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The Stakes in Ukraine - 2014

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

Ambassador Prabhat P Shukla

Left - German Chancellor Merkel; Right - US Assistant Secretary Nuland, who told her Ambassador in Kiev - "f--k the EU"

As the situation in Ukraine deteriorates, foreign powers are getting overtly involved. Russian forces are already deployed in the Crimea, and there is the live danger that they will also enter eastern Ukraine. It is important to try and understand what the issues and stakes are. What follows is an attempt at doing so.

The background

Ukraine, as we know it today, is the result of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Until the end of the Russian Empire preceding the Revolution, there was no such country and the territories of the Russian Empire were run on a more unitary system, with 81 Governorates [Guberniyas], with Governors appointed by the Tsar. It was the brainchild of Stalin, the “wonderful Georgian” thus described and backed by Lenin, to settle the National Question by recognising the different nationalities in the country, and give them a separate geographical identity. This became the standard Marxist settlement of the National Question; in accordance with this principle, Ukraine, along with the other constituent units of the Empire, were constituted as separate, and sovereign, units of the newly-formed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was thus formed through the decades after 1922 through separate phases initially in the period between 1922 and 1934. It was expanded in 1939 under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact to include the western parts, seized from Poland; finally, it was expanded with the gift of the Crimea in 1954 by Khrushchev – a former Party First Secretary of the Ukraine – to mark the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyeslav, which united Ukraine and Russia under the Tsars of the Romanov dynasty.

A word on the Treaty of Pereyeslav: it was the result of an appeal by the Cossacks living between military pressures from the Catholic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on the west on the one hand, and the Muslim Crimean Tartars from the south on the other. The Ukrainian Church belonged to the Orthodox confession, as did the Russian. It made sense therefore, for the Cossacks to seek alliance and protection from the Russian Tsar, Alexei I. This agreement was reached in February 1654, whose 300th anniversary Khrushchev celebrated by transferring the Crimea to Ukraine. Of course, it is one thing to transfer a province from one part of a common sovereignty to another; when the sovereignty changes, it is something else altogether. This is one of the major grievances of the Russian population in the Crimea today.

The Stakes

There are four important aspects that Russia and the West are contesting. These are geopolitical issues, economic interests, ethnic concerns, and the civilisational ties between Russia and Ukraine. Of these, unquestionably the most important is the first – the geopolitics of the region. The two former states that are in line for NATO membership are Ukraine and Georgia. Both of them are situated on the Black Sea, where all the other littoral states [with the exception of Russia itself] are already NATO members – namely Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania. If Ukraine and Georgia were also to join, that would effectively make the Black Sea an American lake.

From the Russian viewpoint, the direct expansion of NATO has been put on hold for now, but is not abandoned; meantime, the Eastern Partnership with the European Union is an alternative method of tying in these two countries with the western alliance system. The Eastern Partnership also involves closer political ties; in fact, the EU website describes the objectives as being both political association and economic integration. It is also worth remembering that, for several of the countries of East Europe, membership of the EU came first, and this was followed by that of NATO.

Perhaps the Russians are being paranoid, but Mikhail Gorbachev has confirmed that, at the end of the Cold War, as the terms for German unification were being negotiated, the US had given an assurance that NATO would not be expanded eastwards. In the event, this promise was not kept. Secondly, Yugoslavia was broken up, and the final straw from the Russian standpoint was that Kosovo was broken away from Serbia, despite UN Resolutions upholding the territorial integrity of that country – a historical ally of Russia.

These events have both fed Russian paranoia and suspicion of the US in particular. They have also given Russia the weapon which it has turned against the Americans. This has taken the form of the so-called “frozen conflicts”, territorial disputes that cover all of the former Soviet Republics that are in line for the Eastern Partnership – Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Belarus is the only exception, because it has not even begun negotiations with the EU, though it is on the latter’s list of potential members of the Partnership. But Belarus has been unequivocal in the primacy it accords to Russia in its foreign policy, and thus has given Moscow no cause for concern, at least so far.

These frozen conflicts are the Transnistria conflict with Moldova; Nagorny Karabakh, involving Azerbaijan and Armenia; Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Georgia; and, of course, now the Crimea with Ukraine. The Crimea also houses the Russian Black Sea fleet, and is 60 percent ethnic Russian in population, most of them holding Russian passports. The importance of the Black Sea itself does not require much elaboration: it has been the arena of contestation for some two hundred years, and is Russia’s gateway to the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East. It is, therefore, entirely understandable that it will not stand idly by while efforts are made to turn the Crimea and the Black Sea into hostile zones. This is why they detached Abkhazia from Georgia in the 2008 war – it represents a significant portion of Georgia’s Black Sea coast, which is now effectively part of Russia, though Abkhazia is nominally independent.

