Article: Ukranian Crisis(May 13, 2014)
Article published in EP Today on 13th May 2014
No one more than the former Soviet States can understand what is currently at stake in the developing crisis in Ukraine and Crimea. For the last decade Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, following the example of other former Soviet states like Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have slowly been adjusting their trajectory towards an EU Association Agreement followed by possible membership of the European Union at some time in the future. The current Russian military posturing in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine represents a worrying throwback to the past, as Russia vies to maintain its influence over its former states. These countries face the ongoing prospect of being part of a continued tug of war for influence between the European Union and Russia, with the lingering question being how far either side are willing to go to maintain their influence.
To begin to answer this question, we must first establish how the situation in Ukraine and Crimea has come about. This is only possible by putting ourselves in the shoes of President Vladimir Putin, by evaluating the motivations behind his current posturing. We need to ask the following questions, why has Putin annexed Crimea? Is this an act of strength or weakness on his part? What are the lasting ramifications of the annexation of Crimea and current situation in Ukraine for former Soviet States? And is this part of a wider policy? In answering these questions we can have a greater understanding of what Putin’s next move might be, and what we in the European Union and NATO should do to prevent further escalation.
Overview of the Situation
Association Agreement- Revolution in Kiev
The current situation started back in 2010 when Viktor Yanukovych successfully ran for the Ukrainian presidency on a platform advocating stronger ties with the European Union (Al Jazeera, 2010). The November EU Summit in Vilnius Lithuania last year was meant to see the culmination of his election pledge, with Ukraine signing an Association Agreement with the European Union. This would have paved the way for future EU membership. Instead, under pressure from Russia, President Yanukovych refused to sign. This led to mass street protests in Kiev and across the rest of Ukraine calling for the removal of Yanukovych and the signing of the Association Agreement. On February 22nd after 104 protestors had lost their lives in clashes with the riot police and army, Yanokovych fled to Russia.
In early March reports began to surface in Crimea of pro Russian separatists wearing unmarked military uniforms seizing government buildings and communication hubs. At the same time President Vladimir Putin ordered military exercises on Ukraine’s border involving around 38,000 troops, stating that Russian troops at Sevastopol naval base were being put on alert to protect ‘Russian citizens’ in Crimea.
The Crimean Prime Minister along with the Crimean Parliament called for Russian assistance and issued their desire to join the Russian Federation. Putin answered this by supporting a referendum ‘at the point of a gun’. On the ballot Crimeans were given the choice between going independent or becoming part of Russia, there was no option of remaining apart of Ukraine. On 16th March 96.7% of Crimeans voted to join Russia, declaring their independence from Ukraine the next day.
Since that vote, we in the international community have watched on as similar instances of pro-Russian separatists seizing Government buildings and calling for independence from Ukraine, have happened in the Eastern Ukrainian cities of Luhansk, Kramatorsk, Donetsk, Slavyansk, Yenakiyeve, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Druzhkivk. In response Ukraine has sent in troops on ‘anti terrorism’ missions to retake the Government buildings. On April 17th in attempt to deescalate the situation, representatives from Russia, Ukraine, the US, and EU met in Geneva and signed an accord, calling on ‘illegal armed groups to be disarmed’ and all ‘illegally buildings to be returned to their legitimate owners’.
Both Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of breaking the accord. Russia has expressed concern that Ukraine may be on the brink of civil war. Putin stating only last week that he hopes he does not have to exercise his right to send troops to keep the peace. While the Ukrainian Government, in response to photos published by the US Government has accused Russian Special Forces of participating in the capturing and occupation of Government buildings, and has restarted ‘anti-terrorism’ missions against the pro-Russian separatists. In response Russia has staged large military drills on the Eastern border.
The View from the Kremlin
In Putin’s eyes Russia has acted with honorable intentions, coming to the aid of Crimea, a region that has 2 million people, 58% of which identify as Russian. who fear persecution from a new Ukrainian Government that will no doubt have some anti-Russian sentiment.
