NOTE: This post was written when the Ukraine and Russia clashed in 2014. I’m publishing it again because the information remains useful.
I don’t often post about current events, so I haven’t mentioned the stand-off in the Ukraine. But I thought some factoids might be enlightening. Since I don’t write much about the Ukraine or Russia, I’ve drawn heavily from newspaper articles published in previously “nonaligned” nations. That said, let’s get started.
(Photo by Yerevanci, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
The Collapse of the Soviet Union
The collapse of the Soviet Union left the Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia with territorial disputes, ethnic and linguistic clashes, disfunctional economic and trade patterns, and strategic dilemmas.
The Ukraine had a central position in the former USSR. Leading Soviet political figures were Ukrainian, its Donbass region was an industrial hub, and the Slav “big three” that ended the USSR consisted of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
After Soviet disintegration, the Ukraine continued economically along Russian lines, dominated by oligarchs:
- the oligarchs are Ukrainian
- Ukrainian policy is independent
- the Ukraine gained World Trade Organization (WTO) membership in 2008
- the country is dependent on Russia for energy
- Russian gas pipelines to Europe pass through the Ukraine
- Russia has few alternative routes to Europe.
The Ukraine has been independent for 22 years and has worked toward embracing all its regions and citizens:
- Ukrainian governments have straddled ethnic and geographic divisions
- conflicts between the Russians and Ukrainians who share the country have been rare.
East Ukraine is politically, religiously, linguistically, culturally, and economically close to Russia:
- 25% of Ukraine’s 45 million population are ethnic Russians
- Russian is widely spoken in parts of the east and south
- in some areas, including Crimea, Russian is the main language
- regions where Russian predominates almost exactly match those that voted for President Yankovich in 2010
- the 2010 election was deemed free and fair by the West.
Western Ukraine is agricultural, closer to Poland, and speaks Polish and Ukrainian:
- in religion it is a mixture of Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism
- the area murdered Poles by the hundreds after World War II when they occupied the area; that is forgotten in Poland’s quest for markets and Kiev’s quest for Europe.
Crisis Begins in the Ukraine
The Ukrainian crisis began in November 2013 when Ukraine’s cabinet announced postponement of a proposed association agreement with the European Union:
- Russia feared the move would preclude Ukrainian membership in its own Eurasian Customs Union
- Russia threatened to impose higher energy prices
- the European Union failed to provide a financial package that would balance Russia’s actions
- President Yankovich played for time
- anti-government protestors, supporting closer ties with the EU, called for the president’s resignation and occupied Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti)
- the US and the EU backed the protesters
- the protest spread across the country
- public buildings in the Western Ukraine were occupied
- hundreds of people were injured in the violence and about 100 people were killed
- in February, the EU brokered an agreement with President Yanukovic that was rejected by the protesters
- parliament (the Rada) voted to oust the president and hold new elections in May
- since this time, all official policy has been decided in consultation with protesters in the Maidan.
Ukraine’s Interim Government
The interim government projects itself as both pro EU and pro US and it posits itself as anti-Russian. Some of its actions have proved inflammatory:
- the interim government disbanded the Berkut paramilitary muscle men and they are now in the employ of anti-Kiev groups in the East and Crimea; in effect, they’ve become a freelance group of mercenaries
- the government de-recognized the official status of the Russian language, offending the nation’s Russian speakers
- efforts to establish control in Eastern Ukraine backfired, leading to violence, the hoisting of the Russian flag, ripping up of the Ukrainian flag, and burning effigies of the Maidan and its supporters.
Ukraine‘s body politic is deeply divided:
- politicians as a whole are discredited and are considered incompetent and corrupt
- unknowns are entering the political arena and destabilizing institutions.
Moscow can’t afford to be passive:
- the Ukraine is crucial to Russian security and to its project to bring a strong Eurasian Union into being
- the number of refugees fleeing to Russia exceeds 150,000
- refugee camps are planned in the Rostov region.
The situation in the Crimea makes waiting for a solution until after May elections impossible:
- the Crimean peninsula was transferred from Soviet Russia to the Ukraine in 1954 as an autonomous province
- this majority Russian speaking region is of prime strategic significance to Russia
- Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has had its base for 200 years at Sevastopol
- after the break-up of the USSR, a lease agreement valid until 2042 has allowed the Russian fleet to continue operating there in return for Russia supplying discounted natural gas
- according to the terms of its lease, Russia can station 161 aircraft, 388 warships, and 25,000 armed men in Crimea
- After the Maidan’s success in Kiev, the Crimean Rada (parliament) and the local Russian population have taken the path of independence; a referendum is scheduled to take place this month
- forces without official affiliation — Berkut and Russian troops without insignia — have moved to strategic locations
- Putin is sending more forces to safeguard Russian base interests and ethnic Russians.
What Does the Future Hold for Ukraine?
Apart from Crimea, there are other pro-Russian strongholds in Eastern Ukraine, like Donets and Kharkiv. What will Putin do? Will he also attempt to protect these areas militarily?
Future economic stability is questionable:
- Ukraine’s economy is smaller now than it was in 1992
- Russia’s monetary support will be terminated as will Eurasian Union tariff concessions
- Ukraine needs $35 million over the next two years to pay public sector salaries, energy bills from Russia, and to avoid default
- Ukraine has a current account deficit of 8% of GDP and its currency has already lost considerable value
- if the US, EU, and IMF come to Ukraine’s assistance, will they insist on “shock therapy” (stringent conditions including reduction of subsidies for heavy industry and energy? (for more info on proposed EU and US loans, read The New York Times)
- Kiev has said it will accept conditions but protesters are saying “Europe wants us as slaves.”