Hanging in the Balance: Ukraine’s Russian Republic

Posted on March 1, 2014 by


Over the past four or so months, Ukraine has witnessed protest and rioting that dwarfs its 2004 Orange Revolution in every respect. Beginning as a protest against what was seen as undue Russian influence in Ukraine’s last-minute withdrawal from an Association Agreement with the European Union, this volte-face in favour of closer Russian association soon came to encompass government corruption, ill-treatment of protesters, and the oppressive response of the Yanukovich government. Confronted with harrowing scenes such as those displayed below, the parliamentary ousting of Yanukovich prompted an international sigh of relief. However, a new conflict, brewing in the country’s southerly Crimea, threatens far-reaching and international consequences as Russia weighs up the merits of military involvement.

In this majority Russian region, granted the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, unrest has been percolating since it first became clear that Yanukovich’s days were numbered. Here the East-West cultural divide is more marked than anywhere in Ukraine, 59 per cent of the population identifying as Russian (compared to only 24 per cent Ukrainian), and typically holding pro-Moscow and anti-European sentiments—the ubiquity of the Russian tricolour at these events bearing testament to this. Nevertheless, a Russian hand is suspected—from the allegedly “pre-paid” protests, to the gunmen that stormed governmental buildings nights ago. As this publishes, the Russian government passes a bill to fast-track the annexation of foreign territory and the distribution of Russian citizenship.

The last time such measures were taken was in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia. The granting of citizenship, seemingly to any Abkhazians that applied, legitimised the Russian claim (as spelled out in the Defence Doctrine of 2010) to be protecting Russian citizens from harsh treatment at the hands of the (West-leaning) Georgian government. Nevertheless, comparisons with Georgia are more convenient than accurate, for while the Georgian War began on certain terms with the Georgian shelling of South Ossetia, Russian activities in Ukraine take place in a contractually grey area. Their port at Sevastopol allows for the troop movements and exercises widely documented in the last few days, though the seizure of airports and other administrative buildings is more clear cut.

Another comparison, made frequently whenever ethnic tensions arise, is with the former Yugoslavia. Though these tensions are without a doubt genuine, and just as in Yugoslavia were lighted by a political spark, the absence of any historical grievance or mythology so overbearing in the Yugoslav Wars of the ’90s makes nonsense of the claims that ethnic cleansing is imminent.

The key to understanding the situation in Ukraine is an appreciation for Russia’s military doctrine of recent years—some parts old, and warranting the Cold War lens so prevalent in Western analyses, and others new, reflecting Russia’s rising ambitions in international affairs. Firstly, though the Soviet Union dissipated in 1991, the appeal of buffer states—enshrined since the Second World War as a ‘no man’s land’ between Russia and its adversaries—endures, and Ukraine is perhaps the greatest of them. Secondly, having just recently announced plans for naval bases as far abroad as Venezuela and Singapore, the loss of the home of perhaps its proudest naval asset, the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Ukraine—especially given the precarious situation of its only Mediterranean port in Tartus, Syria—would be untenable. That such a fate might befall Russia less than a year after announcing its plans to field a permanent global naval presence might only add insult to injury.

What the future holds for Ukraine and Crimea is uncertain. The impact of the revolution on its economy is considerable, and the turn to the West will necessitate painful economic austerity as mandated by the IMF—a stark contrast to the comfortable fuel subsidies afforded allies of Moscow, the largest energy supplier in the region. Whether a full-scale invasion will take place (a creeping, non-declaratory takeover seems more likely), and indeed whether the opposition has any available means to prevent it (including foreign assistance), is yet to be seen. All signs point to an assertive Russia that would still rather avoid scandal. Nevertheless, the situation in Crimea already sets an incredible precedent and will have profound consequences for the future of the post-Cold War world.

CC image courtesy of Sasha Maksymenko, Flickr.