By Robin Kunst
Ever since the pro-Western opposition gained the upper hand in Kiev, pro-Russian forces, which mainly did not participate in the Maidan rebellion, took over the airports and regional parliament in the eastern part of Ukraine. The developments of the last weeks have led to thinly veiled Russian military intervention. But why is Russia so eager to take control over the peninsula?
To answer that, it is important to understand the ties between Ukraine and Russia. Before the current conflict, Crimea was an autonomous region in Ukraine. Of the approximately two million people living there, 25 percent are Ukrainians and about 60 percent are Russian. The Crimean peninsula was part of Russia under the Soviet Union federation until Nikita Khrushchev made it part of his home – the former Socialistic Soviet Republic of Ukraine. Russia seems to have been regretting that mistake ever since.
Simply stated, the peninsula is strategically important for Russia. Russia’s main navel base in Sevastopol not only provides Russia’s navy access to the Black Sea but more importantly to the Mediterranean Sea, which the Kremlin is unwilling to leave in the sphere of inﬂuence of the EU and the U.S. Navy. Additionally, Crimea provides access to the unstable gulf region and the Middle East. Sevastopol harbors more than 2,500 warships and contains as many as 26,000 troops already. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia negotiated a deal that allowed Russian troops to stay stationed in Sevastopol until 2017 in exchange for lower prices on gas imported from Russia. Former President Yanukovych extended the lease agreement until 2042.
President Yanukovych’s flight presents Russia with the challenge of an unforeseeable future for this deal and its Black Sea Fleet. As a result, the Kremlin responded by sending 6,000 troops to Crimea. It is clear that the current developments in the region is perceived as a threat to Russia’s interests in the region. The Western integration of Ukraine is a slap in the face of Russian diplomacy. The opposition parties shift their attention now towards each other now that the common enemy is out of the picture. Ukraine is at the brink of civil war.
In a recent interview, President Vladimir Putin made clear that Yanukovych’s removal from ofﬁce was unconstitutional and assured full support for the former Ukrainian president. This stance is only fueling the already fiery tensions that have ruled the country for months. The BBC assumes that the Crimea is becoming the lynchpin of a struggle between Ukraine’s new leaders and those loyal to Russia. As if the political struggle were not enough, the country faces ﬁnancial hurdles and relies heavily on foreign aid, which Russia provided until recently. Ukraine needs $ 35 billion in the next two years to prevent default on its loans. Meanwhile, Russia has suspended the next installment of a $ 15 billion loan due to the ongoing political uncertainty. Ukraine’s financial predicament is an opportunity for Russia. The dependence on foreign aid makes it possible to build pressure and ensure that Russia will not lose its inﬂuence on Ukraine. However, the United States and the European Union are both working out financial aid packages that will limit this influence.
Also, the International Monetary Fund is expected to negotiate and provide ﬁnancial aid to the Ukrainian interim government. The EU had already held out the prospect of € 840 million in exchange for a free trade agreement earlier—part of what actually started the crisis. Due to the fragile situation, aid is expected to increase. Such an agreement would pave the way for the western integration of Ukraine, thereby weakening Russia’s hold over the country. It is doubtful that the Kremlin will stand by idly and watch its inﬂuence slip away.
According to Russian ofﬁcials, soldiers have been sent to Crimea only to protect Russian citizens. What they need protection from, however, remains to be seen? Until recently, Russian was accepted as an ofﬁcial language in areas where the Russian speaking majority is at least 10 percent. While the interim government has overridden these laws, this action was taken mostly in response to Russian aggression. Regardless, the Kremlin argues that there is the possibility of more laws being passed that will discriminate against the Russian minority. Thus, Putin continues moving tanks and troops to Crimea.
Against this backdrop, the news of Putin receiving a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize can seem almost laughably ironic. However, he and all of Russia will continue to play an important role in the future of Ukraine and can help prevent the country’s decent into violence. But for this to happen, Russia has to accept the demand of the majority of Ukrainians to integrate more into the EU. It will be a huge concession for Russia to loosen its grip on Ukraine, and so far Putin seems reluctant to do so.
Some hope lies with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who many believe can inﬂuence Putin. So far, telephone calls between the two leaders have led to no new agreements. Merkel considers herself as part of the Western alliance and not as “neutral” negotiator. She will not travel to Moscow to negotiate or sway Putin unless she can be certain to return to the EU with a deal. In the meantime, Putin seems to encourage a political course that is stuck in the past, led by egomania and a craving for status. The political situation in Ukraine is a ticking time bomb and Putin holds the tools to defuse it.
Photo by World Economic Forum