Ukraine: This is between Brussels & Moscow

Ukraine 1By:Stephen Chartrand- Specialty News Editor

While a resurgent and assertive Russia have no origins other than in the post-Soviet Russian conscience, the origins of the crisis in Ukraine and the Crimea lie beyond Moscow. On May 26th, 2008, at the EU’s General Affairs and External Relations Council in Brussels, the foreign ministers of Poland and Sweden (Radek Sikorski and Carl Bildt respectively) proposed an eastward extension of the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy. Called the “Eastern Partnership,” the initiative would seek economic and political association agreements with the post-Soviet states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and most importantly Ukraine. Inaugurated at an EU summit in Prague on May 7th, 2009, the initiative declared the region strategically important to EU interests. The policy awould also seek to promote in the former CIS states democratic values, the rule of law, and “the principles of market economy, sustainable development and good governance.”

As far as Moscow was concerned, Brussels’ Eastern Partnership policy was a deliberate provokatsiya (provocation). Conceived as an instrument of the EU’s enlargement agenda, The Neighborhood Policy materialized in 2004 to promote political and economic integration with countries in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe.If there was a sense of provocation felt in Moscow, Putin’s April 25, 2005 Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation is evidence that Brussels intentions were not without notice.

Foreign policy analysts such as Charles Krauthammer have seen the speech as a definitive statement of Russia’s resurgent desire for a return to empire; at least in a regional European sense. While Mr. Putin did say in the address that the “collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century,” the greater bulk of the latent details havn’t been treated very seriously. “Russia,” Mr. Putin declared, “was, is and will, of course, be a major European power.” The tone of imperialism or Cold War rhetoric is simply non-existent. The address was a statement on Moscow’s regional and geopolitical foreign policy towards Brussels.

That certain “constituent members of the Federation have recently begun to display a desire to unite,” he said, especially strategically vital regions in the “Far East, [the] Kaliningrad Region and other border areas,” Mr. Putin insisted that Moscow’s “objectives on the international stage are very clear – to ensure the security of our borders and [to] create favorable external conditions for the resolution of our domestic problems.” One can see the language of military, political, and economic intervention unraveling and cementing itself in the mind of the Russian oligarch. However, it receives its final and perhaps certain justification in this statement: “We consider international support for the respect of the rights of Russians abroad an issue of major importance, one that cannot be the judge of political and diplomatic bargaining.”

As we watch the torrential outpouring of op-ed articles and television pundits speculating the revival of Cold War animosities and Russian imperialism, one cannot help but feel the impulse to dismiss their commentaries wholesale. This is between Brussels and Moscow. The British journalist and neoconservative writer Douglas Murray remarked once that “you can tell quite a lot about a government by two things: what they say and what they do.” We should keep this in mind as the bullets, petrol bombs and barricades descend on Khreshchatyk and Instytutska streets in Kiev’s Independence Square and elsewhere throughout Ukraine.

When it did appear as though Ukraine and Brussels were set to agree on closer economic and political ties, this crisis began. On November 21, 2013, Ukraine abruptly abandoned all talks of trade and integration with the European Union. After a meeting in Moscow with Mr. Putin, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych shelved the preparations Kiev and Brussels were making ahead of a summit a week hence in Vilnius, Lithuania in which a deal on political association and trade integration would be signed. After years of bilateral talks with Brussels, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, announced the EU summit was being suspended in the “national interest” and would be “renewing [its] dialogue” with Moscow.

The association agreement was subject to stringent constitutional reforms, however, and six pieces of legislation that would see Ukraine’s former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, released from prison. She leads the pro-EU Batkivshchyna Party. Mr. Yanukovych had Tymoshenko jailed in 2010 on charges of corruption soon after winning the 2010 presidential elections. All six motions were rejected in the Rada. Whether it was purely Moscow’s meddling or the inability of Mr. Yanukovych to allow a political rival like Tymoshenko free, “[the] Politics of brutal pressure evidently works,” said Poland’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, a key architect of the EU’s Eastern Partnership project. Other commentary that day reflected the sentiments. Oleksiy Kaida of Ukraine’s far-right nationalist Svoboda party said, “A state treason occurred today” while Vadym Karasiov, head of the Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev, said “Those in power showed that they are not willing to quarrel with Russia”

