Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Ukraine and Russia

Peter Brookes cartoon

Here's an interesting report from the BBC on life in Ukraine after Russian forces annexed Crimea and helped to foment civil war in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Ukraine conflict: Russia accused of terrorism and discrimination at ICJ

BBC Europe

Image copyright - AP Image caption - There has been an upsurge in fighting in eastern Ukraine

Ukraine crisis
Why are Russia-Ukraine tensions high over Crimea?
What is Russia's end game in Crimea?
Crimea tensions in Russia, Ukraine media
Daily reality of Ukraine's 'frozen war'

The International Court of Justice in The Hague is hearing a case brought by Ukraine against Russia, accusing Moscow of illegally annexing Crimea and illicitly funding separatist rebels.

Ukraine is seeking compensation for what it describes as terrorist acts committed on its soil.

They include the shooting down in 2014 of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which killed all 298 people on board.

Russia has repeatedly denied sending troops or weapons to eastern Ukraine.

It also denies bringing down MH17.

However the US military has said thousands of Russian troops have been operating in eastern Ukraine since the beginning of the crisis.

Dutch air accident investigators meanwhile say a Russian-made missile fired from territory held by pro-Russian rebels hit flight MH17.

Eastern Ukraine: A new, bloody chapter

MH17 plane crash in Ukraine: What we know

What is Russia's end game in Crimea?

In their opening remarks, lawyers for Ukraine have accused Russia of making it "impossible for Ukrainian citizens to feel safe anywhere in their country".

They have asked the court to issue Russia with an order to "cease and desist".

The legal action is being brought under UN anti-terrorism and anti-discrimination conventions.

Russia is expected to challenge the jurisdiction of the court, says the BBC's Anna Holligan in The Hague.

Image copyright - AFP/GETTY Image caption - Ukraine has asked the ICJ to tell Russia to "cease and desist"

Ukraine says Russia is in breach of the Terrorist Financing Treaty by supporting armed groups in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic, the ICJ reports in a press release.

It also accuses Russia of mistreating members of the Tatar ethnic group in Crimea and banning their representative organisation, the Majlis of the Crimean Tatar People, after annexing the territory, which it says is a breach of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD),

Russia has said it took control of Crimea to protect ethnic Russians living there from discrimination.

There will be four days of hearings in total, with Ukraine and Russia given two each.

More than 10,000 people have lost their lives in nearly three years of conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Demagogues and Democrats (18/01/17)

I didn't watch the BBC Panorama programme 'live' on Monday evening although I did manage to catch up later online and via this Beeb web site article which provides an excellent summary.

Strange times we live in when an American President seems completely uninterested in Russia's human rights record, at home and abroad, bur only in the 'deals' he can do with Vladimir Putin.

The Russian nationalist (Alexander Dugin) mentioned has been around for some time and met a while back with the Foreign Minister of the far-left Syriza-led Government in Greece - see the 'Trojan Horse' post below dated 2 February 2015.

Who are the figures pushing Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin together?

By John Sweeney - BBC Panorama

BBC Europe
Face masks depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President-elect Donald Trump at a souvenir street shop in St Petersburg, Russia, Friday, Dec 23, 2016
Image copyright - AP

The question of whether Russia's leader Vladimir Putin has got material with which he could blackmail Donald Trump is for now unknowable and misses the point by a country mile: the two men think alike.

Mr Trump's belief in American traditionalism and dislike of scrutiny echo the Kremlin's tune: nation, power and aversion to criticism are the new (and very Russian) world order.

You could call this mindset Trumputinism.

The echo between the Kremlin and Trump Tower is strong, getting louder and very, very good news for Mr Putin.

As Trump signalled to Michael Gove on Monday, a new nuclear arms reduction deal seems to be in the offing linked to a review of sanctions against Russia.

The dog that did not bark in the night is Mr Trump's peculiar absence of criticism of Mr Putin, for example, on the Russian hacking of American democracy, his land-grab of Crimea and his role in the continuing war in Eastern Ukraine.

