08 May 2014

The Explainer: Ukraine - Recent Developments

n the first part of The Explainer on the Ukraine crisis, I related the story of the Orange Revolution of 2004. As it is, the key political players in the Orange Revolution, namely Viktor Yanukovych and Russia, turned out to be the central players in the crisis that has gripped Ukraine.

The protests broke out in November last year following Mr Yanukovych’s unwillingness to sign a trade deal with the European Union and instead accept financial help from Russia. The protests remained largely peaceful until January, when some anti–government activists were killed. But the violence escalated after the president’s forces attacked following a broken truce, leaving dozens dead.

In this article, I will take through the recent developments in Ukraine and Russia. We will also look at the varied interests of all the parties involved – Ukraine, Russia, the European Union and the United States.

Ethnic makeup shapes political destiny

                                                         Source: bbcnews.com
Ukraine is a former Soviet republic. In a population of about 44 million, native Ukrainians comprise about 82% while the Russian–speaking make up 17% of the population. 

A cursory glance at the ethnic map will reflect the deep unease that characterizes the relationship between various ethnic groups, especially the native Ukrainians, living in the west, and the Russian–speaking groups, living in the east. While the country is predominantly Christian, the west is largely Catholic; the east is Russian Orthodox.

These ethnic faultlines also permeate the political system. After Ukraine gained independence in 1991 (the year the USSR disintegrated), the country’s political leadership did little to bridge the ethnic and political chasm that deeply divided the Ukrainian society. Instead, political leaders only sought to impose their will on unwilling ethnic groups. As the political pendulum swayed between rival political groups, it only added to the fears of all involved about the loss of power and privilege.

This, in effect, can be seen as the central idea behind the deep polarisation between Ukraine’s western and southern Ukrainian areas and its northern and eastern Russian–speaking parts.  In fact, we can apply this unpalatable truth to the deep political rivalry between Viktor Yanu­kovych and his main political opponent, Yulia Tymo­shenko. They represent the two major groups of Ukraine and hence, they do not see eye to eye. 

How it all started

In November last year, the government of President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of an agreement that would have strengthen trade and political ties with the European Union and also brought much–needed investment and aid to revive the country’s tottering economy.  Mr Yanukovych, who was backed by Russia in the Orange Revolution said he would take the help of Moscow in rebuilding the Ukrainian economy.

Many in Ukraine, especially the Ukrainian speaking groups, were not happy, and took to the streets. They demanded that the government abandon its policy of appeasing Russia and called for moving toward the European Union.

Several weeks of protests did not budge the government from pursuing its pro–Russia policy. In the third week of February, Mr Yanukovych escaped to Russia after security forces killed over 80 agitators in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. Events moved fast: the country’s parliament, including members of Mr Yanukovych's own party, voted to replace him with interim president, Oleksandr Turchinov, and issued a warrant for the arrest of deposed president, holding him responsible for the deaths of scores of protestors.

Why is Crimea important?

Crimea is a region of southern Ukraine located on a peninsula of the Black Sea. Crimea became part of Ukraine only in 1954 when Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev, an Ukrainian by birth, took away the province from Russia (another Soviet republic) and merged it with Ukraine. More than 60 per cent of the province’s population is Russian and see themselves as Russian and not Ukrainian.

Politically, Crimea is autonomous and can run its own affairs through a local parliament, it was not given the right to secede from Ukraine.

For Russia, Crimea is important not just because of the Russian demographic factor; the Crimean port town of Sevastopol is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Soon after independence, Russia extracted a long–term lease agreement from Kiev for the military use of the province. Even after the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, the two new countries reached an agreement to permit the Russian Black Sea fleet to remain based at the Crimean port of Sevastopol.

In 2010, Mr Yanukovich and then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev signed an agreement in 2010 that extended Russia's lease of Sevastopol until 2042 in exchange for a 30 per cent drop in the price of natural gas sold to Ukraine.

Has Crimea seceded from Ukraine?

After Mr Yanukovych fled to Russia, massive public rallies called for secession from Ukraine and merger with Russia. Armed men, believed to be from the Russian military, took control of all (Ukrainian) government facilities, including military facilities, while elected political leaders were replaced with pro–Russia politicians.