Geopolitics is thus the main issue, but there are others too, though it is unlikely that they would become flashpoints in the absence of the territorial issues. The first is economic: although the Russians and the Germans have built the Nordstream pipeline to bypass Ukraine as transit for gas supplies to Europe, a significant amount still goes through Ukraine. Russia would not like this to pass into hostile hands. Russia is also promoting the South Stream pipeline, to reduce further its dependence on Ukraine, but this project is not making much headway. Energy trade and transport is another of the important focus points of the Eastern Partnership.

The final issue is that of ethnic and religious ties. The Russian Constitution requires the Government to defend the rights of Russians outside Russia too, a reflection of the fact that the internal borders of the USSR were deliberately so drawn as to leave sizeable Russian populations in most of these Republics. After the break-up of the USSR, these have become foreign citizens, but the ties of blood and ethnicity endure. What is more, under Russian law, any citizen of the former Soviet Union has the right to claim Russian citizenship. These are important factors, and were crucial in justifying Russian actions in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008.

Further, some of the Baltic Republics, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all three of whom are now members of both the EU and NATO, have adopted clearly discriminatory policies towards the ethnic Russians now living in their territories. They have also been following practices that dishonor the memory of the Soviet/Russian soldiers that died in the Second World War. Some of them even glorify the old Nazi collaborators. All of this is being done without any real effective action by the EU to curb such activities.

The Power Play

So much for the background to the recent events. The trigger for the flare-up of tensions was the Ukrainian move to enter into the eastern Partnership agreement with the EU, and then to resile from that position. According to the official website of the EU, Ukraine was the one country that was making rapid progress in this direction – all of the other members of the dialogue were either stagnant, or had abandoned the discussions altogether. This list consists of Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Georgia. As already mentioned, except for Belarus, whose President has been steadfast in his understanding that Russia is his primary partner, all the others are now embroiled in one or other “frozen conflict”, so called because there is no resolution of these since the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, and cannot happen without Russian acquiescence. This latter will not be forthcoming unless its security concerns vis-à-vis the West are met.

The Eastern Partnership requires what is called a “deep and comprehensive free trade agreement” and also involves energy security and transportation issues. It also provides for political association. One could argue that there is nothing in this that Russia should find provocative, but there was a sense of exclusiveness in the western approaches to these issues. Russia was itself trying to build a common economic space under its Eurasian Economic Union, and had been keen on getting Ukraine to join. President Yanukovich had been vacillating between these two options when in November 2013 President Putin stepped in and offered a US$ 15 billion loan to Ukraine which was facing problems paying off some of the servicing due in 2014. Russia also offered to supply gas, which Ukraine desperately needs, at 30 percent below the market price. In return, Yanukovich backed away from signing the Eastern Partnership agreement.

Large-scale street demonstrations broke out in consequence, and continue to this day. In the meantime, diplomatic efforts were under way to find a peaceful settlement of the stand-off. An EU team consisting of the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and Poland met with the President of Ukraine and the opposition leaders – the heavyweight boxing ex-world champion Klitchko, the current acting Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, and Tyahnybok – and hammered out a deal. Under this, Yanukovich surrendered his powers which he had added after winning the Presidency in 2010, agreed to early Presidential elections, to be held not later than December 2014, and for the release of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. The Russian side in the negotiations was represented by Vladimir Lukin, the head of the Russian human rights organisation, but he did not sign the agreement.

The agreement did not survive long. An outbreak of violence in the heart of Kiev led to the death of some 80 persons, an event that caused genuine revulsion with large segments of Ukrainian society. There are suggestions that the violence was provoked by agents provocateurs but the fact is that the resort to force by the Police was an unwise act on the part of Yanukovich. As a result, he lost the last remnants of legitimacy within the Ukrainian society. In short order, Yanukovich fled Kiev for Kharkov, his home base, and declared that a coup had taken place. It is not quite clear what happened in these critical hours, but some of the protesters in the main square in Kiev, Independence Square, rejected the agreement on the grounds that they could not wait until December for the Presidential elections, and a number of the supporters of Yanukovich in Parliament defected to the opposition. As a result, the Parliament voted to oust Yanukovich, and appoint Oleksandr Turchinov, as acting President. He is a Baptist pastor, and strong supporter of former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.

It is worth recalling the words of the Polish Foreign Minister to the opposition leaders. Clearly anticipating that there would be some unhappiness with the compromise agreement, he was caught on TV camera admonishing them not to resist the settlement, “otherwise you will all be dead”. Obviously, this warning did not cool the extremists, with the result that a new Government was formed, and it began by declaring the former President a fugitive, did a high-publicity expose on his high living [at taxpayer expense], and declared that Russian would no longer be recognised as a national language.

The new leaders also declared, in the words of acting Prime Minister, Yatsenyuk, that his was a cabinet of kamikazes, whose aim was to integrate with Europe, and to safeguard the country’s territorial integrity. Yatsenyuk is a name that figured prominently in the leaked phone call between a senior US State Department official and the US Ambassador in Kiev. Both had agreed that he deserved a prominent role in the Government while the other two opposition leaders, Tyahnybok and Klitchko, should keep out. That is exactly what has happened. It is also worth noting that the US officials agreed on the need to “f--- the EU”, though this conversation occurred before the agreement between Yanukovich and the opposition was signed. This suggests that there were differences between the Europeans and the Americans on how to address the Ukrainian problem.