What is odd is that Mr Trump, in his tweets, favours the Russia line over, say, the CIA and the rest of the American intelligence community.

But why on earth criticise the world leader with whom you most agree?

Three men have egged along Trumputinism: Nigel Farage, who is clear that the European Union is a far bigger danger to world peace than Russia; his friend, Steve Bannon, who is now Mr Trump's chief strategist; and a Russian "penseur", Alexander Dugin.

With his long hair and iconic Slavic looks, Mr Dugin is variously described as "Putin's Brain" or "Putin's Rasputin".

Image caption - Alexander Dugin is described as "Putin's Brain"

He has his own pro-Kremlin TV show which pumps out Russian Orthodox supremacy in a curious mixture of Goebbels-style rhetoric and Songs of Praise.

Mr Dugin is widely believed to have the ear of the Kremlin.

He is also under Western sanctions for the ferocity of his statements in favour of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has cost 10,000 lives to date.

Messrs Farage, Bannon and Dugin are all united that the greatest danger for Western civilisation lies in Islamist extremism.

Mr Bannon aired his views in a right-wing mindfest on the fringes of the Vatican in 2014.

He claimed that so-called Islamic State has a Twitter account "about turning the United States into a 'river of blood'".

"Trust me, that is going to come to Europe," he added. "On top of that we're now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism." 

Democratic values at risk?

The danger is that in allying yourself with the Kremlin in the way they fight "Islamist fascism" in say, Aleppo, you end up siding with what some have called "Russian fascism" or, at least, abandoning democratic values and the rules of war and, in so doing, become a recruiting sergeant for ISIS.

It is a risk on which Mr Dugin does not seem willing to reflect. My interview with him in Moscow did not end well. 
Image copyright - ALEXANDER DUGIN - Image caption - Dugin posted a critical blog entry after walking out of his interview with John Sweeney

First, he dismissed the chances that the Russians hacked American democracy as "strictly zero".

I asked him about the depth of Mr Putin's commitment to democracy.

"Please be careful," he responded. "You could not teach us democracy because you try to impose to every people, every state, every society, their Western, American or so-called American system of values without asking…and it is absolutely racist; you are racist."

Too many of Mr Putin's critics end up dead - around 20 since he took power in 2000.

I have met and admired three: Anna Politkovskaya, Natasha Estemirova and Boris Nemtsov.

Image copyright - AFP Image caption - Boris Nemtsov was murdered close to the Kremlin in 2015

Mr Nemtsov was shot just outside the Kremlin's walls.

I asked Mr Dugin what his death told us about Russian democracy.

"If you are engaged in Wikileaks you can be murdered," he countered.

I then invited Mr Dugin to list the American journalists who have died under Barack Obama.

Mr Dugin did not oblige but told me that ours was a "completely stupid kind of conversation" and walked out of the interview.

Later, he posted a blog to his 20,000 followers, illustrated with my photograph and accusing me of manufacturing "fake news" and calling me "an utter cretin... a globalist swine".

Such is the language of the new world order.

A few days later I watched the press conference when Mr Trump closed down a question from a CNN reporter by accusing him of manufacturing "fake news".

Under Trumputinism, the echo between Russia and America is getting louder by the day.

Panorama: The Kremlin Candidate? BBC One, 8.30pm, Monday, January 16. If you miss it, you can catch up later online

Russian Propaganda (21/03/15)

Image result for propaganda + images

The Sunday Times had a great story at the weekend exposing the lengths to which the Russian Government goes to spread propaganda and disinformation about its role in Ukraine.

Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propagandist, would have been proud.  

It’s her again: Kremlin’s war-zone fake 

By Bojan Pancevski - The Sunday Times
Maria Tsypko has been appearing on Russian TV in a series of pro-Russian propaganda roles

WEARING an expensive-looking black fur coat and designer sunglasses, the woman appeared oddly out of place as she handed out loaves to the starving residents of the war-torn Ukrainian town of Debaltsevo.

