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Ukraine Between a Rock and Russia

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Posted on Mar 6, 2014

By Ivo Mijnssen and Philipp Casula

  Russian soldiers guard a pier where two Ukrainian naval ships are moored in Sevastopol, Ukraine. AP /Andrew Lubimov

International observers rubbed their eyes in disbelief Tuesday morning. After days of troop buildups at the Russian-Ukrainian border, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the soldiers back into their barracks. Everything was only a drill, Putin said, not connected to the overthrow in Kiev of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine. Putin thus presented Western leaders who had called the situation in Crimea “the biggest crisis in 21st century Europe” and “the most serious crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall” as irrational and overreacting.

In the preceding days, however, the Russian army had sent up to 16,000 soldiers into Crimea. Moreover, Putin had received an explicit authorization to invade Ukrainian territory from Russia’s parliament. Although no Russian soldiers officially invaded the peninsula, mysterious, professionally led and well-armed troops took control of most strategically and politically important institutions. They also surrounded Ukrainian army bases, many of which gave up their weapons more or less voluntarily, effectively forestalling all possibilities for resistance. The Russian side denied that these soldiers were Russian, calling them “local self-defense units” instead. The reason for this is that while existing treaties with Ukraine allow Russia to station up to 25,000 troops on the peninsula, they have to remain at their bases. Not surprisingly, a senior U.S. administration official claimed that Russian forces had taken “complete operational control of the Crimean peninsula,” a perception widely shared among observers on the ground.

Russian actions have effectively ensured that Crimea, which has the status of an autonomous republic within Ukraine, is no longer subject to Kiev’s authority. Russia thus meddled in the internal affairs of a sovereign country. Putin, in a news conference Tuesday, justified this intervention with the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian leadership and the threat to ethnic Russians in southeastern Ukraine and Kiev. Ukrainian parliament deposed Yanukovych after the killing of more than 100 demonstrators on Feb. 18 and 20.

In the eastern parts of Ukraine and on the Crimean peninsula, clashes ensued among ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars. In multiple cities, among them the Eastern Russian industrial center Donetsk, pro-Russian forces occupied parliament buildings. Unlike in Crimea, Russia did not intervene directly. In the peninsula’s capital, Simferopol, however, parliament elected a new prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, after the aforementioned masked soldiers took control of the building and cut off deputies’ communications to the outside world. Although Aksyonov declared that Crimea’s future will be decided by a popular referendum on extended autonomy March 30, he has already taken the initiative: His government moved to establish a separate defense ministry and a navy, all in close collaboration with the Russians.

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The fact that Russia’s takeover of Crimea occurred without any resistance has historical reasons. Crimea had belonged to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union since the 18th century. As a result of Russian colonization and the migration of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians to the peninsula, Crimea’s population is today made up of a Russian majority.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided in 1954 to award the peninsula to Ukraine, a decision whose background remains unclear until today. It had few consequences in the Soviet Union, where borders mattered little. With Ukrainian independence in 1991, however, the question of Crimea and particularly the Russian Black Sea Fleet stationed there, became extremely contentious. Conservative Russian deputies’ unwillingness to cede Crimea to Ukraine was one of the main reasons for then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s decision to shell parliament, which left hundreds of people dead. In 1994, Russia nevertheless signed the “Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances,” definitively awarding the peninsula to Ukraine in return for all nuclear weapons stationed in the newly independent country. Ukrainian governments signed two highly controversial treaties allowing the Black Sea Fleet and Russian troops to remain stationed in Crimea until 2042 in exchange for generous financial support.

For Russia, then, the fate of Crimea carries strategic, political and emotional importance. Ukraine in general and Crimea in particular are part of what Russia considers its “Near Abroad,” a term describing parts of the former Soviet Union with large concentrations of ethnic Russians outside of Russia’s state borders. Moscow clearly allots to the former Soviet republics a special place in its foreign policy, based on a shared history, common language and close economic ties.

Russia reserves the right to exercise privileged influence in its neighborhood, particularly when ethnic Russians are concerned. “The protection [of] these people is in our national interest. This is a humanitarian mission,” Putin said about a possible intervention in Ukraine. In Russian politics, one can thus discern an odd mix of emotional attachment and geopolitical assertion in the Near Abroad. After what Russia perceives as its period of weakness following the Soviet collapse in the 1990s, the leadership under Putin has insisted on this sphere of influence more aggressively in recent years.


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