Ukraine is on the brink of crisis. The president has fled, the public is in an uproar, and the country’s sovereignty has been threatened. The international community is scrambling to come to Ukraine’s aid—but interpretations of what that constitutes vary greatly, especially between Russia and the West.
The crisis began to unfold last November when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned an association and free-trade agreement with the European Union in favour of negotiations with Russia for cheap gas and a $15 billion credit line. Yanukovych was criticized for backing out of an opportunity to strengthen ties with the West, which many Ukrainians believed would have greatly benefited their country’s economy. In the subsequent months, Yanukovych had lost support from even his closest allies, including those within his own political party.
On February 22, 2014, Ukraine’s Parliament voted to impeach Yanukovych, who had fled Kiev on the preceding evening. The ousted president only recently resurfaced in Russia, and continues to maintain his claim as the legitimate leader of his country. He has since denounced the actions of Ukraine’s parliament as a “coup d’état.”
In Yanukovych’s absence, the Ukrainian parliament has authorized an interim government in Kiev. Although the West recognizes the legitimacy of this authority, Russia has denounced the new administration and instead supports Yanukovych’s assertions that the regime was established as a result of a coup. The State Duma has equated the transition of power to an act of fascism and terrorism posing a threat to both Russians living in Ukraine and their “compatriots,” or “brotherly people of Ukraine.” As such, Moscow has deployed troops to Crimea, a peninsula on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, in an effort to defend human rights against “ultra-nationalist” forces in Ukraine.
As of March 1, 2014, Russia has been in de facto military control of Crimea, and the Russian parliament has granted President Vladimir Putin permission to use troops beyond the Crimean region—or in other words, in Ukraine as a whole. Ukraine has thus far responded to the influx of Russian troops by ordering full mobilization and preparing for war. According to several sources, Russia has issued an ultimatum to Ukrainian defence forces in the region: surrender or face the consequences of full assault. No shots have been fired as of yet.
Some sources speculate that Russia has taken the opportunity to seize Crimea by exploiting the instability in Ukraine. As a post-Soviet state, Ukraine is especially sensitive to Russian foreign policy decisions. Particularly within the nationalist-minded western Ukraine, many have expressed pro-European sentiments—these fuelled demonstrations against Yanukovych’s unpopular decision in November 2013. However, Russia still finds a large degree of support amongst the industrialized eastern region of the country, specifically within Crimea. Russia had been the dominant power in Crimea since annexing the territory in 1783. In 1954, Moscow transferred its authority over the region to Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union. Following Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the Crimean region has served as an area of tension between the two countries.
According to the 2001 census, a majority of Crimea’s population is Russian, while only 24 percent are ethnic Ukrainians. This has afforded many supporters to Russia, and in the days following March 1, 2014, pro-Russia demonstrations broke out in major cities in eastern and southern Ukraine. In the eastern city of Donetsk, about 2,000 people waving Russian flags congregated around a regional government building to protest the appointment of a new pro-Kiev governor, dozens of whom later stormed the building, chanting “Putin, come.” Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, also experienced unrest when pro-Kiev activists clashed with Russian supporters trying to enter an administrative office. The protest quickly turned violent, leaving dozens injured.
The West claims that Russia has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty. The United States, the United Kingdom, and other nations within the European Union have urged Moscow to withdraw its troops from Crimea, and have implemented strategies of increased diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia.
The United States has suspended trade talks and military-to-military engagements with Russia. US President Barack Obama has accused Russia’s military advance as an action violating international law, and US Secretary of State John Kerry plans to visit Ukraine to support the government in Kiev. The European Union has given Russia a 48-hour deadline to return its troops to their barracks in Crimea, and is preparing to issue sanctions against Moscow if its demands are not met. NATO will hold a second emergency meeting on the crisis on Tuesday, March 4, 2014.
The international community has an incredible stake in the impending crisis in Ukraine. War would have devastating implications for not only Ukraine’s economy, but for the global economy as well. International stocks have already begun to slip as a result of escalating tensions between Ukraine and Russia, and will continue to fall as the crisis worsens.
Although both Russia and Western governments state that they support a peaceful resolution, the competing views of how to achieve this end goal may serve to prolong and exacerbate the conflict in Ukraine.