But to millions of television viewers in the Russian- speaking world, hers was a familiar face: Maria Tsypko has become an unlikely media star — and object of ridicule — after regularly popping up in a variety of guises in pro-Kremlin news coverage of the war in eastern Ukraine.

Tsypko’s emergence as a “humanitarian worker” in Debaltsevo, shortly after the town was taken by separatist militias last month, was only the latest in a series of her appearances on mainstream media.

In recent months, Tsypko, who appears to be in her late thirties, has featured on major Russian channels in broadcasts from a dozen cities from Moscow to Odessa on the Black Sea, each time playing a different role and often using a different name.

Wrapped in a Russian flag, Tsypko claimed to be an ordinary person from Kharkiv, Ukraine

Once she posed as a pro-Kremlin protester in the eastern city of Kharkov; another time as a mother of soldiers sent by the Ukrainian army to the front; and yet another time as a lawyer co-ordinating an unauthorised referendum on independence in the separatist stronghold of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

For some of the reports she appeared to have dyed her hair red, although she retained her trademark thick golden necklace and pair of heavy golden earrings.

Whatever identity Tsypko assumed, the underlying message was the same: as a local affected by the Ukrainian conflict, she was expressing her grievances against the Kiev government.

Here, Tsypko is handing out bread to residents in war-torn Debaltseve

Tsypko appears part of a sophisticated information war being waged by the Kremlin’s propaganda machinery — which seems ready to stoop to outright fabrication to get its message across. In most reports, including a notable one from Crimea recorded after the peninsula was snatched from Ukraine by Russia in February last year, Tsypko is an emotional witness. She often breaks down into tears, sobbing as she details the ordeals that she and those close to her have suffered at the hands of the authorities in Kiev.

In one interview, in which she claims to be a refugee from Odessa, she urges President Vladimir Putin to allow all Russian-speakers in Ukraine to flee to Russia “like Jews fleeing to Israel” because of the persecution they allegedly face at home.

Tsypko, this time claiming to be from Odessa, spoke of horrors in Crimea

“She is the star of Russian propaganda about Ukraine, but she is also one of many similar people, mostly women, that resurface in various media reports,” said Yevhen Fedchenko, co-founder of, a website dedicated to exposing Russian propaganda.

“It is unclear who is co-ordinating the news coverage to have her in it all the time, and who pays her travel expenses.

“One would think it’s odd for whoever is doing that to be using the same person so many times, but then Russian audiences are not used to challenging propaganda — they have switched off critical thinking.”

The Sunday Times tracked Tsypko down in Moscow, where she has been giving interviews as a refugee fleeing Kiev’s persecution and participated at events featuring Aleksandr Dugin, the far-right ideologue who has been described as “Putin’s brain”.

The mother of two, who originally comes from Odessa, denied that she appeared in different media reports and claimed only to work for an Orthodox Christian charity called the New Martyrs and Confessors of Christ Fund.

“The Ukrainians think all blondes are me, but, obviously, I resemble none of the women they show in their videos,” she insisted.

“I am only working for a Christian charity. I was in Debaltsevo to help to ease the suffering of people after they were liberated from the fascist occupation” — employing the term used in Kremlin propaganda for Ukrainian government forces.

Tsypko’s charity, according to its website, is linked to extremist groups including the Russian Orthodox Army and Phantom Brigade, two armed militias fighting against Kiev’s forces in east Ukraine. Videos on the website feature Tsypko clutching an iPad while explaining an Orthodox icon to a band of haggard militants on the front line.

In Ukraine, she is wanted for fraud after allegedly employing various scams to extract money from people in Odessa.

The pro-Moscow separatists have used a variety of methods in an attempt to get their message across, including the capture of local television and radio transmitters and replacing Ukrainian broadcasts with Russian ones.

Russian media have also made a series of unsubstantiated claims, the most outrageous of which was to accuse Ukrainian soldiers of crucifying a three-year-old boy in the town of Sloviansk by nailing him to a noticeboard. No proof was provided. 

Memories of Hell (24/09/14)

No one has been held to account for the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine and the loss of 300 innocent lives, but the raw pain of the terrible incident is captured her in a BBC report by Darius Bazargan from the BBC.