The problem was that the aims outlined by Yatsenyuk – to integrate with the west, and to safeguard its territorial integrity – are mutually incompatible. Russia could not risk jeopardizing their hold on the Crimea and could not countenance foreign domination of the Black Sea. The remarkable thing is that the war with Georgia in 2008 had given clear indication of the strength of Russian feeling on this issue. What is more, the leadership was the same, only with positions reversed: Medvedev was President and Putin was Prime Minister then.

The occupation by Russian troops of the Crimea is now a fait accompli and the early western responses are similar to what we saw in 2008 over the Georgian war. Russia will have taken all these into account before deciding to occupy the Crimea. Cancelling the G8 Summit due to be held in Sochi, or even economic and political sanctions will not sway the Russians. As long as the population of the region remains supportive, we now have a new fact on the ground, and another “frozen conflict” that will not go away.

There is one element of the local population that deserves mention. This is the Crimean Tartars. These are, in a sense, the original inhabitants of the Crimea. They were deported by Stalin during the Second World War for collaborating with the Germans. Since the break-up of the USSR, some of them have returned to the Crimea, and are said to constitute some 12 to 15 percent of the population. This is a significant minority, and the Turks and others are working on them – as they are on the other Muslims populations in southern Russia. It is quite likely that the west will try and use this segment to stir up trouble against the Russians.

The critical issue thus is going to be the extent of ground support that the Russians will enjoy. In all of the other territorial disputes, the Russians have had the benefit of the support of the local populace. This should also be the case in the Crimea, but this will bear watching in the coming weeks. From all accounts, Russian sentiment is strong in eastern Ukraine as well, though there is some opposition in the streets from pro-Ukraine forces. One important straw in the wind is the defection of the Ukrainian Naval Chief to the Russian side. Pro-Russian sentiment is fairly widespread in the Armed Forces in particular, not just in Ukraine, but elsewhere in the former Soviet space too.

Equally important is the question of domestic support. Putin took the unanimous support of the upper House of the Parliament, and this would be one indication of support. But the Parliament is not enough; more reliable indicators of public opinion would be essential. The Russian press has been supportive, by and large, and this is a more credible indicator of public opinion. But Putin has put opposition leaders like Navalny under house arrest, and this element is something the west will certainly play up. It would be important for Putin to carry a majority of the country with him in this high-stakes move. The west will not be as passive over the Crimea as it was over the Georgian events.

For Russia, another critical component of its strategy is going to be China. The early Chinese press comment was wholly pro-Russian, and focused on the prospect of Ukrainian disintegration. This was also frequently referred to in the Russian press. After the occupation of the Crimea, the Chinese official and press comment have become more circumspect. In this the Chinese are reverting to the pattern of 2008. They were silent on the issue, and abstained or stayed away from the discussions in the UN Security Council. It is hard to predict what policy line they will take this time. For one thing, Chinese relations with the US are much worse than they were in the earlier period. For another, they are also more confident than they were even in 2008. Nonetheless, the initial official comment from Beijing supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity. After a phone conversation between the Russian and Chinese Foreign Ministers, this was modified slightly to make a reference to the historical and legal aspects – a cover for Russian action. The Russians have put a more positive spin on the telephone conversation, suggesting that they are in complete agreement.

What Putin and Russia cannot afford is overt Chinese negativity, for that would leave them isolated. Already the partners in G8 have decided to drop out of the G8 Summit, and this includes Japan. Prior to these events, Prime Minister Abe had had five meetings with Putin in the course of the last fifteen months, and relations were progressing well.

This brings up an important point: Abe seemed to understand that relations with Russia were important so as not to leave Russia totally dependent on China. This is what was happening under his predecessors. The positive Russian response to Abe’s overtures showed that Russia itself did not want to be dependent on China alone.

The other foreign country that matters to Russia is Germany. That is the one European country that has been vital to Russian strategy to the west and to Eurasia more generally. So far, the Germans have been less strident than some of their western allies, and there was a telephone conversation between Putin and Merkel at which both agreed on the need to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine. That said, the reality is that it is not clear what German thinking is at the moment. This low-profile response probably is its own message, and it would be safe to say that the traditional core of the EU is mindful of the importance of Russia to the balance of power in Europe and will show greater restraint than the US.

The same applies to Indian concerns too. Isolating Russia and leaving it with only the China option is not in India’s interests. Given the heat of the moment, it is obviously difficult to fashion a short-term response. But no worthwhile Indian interest is served by isolating Russia and forcing it into the embrace of China. In the fullness of time, we should see what can be done to bring the situation gradually back to one where Russian isolation is moderated.

New Delhi,

February 2014.

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