Headlines have been streaming from Ukraine since November. The news immediately caught my interest because of the background history that I had researched for Chapter 1. Then the situation seemed to keep getting more baffling. Soon, it was a country in chaos. It quickly became one of the year’s biggest events, at such a pace that it has been difficult to keep up with developments. In this post, I lay out visuals, look at the big picture, and try to get a handle on what’s going on. The more I research, the more I forgive myself for being confused about the constant stream of news in the last few months. It’s complicated! Finally, I offer a few thoughts on “who’s right and who’s wrong.”
As discussed in Chapter 1, the 21st century world is essentially quadripolar. The US, EU, Russia, and China form the four major spheres of influence. The eastern powers are more old-fashioned and nationalistic, and see foreign affairs as more of a zero-sum game. Most second-world countries rely on one of the four superpowers for investment, trade, energy, and security. Some regions, such as the Eurasian front, are caught in the middle.
Ukraine, a former Soviet territory, has long ties with Russia. It became an independent republic in 1991, though its government hewed close to Russia for another decade. In 2004, a politically charged election highlighted the question of whether Ukraine should continue looking east or develop closer relations with the EU to its west. That question has divided Ukraine ever since. This news story is not just about sudden panic in one second-world nation. It is part of the slowly unfolding saga of the superpowers and the shaping of the 21st-century world.
As geopolitics so often revolves around natural resources, of course there is an economic twist in this plot too. Ukraine hosts major natural gas pipelines providing Russian gas to Ukrainian and European consumers.
Two leaders who embody Ukraine’s split personality emerged from the election and “Orange Revolution” of 2004. Yuliya Tymoshenko, the on-and-off prime minister from 2004 – ‘11, looks westward. Viktor Yanukovych, president from 2010 to February, 2014, based his career on developing relations with Russia and the gas lobby. During Yanukovych’s term, some of his political opponents, including Tymoshenko, were imprisoned. Though it is difficult to pin these convictions to Yanukovych’s orders, the US and EU condemn them as unjust political maneuverings.
Tymoshenko looks west to Merkel and the EU
Yanukovych looks east to Putin and Russia
The EU and Ukraine have been negotiating a formal alliance since at least 2008. In Chapter 1, I discussed the EU’s Copenhagen Criteria. In order to join the EU, a candidate nation must make commitments to economic stability and human rights. Ukraine has not yet been pursuing full EU membership, but an “association agreement” that confers many of the same benefits and requires many of the same demands. After Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, the EU made her release a condition necessary to finalize the alliance agreement.
Russian president Putin was never a fan of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. Fearing a loss of influence, he put pressure on Yanukovych to reject that agreement and strengthen ties with Russia instead. Ukraine is a vulnerable nation, deeply in debt and at risk of default with little economic power of its own. Russia had a few major bargaining chips: natural gas price guarantees and the promise of a bailout as carrots, and a boycott of Ukrainian chocolate as a stick.
Chaos in Kiev
Russia’s pressure proved more compelling than Europe’s on the Ukrainian government. Just a week before the association agreement was scheduled for signature, the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) announced that it would not free Tymoshenko, and president Yanukovych publicly announced that he would abandon the alliance.
In response to these announcements on November 21, protesters took to the streets of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Public opinion in Kiev and the western half of the country was largely in favor of the EU alliance. Ukrainians demanded Yanukovych’s resignation. Protests did not fizzle out but grew over the next few months, usually a sign that a government has gotten itself into real trouble. Demonstrators took control of government buildings in Kiev and western Ukraine. The police responded with mass arrests in late 2013. In January, parliament cracked down and police force resulted in a few deaths. Amidst the chaos, the prime minister resigned.
The situation accelerated dramatically in late February, with a climax on the 22nd. In Kiev’s Independence Square, three heavy days of fighting between police and protesters resulted in about 100 deaths. This street battle galvanized protesters’ passion. Yanukovych finally sensed the gravity of his situation and fled to Russia. Civilian soldiers seized control of the presidential palace and stood guard over it. Parliament released Tymoshenko from jail. Ms. Tymoshenko addressed her supporters as they packed Independence Square. “Don’t leave this square until we have achieved real change!” she encouraged them.
Let us not get swept up in revolutionary romance, though. Demonstrators are, needless to say, not legally recognized as a lawmaking body. It was up to Parliament to make the next move.
