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By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

05 Jun 14. Speaking in Warsaw to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism US President Barack Obama hailed the success of the democratic system now firmly established in Poland as being a “beacon for neighbouring Ukraine”. Such sentiments are perfectly well understandable and few will argue that Poland has thrived in the years that followed the collapse of communism. Indeed, Poland has today one of the fastest growing economies in Europe albeit that it is rising from a very low base.

But while I commend the Obama sentiments just as I do the recent US commitment to increasing US military assistance to Eastern European NATO members I can hardly believe that citing Poland’s democratic success is likely to soften attitudes in Moscow on Ukraine. Neither do I believe that posing the question “how can we allow the dark tactics of the 20th Century to define the 21st?” was in diplomatic terms wise.

Abhorrent as annexing of the Crimea from Ukraine to Russia has been and equally so that of the clearly driven and underhand manner in which Russia has attempted to create civil war through Eastern Ukraine I believe that if we are to make some form of diplomatic progress on this matter we in the West must better attempt to understand Russian psyche. For instance, we must understand as opposed to ignore the massive ‘loss of face’ that the Kremlin suffered during and since the break-up of the Soviet Union occurred. We should also perhaps better understand that to have actively encouraged Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania to join NATO and for us then to have then proffered support to the Ukraine government whilst seemingly ignoring the strategic importance of Ukraine being on Russia’s doorstep was ill judged.

Given the loss of face that Russia has suffered in the 23 years that followed the final break-up of the Soviet Union perhaps western governments would have been better to stand back from Russia’s most important neighbour as opposed to actively encouraging the prospect of NATO membership. Ukraine may have an established form of democracy but we cannot ignore that a large part of the ethnic population are Russian speaking.

It is though our poor understanding of Russia’s history and of what Russia most fears that worries me most. For us to begin to understand a large nation such as this and why it chose to build a wall of steel around itself may not be particularly easy but it is in my view very necessary. What had through internal strife and forbearing allowed itself to become a self-effacing communist empire following a revolution in 1917 is perhaps less of a necessary point to understand than of what Russia was to suffer subsequently through the two world wars.

On the day before we remember the D-Day landings in Normandy it is as well to remember Russia’s fear of Germany has very deep roots. During the Great war Russia was to lose 1.7 million of its people with another 2.5 million taken prisoner or missing. The total number of casualties suffered was put at over 9 million. During World War 2 Russia was to lose another 20 million military and civilian lives.

Should we be that surprised that seventy years Russia would plan to create a wall of steel around itself and to perhaps include those countries that it considered strategically important as neighbours? Wrong though it certainly was that Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and other bordering nations that enjoyed some degree of democracy prior to WW2 should along with one half of Germany be annexed into the Soviet Union these were considered necessary elements of protection for ‘Mother Russia’.

What we see Russia doing in Ukraine today is another form of attempt to protect ‘Mother Russia’ Sure it is as unacceptable as it is clearly wrong to interfere in the affairs of another sovereign state. Russia will never forget its

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