Crimea has historically had close ties to Russia stretching back to 1783 when it was first annexed. Crimea remained a part of Russia until 1954 and a part of the Soviet Union until 1991. Crimea is of great strategic importance to Russia; their Black Sea Fleet has been based at the Crimean port of Sevastopol in one form or another for 231 years. The lease has always been a contentious issue in Ukraine, and has been threatened in the past when Yulia Tymoshenko was Prime Minister. Yanokovych renewed the lease in 2010 for a further 25 years. Putin may have been concerned that since his removal a new Ukrainian Government may in the future, have amended or cancelled the lease.
Self Determination and the use of referendums
In the West we cannot overlook our commitment to the right to self determination. The issue of separation has been particularly at the forefront of local debate in Crimea. The region has been an autonomous republic since the drafting of the 1996 Ukrainian constitution, which gave them their own parliament and government. What Putin has done is merely taken advantage of decades of separatist sentiment and used it to his own ends. Crimeans have always been concerned about losing their semi-autonomous status, something Russia has used to great effect. As well as exploiting some valid although overplayed concerns about the role the far right will play in a future Ukrainian Government. Particularly that of the Svoboda party who has clear anti-government, racist views and already has 36 seats in Ukraine’s Parliament.
Eastern Ukraine-National Referendum
These issues are of course not exclusive to Crimea. For many who consider themselves ethnically Russian in Eastern Ukraine, the annexation has offered encouragement, fuelling their hopes of separation and their fears of a future Ukrainian Government. The current situation has also raised the prospect of a national referendum over autonomy for the Eastern provinces of the Ukraine, something which the current Ukrainian Government has said it is open to offering regional referendums with upcoming Presidential elections. The reality is that until Ukraine has its Presidential election; Putin will continue to take advantage of the concerns of ethnic Russians in Ukraine and the perceived illegitimacy of the interim Government. In addition Russia will do all in its power to discredit forthcoming presidential elections being held on 25th May.
An Act of Insecurity argument: The Role of NATO & EU Enlargement
For some time now Russia has become increasingly uneasy with the expansion of both NATO and EU membership. As the European Union has gotten bigger, Russia has seen the buffer of states between her borders and that of the EU states dramatically reduced to the point where in the North East they are now non-existent. This is due to the 2004 EU expansion that saw 10 countries join the EU including the former Soviet States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The EU summit in Vilnius saw Moldova and Georgia initial Association Agreements, as well as Azerbaijan sign an agreement to simplify their visa process. Whilst overshadowed by Yanokovych’s u-turn, the summit I believe is reflective of the growing success of both the Eastern Partnership and the European Neighborhood Policy. This paired with the current NATO talks between Ukraine and Georgia about ascension to the alliance has reinforced Putin’s fear of a Russia in effect surrounded by EU and NATO states.
The overthrow of Yanokovych in Putin’s back garden in the name of European ideals was perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back. For if the general populace can rise up and overthrow their President in Kiev, the so called birth place of Russian culture, what is to stop them doing so in Moscow?
Ukraine’s importance to Moscow cannot be overstated, it has often been said that Russia has an empire as long as Ukraine is in its camp, without it Russia is just another ordinary country. Any hopes of Putin’s Eurasian Union starts and ends with Ukraine. In many Russians minds Ukraine is a part of Russia. Putin has certainly reflected this view in public with recent press conferences referring to Ukraine as ‘Little Russia’ and privately in 2008 when he reportedly said to George W Bush “You don’t understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? Part of its territories is Eastern Europe, but the greater part is a gift from us.” (Time, 2009) That statement may explain why many Ukrainians’ feel that the annexation of Crimea is only the beginning of Putin’s wider plans for their country.
The Legacy of the Collapse of the USSR: A New Empire?
Perhaps what really lies behind the posturing and provocations is Russian regret over the demise of the USSR and one man’s desire to see the restoration of a Russian Empire. Putin spent 16 years in the KGB, becoming a close advisor to President Boris Yeltsin, eventually Putin was appointed as Prime Minister and later ascended to the Presidency as Yeltsin’s chosen successor. In this period Putin witnessed firsthand the mismanagement of the Russian economy, open corruption, and saw the economic hardships that the collapse of the USSR and market forces brought to Russia. The sudden lifting of price controls and the introduction of free trade, paired with budget cuts and mass privatization saw average income, quality of life, and employment opportunities worsen for many Russians. At the same time only a few Russians enjoyed the new wealth created by their country’s large natural gas and oil reserves.