The Russia–backed Crimean politicians held a referendum to secede from Ukraine and a merger with Russia, a move openly backed by Moscow. On March 16, Crimea's election committee said that a staggering 97% of voters backed a union between Crimea and Russia.

Russia’s parliament approved and ratified a treaty to make Crimea a part of the Russia. In effect, Russia now considers Crimea a part of the Russian Federation.

International reaction

The United States, the European Union and Ukraine declared that the Crimean referendum was a violation of international law. The United States says that Crimean referendum throws into disarray the European map that was settled following decades of conflict during the Cold War in which the Soviet Union terrorized Eastern Europe. When it dissolved in 1991, countries such as Poland and East Germany and the republics of Ukraine, Latvia and others were finally freed and became peaceful democracies. The U.S. says Russian president Vladimir Putin’s move reverses that trend, and the fear is that he may do it with other nations, risking war.

In the aftermath of the Crimean secession from Ukraine, the United States and the European Union imposed an array of political and financial sanctions against Russia. Russia, retaliating in kind, imposed its set of sanctions against the U.S. and the EU. We will not get into a discussion on what these sanctions are about and how they may impact all involved.

Why is Russia interested in Ukraine?

“The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan–Rus,” wrote former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger in a Washington Post op–ed. Kievan–Rus was the first eastern Slavic state, with the capital at Kiev. Ukraine was part of Russia for centuries, and the two continued to be closely aligned through the Soviet period, when Ukraine and Russia were separate republics. 

Ukraine is also an economic partner that Russia would like to incorporate into its proposed Eurasian Union, a customs union due to be formed in January 2015 whose likely members include Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia (all former Soviet republics controlled by pro–Moscow dictators). If Ukraine becomes a member of the Eurasian Union, then the overall population of the trade bloc will rise by about 25 per cent; greater population will mean greater market.

Also, Ukraine plays a significant role in Russia’s energy trade. Ukraine is a big importer of Russian gas. Ukraine has a vast network of energy pipelines; in fact, its pipelines provide transit to more than 70 percent of the natural gas Russia exports to European markets.

What are the other Russian concerns?

Russia sees Ukraine as a buffer state. Moscow believes that if Kiev gets closer to the European Union, then it will bring its own attendant set of problems; for example, Russia fears that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), established in 1949 as an anti–USSR military organisation, will come to its door step. Russia believes its fears are not unfounded; it believes that the EU’s Eastern Partnership Programme, established in 2009, is aimed at forging tighter bonds with six former Eastern bloc countries.  

An expanding European Union will curb Russian strategic influence in Moscow’s neighbourhood, which could curtail Mr Putin’s plans of a Russian resurgence. The Russian strongman believes that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century and has said that Russia should aspire to be the strongest military power and restore the Soviet Union. Some analysts believe that Crimea and eastern Ukraine maybe the first steps in Mr Putin's grandiose vision of establishing a Soviet Union-like superstate.

Geneva Statement

After weeks of wrangling and raising fists, diplomats from Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. and the EU, meeting in the Swiss town of Geneva, arrived at an agreement to end the crisis in Ukraine. The following are the highlights of the Geneva Statement
  • All sides must refrain from any violence and reject all expressions of extremism, including anti–Semitism [anti–Jew policy]. 
  • All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated. 
  • Amnesty will be granted to protesters and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrendered weapons, with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes. 
  • The announced constitutional process will be inclusive, transparent and accountable. It will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies.

In the end

The crisis in still unfolding in Ukraine. Pro–Russian protests have spread to the entire Russian–speaking eastern parts of Ukraine (like Donetsk). Russia is piling pressure on Ukraine by sending armed militiamen (regular Russian defence forces posing as freelancers) who have occupied Ukrainian government buildings and who now effectively control the entire area. There are rising fears that Russia will annex these provinces; the government in Kiev is nervous and wary of Russian designs.

Henry Kissinger says that any measures to solve the crisis in Ukraine can only be “principles, not prescriptions. People familiar with the region will know that not all of them will be palatable to all parties. The test is not absolute satisfaction but balanced dissatisfaction. If some solution based on these or a comparable element is not achieved, the drift toward confrontation will accelerate. The time for that will come soon enough.” 

I think that while balanced dissatisfaction is better than absolute dissatisfaction, an uneasy peace is still better than war.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks once again sir. This helps a lot.