Remember Eastern Rumelia
In 1878, as the Russo-Turkish war raged and Britons feared Russian expansion, the music-hall star G.H. MacDermott was crooning the ditty that gave the word ‘jingoism’ to the language. As McDermott pointed out, ‘we’ve fought the Bear before’ and ‘we’ve got the men, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the money too.' Now we’ve got few men, no aircraft carriers, and we’re broke. All that’s left, like a feedback screech, is the high moral tone.
A democratically elected government, albeit with a lot of blood on its hands, is ousted by an opposition that includes fascists from the Right Sector and Svoboda parties. The new junta, though not elected, is greeted by the western powers as ‘the government of Ukraine’, its foreign secretary fêted in the Europole. Russia acts to secure its strategic assets in the region, notably the Black Sea ports which it leases from Kiev; its interests also include the gas pipelines through Ukrainian territory and the many Russophones and indeed Russian nationals within Ukrainian borders. All this is strongly condemned by the US administration and legislature; and less so by the European Union. The EU has long courted Ukraine over accession, to fears from the Russophones in the east of the country. Meanwhile a hastily got-up plebiscite on Crimean sovereignty is condemned by the ‘government’ in Kiev and Euro leaders.
Thursday’s EU summit on the crisis delivered as little as one could hope for. Poland and the Baltic states, for obvious reasons, favoured a strong line, the communiqué amounted to brandishing a toothbrush. No surprises there. We in the EU need Russian gas. The EU’s trade with Russia is worth 15 times the United States'. With no European army or gunships to dispatch, threatening to cut off trade is like threatening to hit oneself in the face with a custard pie. Eurobods vow darkly to cancel the upcoming EU-Russia summit; the Kremlin must be quaking over that one.
Without the means to project force, the EU can at least indulge in the moral fantasies of the impotent. Meanwhile the US, heir to British imperial ambitions in central Asia, remains in Afghanistan and roundly condemns Russian assertiveness. Sevastopol makes for an interesting comparison with Guantánamo, another naval base leased from its host country (though Havana never cashes the cheques). That of course is in ‘America’s backyard’, which now seems to stretch over to the Aral Sea and beyond: the US, directly or via proxies, has been in Afghanistan for thirty-odd years. Russia, in invading its backyard to assert its strategic interests, has violated Ukrainian sovereignty, just as John Kennedy did at the Bay of Pigs in 1962; at least Crimea, unlike Cuba, contains a sizeable number of nationals from the invading country.
With the effortless lack of historical perspective that marks his generation of politicians, the deputy prime minister said on the telly this week that Russia was acting as though the Cold War were still raging. But Putin is more of tsar than a commissar and his ambitions are imperial. In the palmy Victorian summer, worries over Russian expansionism meant life support to the Ottomans (known, slightly incongruously, as ‘the sick man of Europe’), dust-ups in the Crimea, the ‘Great Game’ in Afghanistan, and attempts at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 to stem the tide of Pan-Slavism which, it was feared, would give the ‘Bear’ a habitat in continental Europe. At Berlin, Britain insisted on creating the pseudo-state of ‘Eastern Rumelia’ in northern Thrace as a multi-ethnic counterweight to slavic irredentism. That lasted all of seven years.
What does the EU-US endgame look like? That the Russians get out of Crimea? But there is no credible way of making them do that. To create an EU-friendly west Ukrainian statelet, or to corral both Kharkiv and Donetsk as well as Kiev into the big tent, with another state-building exercise of the kind that the West has sponsored so successfully in recent years? As the Spectator said a few years after Berlin, ‘Lord Beaconsfield's experiment has now had five years' trial, and the result is pronounced by the people of Eastern Rumelia to be a disastrous failure.’