It is with this period of time in mind that Putin has said quite openly that he ‘regrets the passing of the Soviet Union’. The blame for much of the past difficulties Putin believes lies squarely at the feet of the West and Western capitalism. When taking over the presidency, Putin pledged that Russia should never be in a position again where it was reliant on the West. The only way to do this was to once again establish an Empire. As former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili wrote recently, Putin ‘sees territorial conquest as a means of achieving political rejuvenation and longevity’ (Guardian, 2014).
The timing of this crisis could not be better suited for Putin. As NATO forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan, and every Western country is implementing deep cuts to defence spending, there is little appetite from the general public in the West for intervention. Russia on the other hand is increasing its military budget by 40% over the next three years, seeing perhaps an opportunity to close Russia’s military spending gap. He no doubt holds all the cards. (SIPRI a research institute/ Economist, 2014).
The Ramifications of the Annexation of Crimea
Ramifications for Russia’s Neighbors: Belarus & Kazakhstan
The annexation of Crimea has already had unforeseen lasting consequences past even Putin’s forward planning. The Russian justification of a universal right to protect ethnic Russians in other countries by military force will leave many states with a Russian speaking population concerned. This includes Putin’s strongest ally Belarus, with 70% of the country Russian-speakers, Belarus lies within a day’s drive of Moscow, it is no wonder then that President Alexander Lukaschenko has been relatively quiet on the subject of Crimea. It seems unlikely that Belarus will recognise Crimea’s current status, in the past neither they nor Kazakhstan both members of a customs union with Russia recognised the Georgian breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (Washington Post, 2014). By ignoring the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which saw Russia agree to respect the sovereignty of her neighbors, in this instance sends an extremely worrying message to former Soviet states that Putin is happy to redraw the borders of Russia.
Ramifications for former Soviet Satellite States
For Georgia the current crisis in Ukraine and Crimea has clear parallels with their own conflict in 2008 with Russia. In the months preceding open exchanges between Georgian and Russian troops, there were reports of ‘unidentified troops’ posing as local insurgents in Georgia’s separatist regions. Russia intervened under similar auspices claiming the citizen’s right to self determination, separation, and Russian protection under international law. What seems like history repeating itself will certainly leave Georgia on edge, but they can take solace in the fact that they had their sparring match with Putin therefore it seems unlikely that he will attempt a similar strategy in Georgia. For the current Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, he hopes that the crisis might see the West speed up Georgia and Ukraine’s NATO and EU membership.
Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia
Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have equal reason to be unnerved by Putin’s justification for intervention in Crimea, all three countries have sizeable ethnic Russian populations, Estonia and Latvia’s population is a quarter ethnic Russian. Their shared border with Russia in the North East and dependency on Russian gas makes them particularly vulnerable. However where they differ from the other Soviet States, is the protection that their membership of both NATO and the EU affords them. It is highly unlikely that Putin would risk a head on confrontation with NATO, but that hasn’t stopped them from stepping up military drills in the region.
Moldova and Transnistria
Moldova is in a unique position in that it has had its own breakaway region since 1992, Transnistria, whose status has still not been fully resolved. Moldova like other former Soviet States has a significant ethnic Russian population, with over 200,000 people identifying themselves as Russian. Transnistria held a similar referendum to that of Crimea in 2006 voting heavily in favor of joining Russia, though all parties involved are committed to a diplomatic outcome underpinned by a separation with mutual consent. The fear for Moldovans is that the current situation in Eastern Ukraine may stoke separatist’s anxieties over the slow pace of progress in the international talks over Transnistria’s future, involving Russia, Moldova, Transnistria, Ukraine, the OSCE, and with EU and US observers (5+2). This may encourage them to take matters into their own hands. The current crisis in Ukraine has already seen the rescheduling of the planned April 10th 5+2 talks.