The Verkhovna Rada held a vote to remove President Yanukovych from power. His ouster was approved by a vote of 328 – 0. This sounds like unanimity, but the parliament has 439 members, and the impeachment votes were technically short of the ¾ super-majority required by the constitution. Russia and Russian Ukrainians have never accepted the legitimacy of this vote, and still regard Yanukovych as the rightful president. Nevertheless, Parliament proceeded to appoint an interim president and prime minister who are both pro-western Tymoshenko supporters. The US and EU have rallied behind the interim government. Permanent elections are scheduled for May, with Tymoshenko as the leading presidential candidate.
John Kerry greets Ukraine’s interim leaders, President Oleksander Turchynov (L) and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk
The Kremlin in Crimea
The hasty appointment of a new pro-western government instantly set off counter-protests in the eastern pro-Russian half of the country. Overnight, the turmoil shifted from Kiev to the Crimean peninsula. Just as in Kiev, there were mass protests in Crimea, and armed rebels seized control of government buildings. The Russian military quietly but quickly slipped into Crimea to take control of essential infrastructure such as highways, ports, and airports. So far, direct confrontation between Ukrainians and Russian troops has been minimal, with about two confirmed deaths.
Crimea has its own capital city, Simferopol, and its own parliament. While Simferopol, literally down to the parliamentary building, was occupied by Russian forces, this parliament approved a local referendum, a popular vote of whether Crimea should remain with Ukraine or defect to Russia. The March 16 referendum claimed to show a 96% majority in favor of seceding from Ukraine. Besides the circumstances of this vote at gunpoint and its fishy super-duper-majority, there is evidence that the election was rigged. More pertinently, a change to the country’s territory must be approved by all Ukrainians. Restricting this referendum to Crimean voters contradicted the Ukrainian constitution. So now both sides have relied on Constitutionally iffy moves, and the whole country is in a state of legal limbo.
Russia has already ratified the referendum and claimed Crimea (once again) as its own. It is clear to all but the most hardened Russian apologists that this whole procedure was orchestrated by the Kremlin. Moscow justifies its presence in Crimea on the basis of protecting ethnic Russians. Crimea is a Russian-speaking semi-autonomous republic with strong family ties with Russia. By treaty, it has hosted Russian military bases for decades.
Despite little connection to Ukraine, the US has reacted strongly against Russia’s takeover of Crimea. In the larger context of superpower spheres of influence, the western powers regard this as unacceptable precedent. “It would allow the old way of doing things to gain a foothold in this young century,” remarked President Obama from the symbolic platform of a WWI cemetery, “And that message would be heard — not just in Europe but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East.” Obama has been leading strategic sanctions against Russian government officials behind the takeover of Crimea, as well as President Yanukovych. Today’s news is about deepening occupation, military buildup, and tension in the region.
Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong?
Geopolitics is a strange combination of law, consensus, and “might makes right.” Casual observers tend to focus on moral questions of good guys vs. bad guys, fairness vs. greed. We forget that there are constitutions, treaties, and UN directives that apply to almost every question at the national level. Most diplomatic discussions are based on legal arguments. The debate that you have with your drinking buddies is probably very different from the issues discussed at international summits and in government chambers. On the other hand, legalities can be very difficult to enforce. It is one thing to point fingers and say that Leader X is in violation of Principle Y. It is another matter to do anything about it. The UN provides a body of laws but very limited power to enforce them. Sometimes, paradigm shifts happen as well. When a mob of 100,000 squeezes a leader out of his capitol, it implies that the constitution has been abandoned and it’s time to start over. Then it is up to the international community to decide whether to recognize the old government or the new one. There are no legal standards for those decisions. It really does come down to what individual nations want to do and how much influence they have – though their arguments are cloaked in legal raiment. Round and round we go.
Following a strictly legal tack, Yanukovych supporters are technically correct that the president was not properly impeached. He was duly elected, and, by the book, he would still be the rightful president. Yanukovych had many party die-hards in his parliament who abstained from voting against his impeachment for fear of retribution, or who were not even present that day due to the angry mob outside. Those Members of Parliament (MPs) represent an ethnically diverse electorate throughout a broad swath of Ukraine. The Verkhovna Rada did overstep its bounds by appointing a new administration. If the discussion had ended there, certainly western Ukrainians would have been unhappy, but they would have an opportunity to rally for change at the next election. This kind of lesson is important for a young republic to learn.
