By Robin Kunst
Staff Writer

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


By Rashika Rakibullah
Staff Writer

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