As the superpower rhetoric of the 1980s returns, Michael McGowan wants to promote dialogue between east and west
The crisis in Ukraine raises issues for security on both a European and global scale, and requires a real recognition of political developments in Europe since the Second World War.
But maybe more importantly there is a need to respond to the young people of Ukraine and Russia who want closer cultural and educational links with Europe, and who must not be sacrificed or neglected because of the behaviour of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Despite the official ending of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, the “iron curtain” mentality of both Russia and the west regrettably lingers on and the people of Europe have been denied the ‘peace dividend’ they deserve.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was hailed by the west as a victory for freedom and the United States rejoiced as its formidable enemy was brought to its knees. But President Putin has referred to the fall of the Soviet Union as the worst political catastrophe of the 20th century.
While Putin’s macho antiques may appear pathetic to most, it is clear his agenda is to return Russia to the superpower status and influence of the former Soviet Union, and he has obvious territorial ambitions.
The Soviet Union and the United States were allies in the Second World War and it was in Yalta, in the Crimea, that Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt agreed a peace settlement. But co-operation between the Soviet Union and the west was short-lived, and a nuclear arms race between and the United States and the Soviet Union quickly began to threaten world peace.
My first visit to Ukraine was more than 50 years ago when I was based in Yalta, when Nikita Khrushchev was in the last year of his 11 years in office. Ukraine was then part of the Soviet Union and it was Khrushchev, as head of the Soviet Union, who gave the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine in 1954.
Yalta is situated in the ‘Riviera’ of Crimea that stretches along the southeast coast and is studded with summer resorts and dachas. It was a favourite venue for the elite of the former Soviet Union, and is a popular holiday destination for Russians today.
Crimea was also once the seat of a powerful Tatar state and was conquered by the Russians in the 18th century. In 1944 Stalin drove the Tatar population out of Crimea to the far north, claiming their collaboration with the Nazis, and after the end of the Soviet Union many returned to Crimea.
Shared desperation for jobs and education
I’ve seen many changes in Ukraine and Russia since then. I was in Crimea in 2008 with former MEPs including Jose Maria Gil-Robles, the former Spanish President of the European Parliament, and visited Sevastopol, the base of the Russia Black Sea fleet.
As an election observer in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution a few years before, I joined a packed crowd of young people in the snow in sub-zero temperatures in Kiev’s Independence Square at Christmas 2004, where I listened to a rousing speech by Yulia Tymoshenko before heading off to observe elections in Odessa.
Two years ago, on my most recent visit east, I attended meetings in Moscow and Perm, the former Soviet arms manufacturing centre, when I met young people desperate to make contact with their counterparts in the EU – both sides sharing a desperation for jobs and better education and training.
When I reflect on this, it only emphasises to me how important it is that the EU pushes ahead with its offer of a trade agreement with Ukraine. Ireland, too, has a historic opportunity to help bridge the divide and lack of trust between Russia and the west as a member of the EU but not a member of the Nato military alliance.
Both Russia and the west need to abandon their Cold War rhetoric, concentrate on dialogue and diplomacy, and use every means of promoting links and exchange between young people in Russia and Ukraine and Europe.
Michael McGowan is a former MEP and President of the Development Committee of the European Parliament.