The memory of hell among the sunflowers

By Darius Bazargan - BBC News

Nearly 300 people died when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed in Ukraine two months ago, possibly downed by a missile. Rescue workers, local residents and journalists rushed to the site - what they saw had a deep and lasting impact.

Barrelling down a highway in eastern Ukraine, two days after the plane came down, we're heading to the crash site of flight MH17. We're covering the big story and, truthfully, I'm excited to be there. I'm buzzing. But the feeling doesn't last.

Our vehicle slows only for roadblocks, manned by bored-looking paramilitaries wearing the standard mixture of sportswear, camouflage and fake designer sunglasses. We're waved through without a second glance. They've become used to the letters TV taped on car windscreens.

It is ever clearer to me that there was - and remains - a partition in time for all those touched by the event - life before MH17 and life afterwards.

At the wheel is Alex, a cabbie from Donetsk who - on the surface at least - has been doing quite nicely for himself of late, earning top dollar translating and transporting various media around.

But he seems off-key now. He can't quite focus on where he is, or what he is doing. Alex is returning to the crash site for maybe the fifth time.

"How is it?" I ask him.

"It's…," Alex trails off.

"It's like…," he tries again.

Minutes pass. We slow down to negotiate yet another checkpoint, and I think he's forgotten my question.

"Like hell, Darius," he suddenly blurts out. I jump back to reality. "So come and see our hell in sunflowers."

The contrast between the bucolic calm of the softly rolling landscape, the golden yellow flora and the charred, metallic ruins of the aircraft only adds to the surreal awfulness.

Listen to From Our Own Correspondent for insight and analysis from BBC journalists, correspondents and writers from around the world

Flight MH17 suffered a huge explosive decompression when shrapnel - most likely from a Buk anti-aircraft missile - ripped into it at 33,000ft (10,000m), sending debris and passengers plummeting into a field of sunflowers near an otherwise unremarkable village called Grabove.

Those on board probably died in an instant, mercifully. But their bodies came tumbling through the air at several hundred miles per hour. At those speeds, clothing is ripped off, ligaments and tendons snap, limbs are smashed and contorted.

Those first on the scene met an impossibly grisly sight - corpses lay semi-clad or naked, splayed in grotesque and unnatural contortions like an image of the afterworld by Hieronymus Bosch.

And the smell. Burned jet fuel mingled with that old journalistic cliche - 'the unmistakable stench of death'.

These corpses lay exposed for days. There's no dignity in any of it. Three days in the summer sun and the dead putrefy quickly.

Then the banality of the passengers' belongings - football books, touristic souvenirs, those colourful little suitcases children can sit on in airport queues, Lego and sticker books.

Eighty of the victims were children. I feel morally contaminated just looking at it. Even breathing the air feels wrong. The foul odour clings to your clothes, your hair and your skin.

I see haggard, exhausted first responders gathering the remaining corpses and body parts, bagging them up. They load these sorry packages onto a dump truck-turned-hearse.

These men have been here for days, they barely speak to one another anymore. Nothing can have prepared them for this. Their lives have been wholly altered.

Alex, the driver, stands off to one side, talking to a local man whose house lies completely untouched. "Lucky" doesn't come close - had the aircraft travelled another 20 metres, his home and everyone inside would have been obliterated.

The man is also a paramilitary. He has a Kalashnikov rifle in his hand. He stares mournfully at the hulking remnants of the Boeing.

"If you'd come here before, I would have said to go down that road. There's the most beautiful fishing lake down there - we'd go swimming with the kids," he says.

There's a large wooden cross next to his house, and Alex - who's a devout Christian - mumbles something about Jesus having spared the hamlet. But he's less clear as to why the divine powers sanctioned the slaughter of 298 innocents here.

People from nearby villages attended a religious ceremony at the crash site

Weeks later, back in London, I awake one morning with a sudden, overwhelming sorrow. I cannot face the day. I don't want to go to work, or play with my children. Or eat. Or be.

