By Rashika Rakibullah
Those following the recent events in Ukraine may be worried that we seem to be very near the brink of a third World War. Tensions between the former Soviet republic and Russia have intensified drastically in the past few weeks, and in a turn of events reminiscent of the Cold War, the United States has become embroiled in the conflict as well. Last Friday, President Obama called an unplanned press conference and publicly advised his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, against sending the armed forces then mobilized along the Ukraine-Russia border into the country, promising undefined “costs” for any military intervention and stating the need to respect Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” That same day, however, journalists from Crimea began reporting the presence of unmarked troops around a military base in the capital city, Simperofal, thought to be Russian after Putin officially received permission to deploy troops from his Parliament on Saturday. Since then, various media agencies have reported that Russian troops now exercise total control over the Crimea and parts of southern Ukraine. This week, Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to Kiev to meet with senior officials and discuss the extent to which the United States is willing to assist Ukraine, including the offer of a $1 billion aid package in the form of loan guarantees. As events unfold, what was once a blip on the United States’ foreign-affairs radar has quickly become a full-scale crisis.
The situation began last fall with the Euromaidan protests, during which Ukrainians demonstrated against the rampant corruption and violence of then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s administration as well as his strengthening the country’s relationship with Russia. In November, Yanukovych, elected from the pro-Russia “Party of Regions” in 2010, had made the decision to withdraw from negotiations for loan assistance from the IMF via the European Union, planning to accept $15 billion in aid from Putin instead. This enraged those who wished to see Ukraine move towards the EU and prompted protests in Kiev, the country’s capital. Although initially peaceful, reports of increasing police brutality soon emerged and Yanukovych was alleged to have directly ordered the shooting of civilians. Near the end of February, he and other top officials fled to Russia and the Ukrainian Parliament appointed Oleksandr Turchynov as the acting President, provoking Putin (who continues to acknowledge his ally Yanukovych as the rightful leader) to ask for and receive permission from Parliament to invade. His covert deployment of troops to parts of Ukraine has elicited outrage and condemnation from the United States. and most European leaders as the two countries head toward a confrontation.
Most Western news agencies have framed the dispute as a too-aggressive Russia taking advantage of Ukraine’s current political chaos. Despite this rhetoric, however, the situation in Ukraine is far more complicated than it appears to be. Like most of the former Soviet republics, the country’s ethnic demographics complicate its political scene. A nation of 45 million people, ethnic Ukrainians make up 78% of the populace while ethnic Russians constitute 17%. Those of Russian origin predominantly live in eastern and southern Ukraine, making those parts of the country more pro-Russia than the western and central regions, which favor alignment with the EU and Western governments. Crimea, the autonomous republic that is at the center of the storm, is mainly pro-Russia and is populated by an ethnic Russian majority. This is good news for Russia: Ukraine is strategically important to Moscow for many reasons, not least of which is that it leases bases in Crimea from Ukraine for its Black Sea Fleet, a significant component of its navy. Additionally, Russia sells large amounts of natural gas and crude oil to other European countries, much of which travels through Ukrainian oil pipelines. Add to that the rich resources provided by the Black Sea (mainly untouched natural gas along the coast) and it becomes clear why Russia has a vested interest in persuading Ukraine to join the proposed Euro-Asian Union and become more closely allied with its powerful neighbor.
As discussed, not all Ukrainians are on board with this plan. Many Ukrainians do not wish to see the country fall under Russia’s influence and would rather work toward EU membership. However, although anti-Russia sentiment is strong in certain parts of the country, other regions are staunchly pro-Russia and have welcomed Moscow’s interference. In Crimea, lawmakers have officially voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, an action deemed illegal by the United States and European leaders (whether the planned referendum on March 16 is passed by Crimean denizens remains to be seen.) Numerous citizens of eastern Ukraine have demonstrated their support for Russia on blogs and social media and to news agencies. The fact that Ukrainians are strongly split on attitudes toward Russia means that the current situation has often been oversimplified when presented to the general Western audience. While the United States and all six of the other G8 nations lament Russia’s disregard for Ukraine’s autonomy and international laws, reports come in of thousands of pro-Russia counter-protestors in numerous cities, displaying Russian flags as they storm government buildings and chant against the current administration. This deep ideological divide amongst the country’s people only muddles an already complex situation.
That brings us to the United States’ role in this ongoing saga. Despite strong words from both Obama and Kerry, America has not yet acted against Russia’s aggression. Leaders in Kiev have called on the United States and U.K. to abide by their 1994 non-proliferation memorandum that stipulates respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but the memo does not require military intervention, making the question of how involved the United States should be up for debate. Commentators have noted that Putin seems to be unafraid of U.S. disapproval and no longer views American retribution as enough deterrence from military aggression, most likely because the United States has a recent history of inaction in the face of his aggression (such as the 2008 invasion of Georgia) as well as crises in other parts of the world, including in Syria and North Korea. It is been argued that continued nonintervention could have dire consequences for the United States’ global standing and reputation in not only Moscow’s eyes but Beijing, Damascus, and Tehran as well. At the same time, Moscow believes that the new anti-Russia administration in Kiev is a puppet of Western forces, so American involvement may serve to reinforce that belief and perhaps worsen the situation for Ukrainians. The last thing that the United States wants is for Ukraine to become a failed state whose resources and strategic location Russia can then use to strengthen its own power, but Washington should also be wary of overplaying its hand and committing assistance that it may not be able to provide.
As it stands, relations between Russia and the rest of the world are becoming frostier with each new development. The G7 nations have postponed their plans for the June G8 summit in Sochi; Obama has stated that he will not attend unless Russia backs down. Meanwhile, the EU and North Atlantic Council have held numerous emergency meetings about the matter, with few solutions forthcoming. While the situation escalates in Crimea, the rest of the world scrambles to find an adequate resolution before time runs out.
Photo by Sasha Maksymenko