The other concern is the large Russian peacekeeping force in Transnistria 150,000 strong who in theory could create a destabilizing effect in the country. Though where Moldova differs from many of the other former Soviet States is that it has declared itself as a neutral country with no wish to join NATO, like Georgia it too hopes to sign an Association Agreement with the EU by June. However the EU has stressed to both Moldova and Georgia that part of that depends on both countries improving their engagement with their separatist regions. Moldova’s lack of a shared border with Russia and continued close trade, have in the past made Russian aggression improbable. In fact, Russia for the last decade has been seen as a stable partner in helping resolve the status of Transnistria; however the current situation in Ukraine may make Moldova rethink this, as the Russians may wish to create a path through Ukraine to Moldova.
The West, EU, and NATO’s Response
For those of us in the West, EU, and NATO we need to consider whether our current response to the situation in Crimea and Ukraine has been proportional and effective?
The EU/US response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea has been rather divided with a mixture of calls from enacting sanctions to the sending of arms to the Ukrainian Government. This may have slowed down our initial response, which came in the form of US/EU travel and financial sanctions on 17th March for 21 individuals, as well as the cancelling of the G8 which was to be held in Sochi. Many have since questioned the effectiveness of these sanctions calling them ‘toothless’.
As mentioned earlier the EU and the US in Geneva helped negotiate an agreement between Russia and Ukraine to deescalate the current crisis in the eastern part of the country. That agreement now lies in jeopardy as both sides accuse the other of breaking it, and Ukraine continues it’s ‘anti-terrorism’ missions.
We therefore have to carefully consider out next move, and the following questions. Firstly will enacting more sanctions deter Russian interference in Ukraine? President Obama has already indicated the US’s desire to pass more sanctions, while in the long run they may be effective the current pace of events vs. the time it would take to pass sanctions makes them unlikely to improve the situation in the short term.
Should we instead then consider offering logistical and military support to help aid Ukraine? Such a decision would have clear implications for NATO, the US, and the UK Government, particularly in light of the recent defence budget cuts that a number of NATO countries have undertaken. The current defence cuts in the UK will see British armed forces reduced by 20% in 2015 and see the closing of a number of military bases including the removal of British troops stationed in Berlin. It seems to make little sense to remove those troops or downsize our armed forces at a time when Russia is asserting itself forcefully in the region. Therefore the UK Government and other European Government’s must ask themselves whether they should reconsider such cuts in the light of a resurgent Russian threat.
There is also the question of energy security, a number of European countries are hugely reliant on Russian gas this puts them in a very vulnerable position. For example, 70% of Germany’s energy supply is imported, a quarter of which comes from Russia, providing 38% of Germany’s natural gas imports, 35% of Germany’s oil imports, and 25% of Germany’s coal imports (Deutsche Welle, 2014). Any response to the current crisis must encompass energy independence particularly from Russia. William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary has already pushed for a British led plan to wean Europe off Russian gas. Cutting Russia out of the EU energy market will not only offer many country’s energy independence, but will weaken Russia’s influence in the region as well as directly hitting the Russian economy in a way that sanctions might not. We have to recognise that the money Putin gets selling us gas and oil is the same money he is now using to increase military spending. We are therefore in effect fuelling the very instability we are trying to prevent.
The more pressing question in light of the current escalating situation in Ukraine, is whether we are truly willing to take Putin head on?
The situation in Ukraine reinforces the importance of the NATO alliance and will no doubt have an impact on US foreign policy particularly on President Obama’s ‘Pivot towards Asia’. Since the end of the Cold War the US has been at best ambivalent at worst reluctant to deploy any more troops to the European Continent. A Russian intervention in Ukraine might change such a view, and be in America’s eyes a step too far. On the other hand, Obama like his predecessor in 2008 may see the conflict as a regional rather than international issue and offer little in terms of military support. One thing is for sure, the response the US chooses to pursue will define the future not only of Ukraine but many of the former Soviet States as well as that of NATO.
Ukraine is only the beginning. If Putin continues to be allowed a freehand in the region by NATO, the EU, and the US, his reach will only extend. For the former Soviet States their worst fears of the recreation of a Russian empire once again seem to be coming true. The very reason many of them embraced the European project with such enthusiasm was to escape such a prospect. The Russian influence, Putin seeks to reinstate in the region through the use of fear and intimidation, if left unchecked, will undermine the very values that we in the West and EU stand for. The European values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Therefore the challenge for us is to put meaningful actions behind our words, that is the only way we can guarantee the security of the whole of mainland Europe.