It wasn't trauma - it felt more like utter heartbreak. Before MH17 and after MH17.

I think of all this often - the 298 people who died in a split second; those who couldn't protect their children; those left grieving.

I think too of the rescue workers and villagers, who'd had to collect smouldering wreckage and decomposing bodies. And of Alex.

And of all those others whose lives were mournfully interrupted after MH17 smashed into a field of sunflowers, one fine summer's day.
Darius Bazargan at the crash site

Drunk With Power

Here's the latest report from The Guardian on the events surrounding the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17.

I wonder if the newspaper's comment editor, Seumas 'Shameless' Milne, will have anything sensible to say about this horrific killing, given the stance of his own newspaper, or will he continue with his ridiculous claims that pro-western Ukrainian fascists are responsible for the country's woes.

MH17 disaster creates dilemma for Putin over backing Ukraine's rebels

Malaysia Airlines crash makes supplying arms to separatists a threat to the world but pulling the plug means defeat for Russia

By Julian Borger and Luke Harding - The Guardian

President Vladimir Putin. 'Russian public opinion is going off [separatism] and support inside Ukraine is less than thought,' said an analyst. Photo: Sasha Mordovets/Getty

The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 has confronted Vladimir Putin with a dilemma he had sought to avoid: to continue to support the separatist insurgency in Ukraine in the face of a storm of international outrage, or cut the rebels off and allow them to be defeated by the government in Kiev.

Until the plane was hit by an anti-aircraft missile on Thursday, killing nearly 300 people, the Russian president had tried to hedge his bets according to circumstances on the battlefield and western pressure. He moved troops and tanks away from the border after the Ukrainian presidential elections in May, but moved them back in recent weeks.

Similarly, he initially appeared to distance himself from the rebels until Ukrainian forces under the newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, made significant gains in the east, triggering a new supply of Russian equipment over the border, including anti-aircraft missiles.

The MH17 disaster forces his hand. Anything he does now will attract much more scrutiny. Arms shipments across the very porous Ukrainian border, which had until now been a threat to the Ukrainian armed forces, will henceforward be seen as a direct threat to the international community and a trigger for global outrage. But pulling the plug on the separatists would leave them vulnerable to Ukrainian forces, which can be expected to seize the opportunity to crush the revolt, handing a strategic defeat to Putin.

The early pointers suggest he is hesitating between the two options. While Russian media quickly accused Ukraine of shooting down the plane – even floating a theory that Kiev thought it was targeting Putin's own plane – neither the president nor his top officials have followed that line explicitly.

In the fullest exposition of the Russian position so far, the country's envoy to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, blamed the tragedy on the Ukrainian conflict in general, and Kiev and its western backers for stoking of the conflict. Churkin also questioned why Ukrainian air traffic controllers had allowed the Malaysian plane to fly over eastern Ukrainian airspace, but did not address direct responsibility for the shooting down itself. With a wealth of details emerging from the region building a compelling case against the separatists, the Kremlin has kept its powder dry. The foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, followed suit, telling Rossiya 24 TV channel: "The tragedy may sober up those who give up obligations over the political process." He also stopped short of assigning immediate blame. Putin himself called for a new peace initiative.

It is likely that this initial demurral is intended to buy time so the international response can be measured before Putin makes a strategic choice.

It is already clear from Friday's UN security council meeting that if the rebels are found to have carried out the outrage with a Russian weapon, Moscow will find itself more isolated than at any time in its recent history. Nobody around the council table spoke up in support of Churkin.

The concerted western response is to build the circumstantial case against the Russian-backed separatists while awaiting an international inquiry. If that investigation confirms the early suspicions, one western option would be to declare the rebel Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) a terrorist organisation, said Ben Judah, the author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin.

"Putin's greatest worry is that [the US] Congress will deem the DNR a terrorist organisation, responsible for the worst attack on a civilian airliner since 9/11, which would make Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.

"He will do anything possible to avoid that wrath, while not admitting anything," Judah said.

