If the Scots vote for independence from the United Kingdom on Sept. 18, that could have interesting implications for the way we think about the separatists in Eastern Ukraine and the complex historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine.
Republican writing supporting the Yes vote in the Scottish Referendum. Photo: AP / Peter Morrison
Europe could have a new state by the end of the year. Separatists in one corner of Europe appear to be gaining the upper hand in their bid for independence as they tap into complex feelings and emotions that have formed over centuries.
If this separatist movement spirals out of control, some fear it could roil the oil markets and raise concerns about nuclear weapons getting into the wrong hands. And that could have enormous implications for NATO, the EU and the way we think about the right to national self-determination across Europe.
No, it’s not Novorossiya we’re talking about here – it’s Scotland, which is voting on whether or not to declare independence from the United Kingdom on Sept. 18.
The notion of Scotland declaring its independence from the United Kingdom – a surreal dream only two years ago – is now a very real possibility. According to the latest polls, 51 percent of Scots (including Sir Sean Connery) now favor separation from the United Kingdom. This remarkable turn of events in Scotland – a surge of public support for independence that caught the U.S. napping – could help us understand the crisis in Ukraine in three important ways.
First and most importantly, the situation in Scotland could help us understand why Russia feels the loss of its empire so acutely and why Russia values Ukraine so much. Replace “Scotland” with “Ukraine” and “Great Britain” with “Russia” in any op-ed about the Scottish independence vote and you have a surprisingly spot-on description of what people in Russia feel about Ukraine.
It’s easy to see why many Brits aren’t so pleased about Scotland’s potential rejection of the United Kingdom. Adam Taylor of The Washington Post recently detailed all the ways that losing Scotland could turn out to be exceptionally painful for the Brits.
For one, you’d have to change the term “Great Britain” to something like “Little Britain.” That hurts. Then, you’d have to create a new flag. In doing so, you’d have to rethink what it means to be British in areas ranging from sports to culture to politics. And you’d have to worry that other constituents of the United Kingdom – like tiny NATO-friendly Wales – might also launch independence movements of their own.
Secondly, the emerging situation in Scotland could help Russia-watchers to understand that there’s a huge difference between calling people “separatists” and “terrorists.” Would anybody call people voting for Scottish independence “terrorists”? What happened after the Kiev Maidan was a spiral of violence that’s only possible when inherent needs for national self-determination are not being met. All of a sudden a word like “separatists” mutated into “rebels” and “terrorists” in Kiev’s proclamations.
This is not to suggest that the same chain of events could happen in Scotland if a vote for independence is somehow subverted after Sept. 18 – only that something supposedly simple – like voting for an Association Agreement – carries very weighty consequences. For example, some people have already speculated that British Prime Minister David Cameron could be forced out of office if the Scots vote for independence. Who could have seen that coming?
By voting for independence from the United Kingdom, Scotland’s separatists are not rejecting capitalism and they are not rejecting London – they just feel that they can do a better job of governing their own affairs. It’s all about national identity and cultural pride and regional autonomy.
The same factors – to a much greater and more volatile degree, of course – are at work in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Yet, we focus on the “little green men” and conspiracy plots hatched in Moscow instead of the hundreds of thousands of displaced Ukrainians who are voting with their feet and moving to Russia.
Finally, Scotland’s separatists can help us understand the way forward in Ukraine if the ceasefire holds. What would a “federalism” solution actually look like – and would it be sustainable? There’s a lot for Scotland to work out if it actually does declare independence, everything from how government institutions will work to practical everyday matters like what a Scottish national currency would look like.
And, as Vox pointed out in its Scotland explainer, “Those are just the technical questions – the new government would also need to develop a tax structure, fund its social-welfare platform, and make decisions about immigration and a host of other policy questions.”
If all this works out as the separatists plan, Scotland could provide a Western-approved template for Ukraine. It could help to determine the immediate consequences of granting greater autonomy to regions such as Donetsk and Luhansk. It could provide guidance for bigger, more macro issues – everything from whether or not Ukraine would join NATO and what the border between Russia and Ukraine would look like.
All of this is really just a thought experiment – like talking about Washington’s debt problems in the same terms as if the U.S. were a banana republic.
The backers of the Scottish separatist movement claim that this is a once-in-a-generation vote, and that if the vote fails – they will abandon it once and forever. The ads for the “Yes” and “No” campaigns for independence show prosperous families and housewives, not masked separatists or tent encampments. In short, there is no risk of armed conflict. There is no concern about London playing a sinister role in Glasgow to squelch independence.
But this thought experiment is nonetheless interesting for showing us what we’re not thinking about when we think about Ukraine. We’ve been so conditioned to thinking about Ukraine through a Cold War filter that we’re using the same heuristics as 25 years ago to understand what’s going on now in Ukraine.
We see only two rival blocs – NATO vs. Russia – engaged in a winner-take-all confrontation; the reappearance of a new Iron Curtain between Russia and the West; a return of realpolitik in geopolitics; and a clash of civilizations between Russia and Europe.
We instinctively see any vote for independence in Ukraine as a vote between two very different systems (capitalism vs. communism, democracy vs. authoritarianism).
Maybe, just maybe, the Scottish separatist vote will change our views and force us to abandon the old Cold War thinking. Just as the U.S. was caught napping on Scotland, it was caught napping on Ukraine. From here on out, the new thinking about the parameters of Euro-Atlantic security will have to take into account emerging separatist movements – not just within the former Soviet Union but also within the former United Kingdom.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."