The situation in Ukraine has rapidly become one of the 21st century’s defining challenges. The crisis will likely have major ramifications for Russia, Europe, global actors like NATO and ideas such as sovereignty. Not least of all, the future of Ukraine is at stake.
Last November, President Yanukovych of Ukraine rejected the possibility of a trade deal with the European Union. More than 800,000 people gathered in Kiev, occupying Independence Square and the city hall, in large part to protest against perceived Russian interference. Rather than build cooperation with the West, Mr Yanukovych had looked east to seek closer ties with Russia.
In the early months of 2014, protestors and the government clashed dramatically, with parliament instating an anti-protest law that lasted less than two weeks. When Prime Minister Azarov resigned and the government released all 234 protesters arrested since December, the opposition withdrew from government buildings – for example city hall. In February, at least 88 people were killed, many by snipers. Nevertheless, the government did not fall. When Mr Yanukovych vanished, parliament voted to remove him from power, to set new elections for late May, and to appoint an interim president.
In March, Russia took action in Crimea, a peninsula controlled by Ukraine since 1954. Uniformed gunmen besieged key government buildings, but President Putin denied that they belonged to Moscow. The Crimean parliament voted to join Russia. According to the official results of a subsequent referendum, 97 per cent of Crimean voters agreed. In response, Mr Putin signed a bill to officially assimilate the peninsula. Russian soldiers then proceeded to storm military bases, and Ukraine began to withdraw its forces.
[pullquote]Uniformed gunmen besieged key government buildings, but President Putin denied that they belonged to Moscow[/pullquote]
The crisis in Ukraine demonstrates deep divides between Russia and the West. The United States and the European Union have since levied sanctions on Russian officials, and Russia has reacted in kind. Clear blocs have begun to take shape. President Obama and his administration have backed Ukraine’s interim government, which Mr Putin has said is the result of an “unconstitutional coup”.
The UN General Assembly—which is composed of all UN members states—passed a resolution that rejects the Crimean referendum and supports Ukrainian territorial unity. Yet according to recent anonymous reports from UN diplomats, Russia had threatened several eastern European, central Asian and African states ahead of the General Assembly vote.
Russia had previously vetoed a draft UN Security Council resolution criticising the Crimean referendum. It was the only member of the UNSC to vote against the resolution. China abstained. Russia has faced opposition from other international organisations. NATO recently suspended its cooperation with Russia, and at the moment the G8 is merely a group of seven.
The situation remains tense and complex, in part because each side has employed radically different narratives. For Russia, the annexation of Crimea was a response to an illegitimate coup that threatened the well-being of ethnic Russians. In Crimea, Russians make up nearly 60 per cent of the population. Moscow has therefore called upon Kiev to federalise Ukraine, giving each of its regions more autonomy to project their own interests and to defend their minority populations.
From the West’s perspective, however, the Ukrainian parliament overthrew its president in a legal, legitimate manner. Yet because Mr Yanukovych had close ties to Russia, his downfall had resulted in a serious blow to Russian interests. From a position of weakness, Putin invaded a sovereign state under the contrived pretence of defending minorities.
According to NATO intelligence, Russia has deployed 35,000-40,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern border. Moscow calls it a military exercise, although the deployment includes far less exercising and far more tanks and special forces. President Putin told Chancellor Merkel of Germany that he had given orders for a partial withdrawal.
[pullquote]Russia has deployed 35,000-40,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern border[/pullquote]
The next day, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen reported that the military alliance had not yet seen Russian troops pulling out. NATO’s commander in Europe has insisted that Russian forces could advance into Ukraine within just 12 hours of receiving orders. At a time when both Russia and NATO are finding a renewed sense of purpose, confusion and miscommunication is rampant.
In early April, the former President Yanukovych called Crimea “a major tragedy”. Now in Russia, he said he would attempt to persuade Mr Putin to return control of the peninsula back to Ukraine. “We must set such a task and search for ways to return to Crimea on any conditions,” he said, “so that Crimea may have the maximum degree of independence possible—but be part of Ukraine.”
The future of Ukraine is unknown, but perhaps all sides can agree that the situation is certainly tragic.