Moscow’s veto of the association agreement and subsequent humiliation of Brussels led instantly to mass demonstrations on the streets of Kiev. The possibility of constitutional reforms and a free trade deal with Brussels were desired by a majority of Ukrainians. The country of some forty-five million people has struggled immensely since independence to resolve its internal problems. Rule by oligarchy, a fragile economy, and weak political institutions have stagnated efforts to implement tangible long-lasting reforms. While the 2004 Orange Revolution offered a glimmering hope of post-Soviet renewal, the revolution was for not as political complacency and oligarchic infighting ensured and sustained the status quo. As Robert McMahon of the Council of Foreign Relations rightly observed, what the revolution released was “the divide between European-oriented western and central Ukraine and Russian-oriented southern and eastern Ukraine.”

By late November, hundreds of thousands of Euromaidan demonstrators swelled the freezing streets of central Kiev at Independence Square. As protestors met riot police with demands of political reforms and a return to negotiations with Brussels, President Yanukovych was meeting with Mr. Putin in Sochi on Dec. 6 arranging a new “strategic partnership.” Opposition leaders Vitali Klitschko of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, Arseniy Yatsenyuk (now acting Prime Minister), a faction leader of Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna Party, and Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the far-right Svoboda nationalist party, formulated on November 29, 2013, three demands for Mr. Yanukovych which they announced on Dec. 1, the 22 anniversary of Ukraine’s independence referendum. The opposition leaders demanded that “a coordinating committee to communicate with the European community” be formed, the resignation of President Yanukovych and “the cessation of political repressions against Euromaidan activists, students, civic activists and opposition leaders.”

On Dec. 17, Moscow announced after a litany of threats to Ukraine’s economy, that it would purchase $15 billion of the country’s debt and reduce natural gas prices. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, now exiled in Russia, said at a cabinet meeting that the arrangement with Moscow would ensure the “people’s confidence in a stable life” and said of the EU’s Eastern Partnership agreement that it would sink Ukraine into bankruptcy and social collapse. Mr. Azarov resigned on Jan. 27, 2014 after annulling the state’s anti-protest law it enacted on Jan. 21.

After three months of demonstrations against the government’s anti-protest law, state corruption, police brutality, calls for Yanukovych’s resignation, and demands that the Rada return to negotiations with Brussels, the Yanukovych government ordered a violent crackdown on the 18th of February. Dozens were killed by sniper fire and scores more injured. One protestor, Yuriy Verbytsky, was left for dead in the freezing cold after being brutally beaten and tortured by police. Vyacheslav Veremyi, a journalist of the local Vremya pro-government newspaper reporting at Independence Square was deliberately targeted by police and murdered. Soon after Verbytsky’s murder on Jan. 22, thousands of demonstrators stormed and barricaded regional government buildings throughout several Western Ukrainian oblasts (provinces).

Over the 18th and 20th of February, the exchange of live ammunition, petrol bombs, steel pipes and makeshift shields between riot police and demonstrators, left the people on Mariinsky Park, Hrushevskoho Street, and the Maiden recalling episodes of violence not seen since the Second World War. In an attempt to simmer the crisis amidst fears of civil war, French, Polish, and German foreign ministers flew in Feb. 21 to broker a deal. President Yanukovych would agree with opposition leaders to form a unity government, the setting of new elections for May 25, constitutional reforms, and the release of Tymoshenko from prison. Mr. Yanukovych, however, refused to sign the arrangement and the deal floundered.

The day after the failed talks, Yanukovych was removed from power and Olexander Turchynov was named acting president. An arrest warrant was issued for Mr. Yanukovych for mass murder and the Berkut police unit accused of shooting at Euromaidan protestors was disbanded. On Feb. 22, the same day Yanukovych fled to Kharkiv in the north-east of Ukraine and removed from power, the Rada released Yulia Tymoshenko from prison. Only hours after her release Tymoshenko hurried to Independence Square and addressed the demonstrators: “Today, Ukraine has finished with this terrible dictator, Mr. Yanukovych,” Tymoshenko said to a cheering crowd. “You were able to change Ukraine, and you can do everything,” she said. “Everyone has a right to take part in building a European, independent state.”