"Meanwhile, this is a huge failure for GRU [Russian military intelligence], the FSB [the secret police] and the special forces. What kind of people are not capable of distinguishing a Malaysian airliner in the sky? It would not be surprising if the people involved were drunk. So heads will likely roll in the security forces."

Stephen Sestanovich, a former US ambassador to Moscow now at Columbia University, said that Putin's past behaviour made it difficult to predict which path he would take.

"This is the problem with Putin mind-reading," he said, adding that Putin had alternated between prudent and reckless behaviour.

"Even before the shoot-down there were some signs of diminished Russian enthusiasm for the whole project. Russian public opinion is going off it and support for separatism inside Ukraine is less than originally thought. But Russia kept the supply of weapons going," Sestanovich said.

"You would think that this disastrous result would wake up Russian officials and make them see this was even more of a loser than they thought. But Putin doesn't like to be put in a corner. He's very humiliation-conscious,"he said, "and doesn't like to feel he's backed down."

Soviet Reunion (7 March 2014)

I started reading this opinion piece in The Guardian by Seumas Milne but when I got to the paragraph (in bold) about the 'disastrous' break-up of the former Soviet Union I rather lost interest, I have to say.

Because I could understand why someone like Seumas was a political apologist for the old Soviet Union - lots of people on the left were in those days and saw the world in ideological terms as a battle between unfettered Capitalism and state-controlled Socialism.

But the world has since moved on then and despite the recent problems of the global economic recession, no serious politician is now suggests that anything other than a market based system is the basis for organising a modern, productive economy.

Not even China or Russia disagree these days although their political and social systems leave much to be desired as far as civil rights and freedom of expression are concerned. 

So having been an apologist for the old Soviet Union what puzzles me is why Seumas should be such an admirer of Russia when it is such a repressive capitalist country operating under a harsh political system - where minority groups are harassed and punished on a regular basis? 

If anything, Russia is practising and even more brutal and exploitative version of capitalism under Valdimir Putin and the Russian oligarchs. 

And the fact of the matter is that the former satellite countries of the Soviet Union such as Poland, Latvia, Bulgaria and Slovakia (which borders Ukraine) have all become much more democratic and liberal since shaking off Soviet domination.

Whereas Russia, the member states of the Russian Fedearation and satellites countries like Belarus have all gone the other way - they have all become less democratic and more illiberal.

In the case of Iraq of course, prior to any military action being taken there were years of wrangling at the United Nations in an effort to knock some diplomatic sense into the vile Saddam regime.

Yet Seumas has nothing critical to say about the fact that President Putin has ordered boots on the ground in Ukraine at the drop of a hat under the pretext of fascist political activity - while the Dutch UN special envoy (Robert Serry) was chased our of Crimea after being threatened by armed men, so who's kidding who here?  

If you ask me Seumas Milne is really arguing for the political rebirth of this beloved Soviet Union - a kind of Soviet Reunion if you like, under the aegis of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation.   

The clash in Crimea is the fruit of western expansion

The external struggle to dominate Ukraine has put fascists in power and brought the country to the brink of conflict

By Seumas Milne

Troops under Russian command fire weapons into the air in Lubimovka, Ukraine. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Diplomatic pronouncements are renowned for hypocrisy and double standards. But western denunciations of Russian intervention in Crimea have reached new depths of self parody. The so far bloodless incursion is an "incredible act of aggression", US secretary of state John Kerry declared. In the 21st century you just don't invade countries on a "completely trumped-up pretext", he insisted, as US allies agreed that it had been an unacceptable breach of international law, for which there will be "costs".

That the states which launched the greatest act of unprovoked aggression in modern history on a trumped-up pretext – against Iraq, in an illegal war now estimated to have killed 500,000, along with the invasion of Afghanistan, bloody regime change in Libya, and the killing of thousands in drone attacks on Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, all without UN authorisation – should make such claims is beyond absurdity.

It's not just that western aggression and lawless killing is on another scale entirely from anything Russia appears to have contemplated, let alone carried out – removing any credible basis for the US and its allies to rail against Russian transgressions. But the western powers have also played a central role in creating the Ukraine crisis in the first place.

