In the immediate aftermath of the Crimean incident in an article I wrote a few days ago I said that there would be ritual statements of support for Ukraine from the Western powers, but that these would be balanced by private calls to Ukraine for restraint.
In the event the most surprising fact about the Crimean incident is that there have not even been the ritual statements from Western governments of support for Ukraine that I expected. On the contrary Western governments have publicly said virtually nothing about the incident. A meeting of the UN Security Council did take place on Thursday to discuss the incident, but the meeting took place in closed session so scarcely anything is known about it. By contrast the calls for restraint I said would be made by the West to Ukraine in private are being made in public as well.
Meanwhile Ukrainian attempts to drum up international support have met with only a tepid response. US Vice President Biden did speak on Friday to Ukrainian President Poroshenko. However the White House press release on the conversation significantly fails to support the Ukrainian account of the Crimean incident. Instead, whilst making ritual references to US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, it says that
“The Vice President urged President Poroshenko to do his part to avoid escalating tensions. The Vice President noted that we have urged the Russian side to do the same.”
Not only does this comment fail to back Ukraine’s account of the incident, but it puts Ukraine on the same level as Russia, implying that Ukraine needs to heed calls for “restraint” as much as Russia. That would certainly not be what the US would be saying if it were publicly blaming Russia for the incident.
Elsewhere European governments have been even more reticent than the US, whilst Britain and Germany for their part continue their complicated moves to mend their fences with Russia. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson telephoned Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday to discuss a “normalisation” of relations, whilst German Foreign Minister Steinmeier is planning to meet Lavrov in Yekaterinburg on 15th August 2016.
The lack of support for Ukraine over this incident is partly explained by the fact that the Russian account of it is (as I have said previously) undoubtedly true. Not only do all the known facts confirm as much, but Ukrainian explanations – that the shooting incident was the result of drunk Russian soldiers shooting at each other, and that Yevgeny Panov (the alleged Ukrainian leader of the spy ring) was supposedly abducted by the Russian secret service from Ukraine and smuggled to Crimea in order to give the Russian account verisimilitude – is just too fantastic for anyone to take seriously. The Kremlin’s website shows that no Western leaders have called Putin to discuss or rather scold him over the incident. The absurdity of Ukraine’s explanations probably means they are too embarrassed to do so.
Western governments have not however in the past hesitated to back Ukrainian accounts of incidents however preposterous those accounts might be. The failure in this case therefore has to be taken as further evidence of Western “Ukraine fatigue” and disenchantment with the Maidan regime. There is even a hint of this in the White House account of Biden’s conversation with Poroshenko, which reports Biden reminding Poroshenko of
“…..the importance of recent Ukrainian efforts to continue critical anti-corruption reforms.”
This is absolutely not something Poroshenko would have wanted – or expected – to hear in a telephone conversation where he was looking for unequivocal US backing for Ukraine over the Crimean incident.
The lack of support from Western governments for Ukraine over this latest incident is starting to be noticed by the Western media and is causing concern amongst some of Ukraine’s media backers. In an editorial The Financial Times complains that the West’s response to the incident has been “oddly muted”, whilst in The London Times Tim Judah complains that
“It seems extraordinary that Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, should now, of all times, be calling for a “normalisation” of relations (with Russia).”
Unfortunately the fact Ukraine is not getting the backing from the West it might have expected does not mean that it definitely will not act to escalate the crisis by taking military action. On the contrary some people in Kiev will if anything see the lack of Western support as a reason to escalate the crisis even more, either because they hope this will bolster flagging support for Ukraine in the West, or because they despise the West, as many of them in fact do. However on balance the fact that Western calls to Ukraine for restraint, which I expected would be made only in private, are being made in public as well, makes it unlikely for the moment that the situation will deteriorate further to the point of war. However the danger period has not passed and will not do so for several more days at least.