation with Kiev, looking ever less probable. Thereafter, the rest of Ukraine could go its own, westward way. And what right would we, in the United Kingdom, really have to object?

Indeed, the way Ireland’s split was eventually enacted might offer a precedent for Ukraine. In December 1922, under the treaty that ended the Anglo-Irish war, Ireland was for three days recognised as both independent and united. In those three days, the counties that made up Northern Ireland petitioned formally to opt out. They returned to the United Kingdom. A similar face-saving device – supported perhaps by a referendum – might offer a formal settlement for Ukraine; Crimea, for good measure, could be included.

Ideally, of course, Ukraine should remain united within its present borders. Whether or not it does, however, there can be no expectation of Russia and Ukraine becoming best friends, or even good neighbours, overnight. It has taken the best part of a century, and Northern Ireland’s generation of Troubles, to produce the near-normal relations that the UK and Ireland enjoy today. And even then there is a sense in which Northern Ireland, with its unresolved tensions, remains our very own ‘frozen’ conflict.


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