The US and European powers openly sponsored the protests to oust the corrupt but elected Viktor Yanukovych government, which were triggered by controversy over an all-or-nothing EU agreement which would have excluded economic association with Russia.

In her notorious "fuck the EU" phone call leaked last month, the US official Victoria Nuland can be heard laying down the shape of a post-Yanukovych government – much of which was then turned into reality when he was overthrown after the escalation of violence a couple of weeks later.

The president had by then lost political authority, but his overnight impeachment was certainly constitutionally dubious. In his place agovernment of oligarchs, neoliberal Orange Revolution retreads and neofascists has been installed, one of whose first acts was to try and remove the official status of Russian, spoken by a majority in parts of the south and east, as moves were made to ban the Communist party, which won 13% of the vote at the last election.

It has been claimed that the role of fascists in the demonstrations has been exaggerated by Russian propaganda to justify Vladimir Putin's manoeuvres in Crimea. The reality is alarming enough to need no exaggeration. Activists report that the far right made up around a third of the protesters, but they were decisive in armed confrontations with the police.

Fascist gangs now patrol the streets. But they are also in Kiev's corridors of power. The far right Svoboda party, whose leader has denounced the "criminal activities" of "organised Jewry" and which was condemned by the European parliament for its "racist and antisemitic views", has five ministerial posts in the new government, including deputy prime minister and prosecutor general. The leader of the even more extreme Right Sector, at the heart of the street violence, is now Ukraine's deputy national security chief.

Neo-Nazis in office is a first in post-war Europe. But this is the unelected government now backed by the US and EU. And in a contemptuous rebuff to the ordinary Ukrainians who protested against corruption and hoped for real change, the new administration has appointed two billionaire oligarchs – one who runs his business from Switzerland – to be the new governors of the eastern cities of Donetsk and Dnepropetrovsk. Meanwhile, the IMF is preparing an eye-watering austerity plan for the tanking Ukrainian economy which can only swell poverty and unemployment.

From a longer-term perspective, the crisis in Ukraine is a product of the disastrous Versailles-style break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. As in Yugoslavia, people who were content to be a national minority in an internal administrative unit of a multinational state – Russians in Soviet Ukraine, South Ossetians in Soviet Georgia – felt very differently when those units became states for which they felt little loyalty.

In the case of Crimea, which was only transferred to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s, that is clearly true for the Russian majority. And contrary to undertakings given at the time, the US and its allies have since relentlessly expanded Nato up to Russia's borders, incorporating nine former Warsaw Pact states and three former Soviet republics into what is effectively an anti-Russian military alliance in Europe. The European association agreement which provoked the Ukrainian crisis also included clauses to integrate Ukraine into the EU defence structure.

That western military expansion was first brought to a halt in 2008 when the US client state of Georgia attacked Russian forces in the contested territory of South Ossetia and was driven out. The short but bloody conflict signalled the end of George Bush's unipolar world in which the US empire would enforce its will without challenge on every continent.

Given that background, it is hardly surprising that Russia has acted to stop the more strategically sensitive and neuralgic Ukraine falling decisively into the western camp, especially given that Russia's only major warm-water naval base is in Crimea.

Clearly, Putin's justifications for intervention – "humanitarian" protection for Russians and an appeal by the deposed president – are legally and politically flaky, even if nothing like on the scale of "weapons of mass destruction". Nor does Putin's conservative nationalism or oligarchic regime have much wider international appeal.

But Russia's role as a limited counterweight to unilateral western power certainly does. And in a world where the US, Britain, France and their allies have turned international lawlessness with a moral veneer into a permanent routine, others are bound to try the same game.

Fortunately, the only shots fired by Russian forces at this point have been into the air. But the dangers of escalating foreign intervention are obvious. What is needed instead is a negotiated settlement for Ukraine, including a broad-based government in Kiev shorn of fascists; a federal constitution that guarantees regional autonomy; economic support that doesn't pauperise the majority; and a chance for people in Crimea to choose their own future. Anything else risks spreading the conflict.