UK & World News

  • 6 March 2014, 15:18

Does Putin Have A Point On Ukraine?

Listen to Western politicians debating Ukraine and you will hear that the Russian government is acting illegally and aggressively.

Talk to Russians and you will hear them make the same accusation about the people who are now in power in Ukraine.

Russian politicians will tell you that the demonstrators who drove Viktor Yanukovych out of power are not democrats; they are ultra-national extremists, even Nazis. 

It's not because they think Mr Yanukovych is a saint - even President Putin appeared to accuse of him of corruption. But they argue that the only way an elected President should be replaced is if he dies, or is impeached, not driven out of office by an angry mob.

Yesterday I visited the offices of Pravda - the newspaper of the Communist Party. 

For years it was the official mouthpiece of the old Soviet Union, read by 10 million citizens every day. Now its circulation is only 100,000 and it publishes only three times a week. 

The editor Boris Komotskiy is also a Communist member of parliament, a political opponent of President Putin. But on this issue his only criticism is that Putin didn't act quickly enough.

"We believe that all that is happening in Ukraine today is characterised as an fascist coup d'etat." he told me.

"This is not an exaggeration, it is confirmed by all the tactics and the behaviour that the so called Maidan activists exhibited.

"Their weapons, their insignia, is decidedly Nazi, there can be no doubt about that. So we think that any action taken to prevent that has to be the strongest possible."

To try to explain Russia's perspective, let's imagine that similar events occurred in Spain.

Let's suppose that for months there have been violent protests on the streets of Madrid, with demonstrators demanding that the Spanish prime minister and his government should resign. 

Eventually the protests escalate and the security forces open fire using live ammunition and kill many people. Key members of the government flee the country for their own safety. 

How would Britain and other fellow members of the European Union react to the turmoil? 

Would they, as democratically elected governments support the prime minister, or hail the demonstrators for their bravery and encourage them to form a new government?

And then let's imagine that the newly installed but unelected government in Madrid starts passing legislation which half a million Britons who live in Spain feel is discriminatory. It orders them to speak only Spanish when dealing with state employees. How does Downing Street react to that?

This is an over-simplification of course, but it gives a sense of how the Russians feel about the new men and women in charge in their neighbouring country.

Mr Komotskiy told me: "The first laws that the new Kiev authorities started to push were very nationalist - the prohibition on the use of the Russian language in the places densely populated by Russians. 

"First of all, Russians do not live in just some places, they live all across Ukraine. I know this for sure personally because my first job was in a university in Dnepropetrovsk, (Ukraine's fourth largest city). The whole city spoke Russian and it is the same today.

"The right of a person to speak, be educated, address government officials - we have examples where a Russian doctor has to write out a prescription to a Russian patient in Ukrainian. This isn't normal."

Maxim Kononenko is a popular political commentator on Russian television and a supporter of President Putin. He says that Mr Putin's decision to hold a news conference earlier this week shows that he does care about international opinion - even though no international journalists were invited.

"It wasn't for our benefit because in Russia, everyone is more or less content. In Russia it would be quite hard to find someone who thinks that Crimea is Ukrainian.

"Here mostly everyone thinks that this is our land, that historically an injustice has been done, and that it should be returned to us.

"We didn't need this press conference. It was made for the benefit of the Western media."

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