Gorbachev: Ukraine could explode into 'hot war' between Russia and the West

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, said the West was 'dragging' Russia into confrontation. 

AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev spoke during a presentation of his new book "After Kremlin" in Moscow last month. Mr. Gorbachev criticized the West for the latest tensions with Russia, saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin was responding to Western moves.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader and widely credited for helping end the cold war, today blamed the West and the US in particular for “dragging” Russia into what he says could be a larger, “hot war” over Ukraine.

"Unfortunately I cannot say for sure that a cold war won't lead to a 'hot' one,” Mr. Gorbachev was quoted.  “I fear they could take the risk.”

In comments to Interfax news service, Mr. Gorbachev weighed in on the Ukraine crisis, which has taken more than 5,000 lives since the spring, saying an American thirst for “dominance” is behind the crisis.

"Where will that lead all of us?” he said. “A cold war is already being waged openly. What's next?"

In recent weeks, fighting has again sharply escalated along Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, in violation of a cease-fire inked last fall.

With billions in aid to cash-strapped Ukraine promised in recent days by the US and the European Union, and with more sanctions aimed at Moscow, whose forces and military support to rebels have been cycling back and forth across the border, Gorbachev lashed out especially against sanctions:

"All you hear is about sanctions towards Russia from America and the European Union. Have they totally lost their heads?"

For years, the West has considered former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a voice for understanding, dialogue, and restraint – even as he is widely pilloried in Russia for his role in helping dismantle the Soviet communist empire under his policies of glasnost and perestroika.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Mr. Gorbachev's strategies of greater openness and economic restructuring were the worst thing to ever happen to the former empire, and Gorbachev has in turn called Mr. Putin’s Russia a “fake democracy.”

Last fall, Gorbachev said the Ukraine crisis was dangerously teetering toward war and called on the West and Russia to “defrost” it through specific dialogue and meetings. At the time he blamed “both sides” in the crisis in articles on his Gorbachev Foundation website

 ... both sides of the Ukrainian conflict have been violating the terms of the ceasefire; both sides are guilty of using dangerous types of weapons and violating human rights ...

Yet in recent months, the former Soviet leader has changed some of his internationalist stripes, and he has made nods toward the approval of Putin's policies in claiming territory in Russia's so-called near abroad. Gorbachev is on record saying that Russia’s de facto annex of the Crimean Peninsula is legitimate, and corrects a historical mistake – a position of changed borders not accepted by much of the world community.

Meanwhile, this week in Ukraine itself, Russian troops and materiel have continued to filter in to aid rebels fighting Kiev’s forces. Satellite imagery, the NATO Secretary-General, and a variety of international and Ukrainian NGOs and journalists have fingered Moscow for backing the rebels across the border. [This post earlier referred to Doctors without Borders in this group. Doctors, or MSF, only confirmed shelling over the weekend, not backing.} .

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko last week told a group at Davos, Switzerland, that 9,000 Russian troops were operating in Ukraine, and this week the Ukrainian parliament voted to designate the two principal rebel forces in Donestk and Luhansk as “terrorist” organizations.

On Tuesday, all 28 EU leaders – in unusual unanimity – issued a joint statement about security and humanitarian conditions in eastern Ukraine. They criticized rebels' “indiscriminate shelling" of the coastal city of Mariupol that killed 30 people. That action followed rebel gains in Donetsk last week, after Ukrainian forces gave up part of an airport they had held since the fall.

The US and EU also this week pledged some $4 billion in aid and loans to the Ukrainian government in Kiev.

The Economist this week argues that the Ukraine crisis has slowly morphed into a war that is more serious than generally realized. It also rejected the much-discussed idea that Mr. Putin is looking for ways to back away from the conflict.

The fighting is picking up momentum along the entire front. On January 24th a barrage of rockets struck civilian neighbourhoods on the eastern edge of Mariupol, a strategic Ukrainian port city, killing 30 and wounding scores. One senior Ukrainian official described it as “genocide”. Alexander Zakharchenko, the Donetsk rebel leader, told an emotional crowd that the attack on Mariupol was “the best possible monument to all our dead”. Russia blamed Kiev for the deaths; hours after his first statement, a chastened Mr Zakharchenko walked back his bluster on Russian television. But analysis of the impact craters by experts from Human Rights Watch and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe suggests the rockets were fired from rebel-held areas.

The shelling of Mariupol puts added pressure on the West to respond to the rebel push, one that NATO now says is backed by Russian troops. Many in the West hoped that sanctions, falling oil prices, and international isolation would coax Vladimir Putin into a compromise. Instead, further violence in Ukraine has become a “means of blackmail” for Mr. Putin, argues Lilia Shevtsova of the Brookings Institution. 

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