Yanukovych could have stood a chance if he had remained in Ukraine and made some concessions. But his next move was even more egregious. After his police force killed dozens of his own subjects, he defected to Russia and took part of the country with him. There is no way to justify the Crimean sequestration – at least not in the manner it was done. That episode has been a farce. It would be entirely reasonable to bring charges against him now, and to remove him from power based on criminal convictions. Perhaps he could be tried for “abuse of power,” which is the very charge that was brought against Tymoshenko.
Russia believes that it is justified in reclaiming Crimea because the Crimean peninsula has been historically and ethnically Russian for centuries. That may be, but things change! Since 1991, Crimea has been a semi-autonomous republic within Ukraine. The borders and constitutions were very clear, and Russia was committed to respecting them not too long ago. There is no legal basis for turning back the clock.
On the other hand, some changes just fell into place, and it is apparently going to be simpler to accept them where they now lie. In western Ukraine, the unconstitutional impeachment and its proximate causes – the interim government and the May election – now have the support of two superpowers. Right or wrong, this is a ratification of legitimacy. It is not entirely a positive development. If you are more swayed by good-buy / bad-guy arguments, consider that at the heart of the western protest movement is Svoboda, a fringe neo-Nazi party. There is something to be said for stability. But realistically, with the recognition and backing of the US and EU, the Yatsenyuk government is now the de facto voice of Ukraine.
In eastern Ukraine, it’s interesting to see how quickly the world has become resigned to the notion that Crimea is once again Russian. Despite a complete lack of legitimacy, it is now spoken as a hard truth. Even Obama admitted as much, just a week after the takeover. The objective now is to stop Russia where it is, to keep it from spreading Soviet-style further into Ukraine.
The western response has been particularly interesting. President Obama has been meting out punishment, not with military force or even broad national sanctions, but with drone-like laser precision against Russian and Ukrainian government officials and arms traders. Those individuals will be forbidden from travel into the US, their assets within US jurisdiction will be seized, and most importantly, they will be legally cut off from access to dollars. The EU is imposing similar sanctions. Obama is even considering sanctions against the Russian energy sector, the heart of its economy. He is not finding much support in EU, though, because Europe depends so heavily on Russian energy.
Sanctions against guilty individuals are much more humane and sensible than the overly-broad strikes or sanctions that usually characterize international disagreements. Nationwide embargoes, for example against Cuba, North Korea, and Iran, have been deeply hurtful to millions of innocent ordinary people. The takeover of Crimea was orchestrated by a few individuals, and nobody else should be punished for their political over-reach. On the other hand, it is unclear whether such sanctions will have any effect, or even what the objectives are. Some commentators, including Jimmy Carter, believe that Russia is happy with today’s borders and will not move forcibly further. Others believe that Russia is now preparing to swallow Moldova and Georgia. Some believe that western response should be much stronger. “Sanctions would only really have an effect if they became general measures against whole sectors of the Russian economy,” says Nina Schick, a policy analyst with Open Europe. But wouldn’t that mean that millions of innocent Russians would pay the price for a few greedy politicians at the top? There we are back at square one
The bigger question, the question that very few people seem to be attuned to ask yet, is why individual nations should be the enforcers of other nations’ actions at all. Sure, Russia is behaving out of hand. Sure, its leaders should be taken to task, especially if they make another move of territorial expansion. But why should that be the United States’ job? It is such a clearer mandate when punishment comes from an international organization – especially one that includes Russia. Fortunately, organizations such as the G-8, G-20, and UN are all condemning Russia’s taking of Crimea. But all they really have the power to do, besides more sanctions, is exclude Russia from meetings and say, “Bad Russia!” The UN or its future successor, or the Global Federal Republic if there ever is one, needs to have the power to strip abusive politicians from office or even imprison them or seize their assets. That’s a very long-term solution. For now, Russia has Crimea and there’s not much that anyone else can do about it.
In the end, I think that history simply takes some turns. The splitting of Ukraine is one of them. In the long run, my guess is that each half of Ukraine will end up allied with the neighbor of its choice, a win-win situation. Ukraine has been a nation divided ever since the Cold War. Now it is going through a divorce. Europe tried to woo eastern Ukraine along with the west and failed. As the saying goes, EU, “He’s just not that into you.”
Life goes on.