In the past month since I last wrote about the situation in Ukraine tensions have risen dramatically on both the international stage between Russia and the West as well as internally within the different provinces in Ukraine between pro-Russian and pro-EU supporters.
In November Ukraine saw itself fall into a state of civil unrest and political crisis. The situation has not yet resolved itself despite a new interim prime minister being sworn in to Ukraine’s parliament after the ousting of Ukraine’s democratically elected (and also allegedly corrupt) President Yanukovych in what was essentially a coup d’état.
The question of Crimea…
On Monday 17 March President Putin formally recognised Crimea, an autonomous region in southern Ukraine, as an independent state. This consequently makes it easier to incorporate Crimea into the Russian Federation than if it was still Ukrainian territory. Pro-Russian forces have now taken over at least two military bases in Crimea and the Ukrainian Government is now withdrawing its troops from the peninsula to the mainland. Putin’s move to annexe Crimea is being seen as the biggest crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
Crimea has been fought over, and changed hands, many times over the centuries. It is now however a centre of pro-Russian sentiment: The majority of the 2.3 million people living on the peninsula identify themselves as ethnic Russians and speak Russian. In the 2001 census ethnic Ukrainians made up 24% of the population in Crimea compared with 58% Russians and 12% Tatars.
The pro-Russia government in Crimea held a referendum on 16 March for the people of the region to vote on whether they would like to re-unite Crimea with Russia as a constituent part of the Russian Federation or whether they would like to retain the status of Crimea as part of Ukraine. The overwhelming majority (95.5%) of those people in the Crimea who participated in the referendum voted to re-unite with Russia. It is not (yet) clear however what percentage of the eligible voting population abstained from participating.
Within 48 hours Putin had announced the annexation of Crimea much to the displeasure of the West: US Secretary of State John Kerry called it “an incredible act of aggression… on a trumped-up pretext”, whilst David Cameron agreed with Barack Obama that the situation is “completely unacceptable”. Meanwhile German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said Russia will face escalating EU sanctions if it does not take steps to ease the crisis over Crimea denouncing Russia’s actions in Crimea as a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and a breach of international law. Nick Clegg also voiced his displeasure, saying he wants to “make it very clear to Putin that there will be very real consequences”. I hear a glass house shattering.
Journalists and scholars, as well as Russians have taken no time to point out the hypocrisy of western super powers gloating in their apparent self-righteousness: since when did the west have any qualms about invading smaller countries on a “trump-ed up pretext”? Surely Obama and Cameron cannot fail to grasp the double-standards and political bias of their lecturing Russia after their numerous tirades around the world: what of Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya.
The occupation of Crimea is nothing in comparison to the killing fields in Helmand and Baghdad. The western stance on when intervention is and isn’t legitimate is highly selective it would seem, as Putin said in a recent speech, the West “call something white today and black tomorrow”; there have been several occasions when Washington, London and Brussels have turned a blind-eye and shown restraint, such as when Saudi Arabia militarily intervened in Bahrain in 2011 to put down peaceful protests.
Case to be made on both sides…
The Ukraine crisis is unusual in that there is a “case to be made” on both sides. Ousted pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych was a legitimately elected leader however he was also reportedly very corrupt. Pro-Russian Ukrainians blame the current unstable and often violent situation in Ukraine on fascist extremists who helped orchestrate the putsch and claim that the new government is illegitimate. Furthermore Russia expressed at one point readiness to engage in negotiations with Ukraine and the European Union with the hope that both Moscow and Brussels could play a positive role in Ukraine’s economic recovery, but the EU was unwilling to accept such a proposal.
Pro-EU opposition did not do much to help their cause during the run-up to the ousting of Yanukovich; Ukraine’s opposition leaders relied on allies in the radical camp such as fascist groups who all cite ethnic hatred against Jews and Russians and promote neo-Nazi ideals. Without these ‘allies’ the anti-Yanukovych demonstrators may not have succeeded in bringing about this coup d’état; however it has made the situation more tense as growing discontent is quickly spreading into different regions of Ukraine.
Ukraine is full of divided loyalties and the west’s involvement has not done anything to abate the situation. The result of the illegitimate putsch in Kiev means the west has now empowered radical fascist forces on the false notion that these groups will move aside peacefully to allow moderates to rule Ukraine when the time comes.
The situation in Ukraine is a tense and dynamic one. The situation is far from resolved and it will be interesting to see what Putin’s next move is and whether the West will implement hard-line sanctions in the face of growing international tensions, or, will the economic realities of supplying gas to much of Europe overwhelm the moral judgements of politicians with tough decisions being delayed to another day.
Picture credits: vasily fedosenko; RSS/Wires; Barcroft Media