Ukraine 2The unstable, volatile revolution unfolding in the streets of Kiev provided Moscow its pretext for military intervention in the Crimea as demonstrations took place in Simferopol and Sevastopol as well. On Feb. 27, armed pro-Russian gunmen seized strategic buildings throughout Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. Uniformed and wearing no insignia, the gunmen surrounded military barracks, government buildings, and key airports throughout the region, including Belbek airbase. On Feb. 28, Viktor Yanukovych spoke with reporters for the first time since fleeing Ukraine for Moscow. At a press conference in Rostov-on-Don in southwestern Russia, Mr. Yanukovych stated that Ukraine had been overtaken by “nationalists” and “fascists” and insisted he was still the legitimate president of Ukraine.

Putin’s request to use military force was given unanimous approval by the upper house of Russia’s parliament, March 1st, on the grounds that troops be provided “until the sociopolitical situation is normalized.” Senator Nikolai Ryzhkov said “We are obliged to defend Crimea [and] we are obliged to defend the people there.” The day after Russia approved military intervention into Ukraine, acting President Olexander Turchynov claimed that Russia had declared war upon and ordered the country’s armed forces on full alert. In a 90-minute telephone conservation President Obama held with Mr. Putin, Mr. Obama said Russia’s actions were a “clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is a breach of international law.” According to the Kremlin statement, Putin responded saying the Western-backed interim government was jeopardizing “the lives and health of Russian citizens [and] in the case of any further spread of violence to eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of those areas.”

Mr. Putin spoke with media on March 4th saying that Russia’s military intervention into the Crimea was an act of self-defence. At the news conference, Putin told reporters “The definition of what has happened in Kiev and in Ukraine as a whole, the definition could be only one: it is an unconstitutional coup and a military seizure of power.” Mr. Putin further stated that “there is only one legitimate president … I’ve already said this and I want to repeat, that the legitimate president in purely legal terms is of course Yanukovych.” Further talks between Russia and the West were held on March 5th in Paris but of course went nowhere. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would not meet with Ukraine’s acting Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia to discuss diplomatic solutions to the crisis in Crimea.

On March 6, the Crimean Parliament and Sevastopol’s city council voted in favour of returning Crimea to Russia. However, the decision will only take effect if approved by the largely Russian-speaking majority in a referendum to be held on March 16. The decision to “become part of the Russian Federation as its constituent territory” was welcome news to several thousand people outside the Crimean Parliament cheering “Russia!” The Parliament also put forward a motion to request from the Kremlin to “launch the procedure of Crimea becoming part of Russia.”

Vladimir Konstantinov, speaker of the Crimean Parliament, said of the March 16 referendum that “We are trying to address the sentiments currently shared by the population. Those are uncertainty and fear. We must give them confidence and offer a clear political way out of the crisis,” he said. Ukraine’s Minister of Economic Development and Trade, Pavlo Sheremeta, said the “referendum is unconstitutional” while a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s acting President Oleksander Tuchinov said of the Crimean Parliament’s MPs who drafted the motion are being “forced to work facing the barrel of a gun and all their decisions are dictated by fear and are illegal,” she said.

The question of whether or not Crimea will cede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation is by now self-evident. While Crimea is still legally part of Ukraine even as Russian troops continue to pour into the peninsula, it’s of no consequence; regardless of the fact that Russia acknowledged Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the Feb. 5, 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. The first clause of the treaty states that “The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine … to respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

On March 16, residents of Crimea will be asked two questions: “Are you in favour of re-uniting Crimea with Russia as a constituent part of the Russian Federation?” or “Are you in favour of restoring the Constitution of the (autonomous) Republic of Crimea of 1992 and retaining the status of Crimea as part of Ukraine?” The second question is irrelevant. As are America’s threats of sanctions. Crimea will cede. The vitally important question now is what will Brussels and America do when it does and how will it handle the reverberations in Ukraine.

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