Western leaders in the US and Europe are triumphant about the upheaval in the Ukraine which has led to the overthrow of the country’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich.
They hope this turn of events will create a pro-western Ukraine to be eventually integrated into both the EU and NATO. They are also glad to take the wind out of the sails of Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin who has had a good run of diplomatic successes recently, ranging from brokering a deal on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, to hosting the successful Winter Olympics in Sochi.
But Western leaders should be very careful what they wish for. The most likely outcome of the chaos in Kiev is prolonged political instability, deepening economic crisis and the intensification of ethno-political divisions that could lead to a split country, with the weak rump of western Ukraine allied to Western powers, while the south and east aligns with Russia.
Putin’s regime is unsavoury in many respects but Russia must be a partner in any resolution of the Ukrainian crisis. There can be no winner in a zero-sum game between Russia and the West and the victims will be the Ukrainian population.
Yanukovich’s fall has been compared with the so-called ‘Orange Revolution’ of 2004-2005 in the Ukraine, when popular demonstrations forced a re-run of the presidential election Yanukovich had rigged in his favour. In the new election Yanukovich lost to his pro-western rival Viktor Yushenko. But the Orange Revolution was a peaceful protest that forced a judicial review and a new election in accordance with the constitution. This time Yanukovich has been overthrown by armed confrontation and a parliamentary coup.
Yanukovich was democratically elected President of the Ukraine in 2010. He won what most observers consider to be a free and fair election. Yanukovich won because the Yushenko regime was seen to be divided, corrupt and ineffectual.
The same has been true of Yanukovich’s regime. The proper way to remove him, then, would have been through legal, peaceful and democratic means. Instead, a precedent has been set for violence, not democracy, to be the rule in Ukrainian politics.
When in November last year Yanukovich turned down an EU association agreement in favour of a direct economic deal with Russia, the trouble began. The EU offer came with political strings attached, including the release from prison of the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution who subsequently fell out with Yushenko.
Nor was the EU financial package large enough to help Ukraine pay off its massive debts and stave off national bankruptcy. Because the EU has its own debt problems — as we here in Ireland know — its largesse in relation to Ukraine is limited, although the EU would probably be willing to provide more aid to a pro-western Kiev government.
Russia, on the other hand, offered Yanukovich a US$15 billion aid programme and reduced energy prices. Yanukovich accepted that deal because it offered the best hope for Ukraine to survive its current economic crisis.
He is not particularly pro-Russian; like most Ukrainian leaders he has favoured a policy of balancing and playing off between Russia and the EU.
Yanukovich’s decision to accept the Russian offer was immediately interpreted by pro- Western Ukrainians as a decisive turn away from possible EU membership. Mass popular demonstrations quickly followed in the capital Kiev and elsewhere in western Ukraine.
These legitimate protests gradually escalated into violent confrontations with the authorities that were hijacked by ultra-nationalist, right-wing extremists. When the police attempted to use brute force to clear demonstrators from the streets and to end their occupation of government buildings, scores of people were killed and hundreds more injured.
Yanukovich’s attempt to restore law and order and to reassert his authority as elected President failed when the police and army were unwilling to carry through a repressive operation that would have resulted in even larger-scale casualties.
Meanwhile EU negotiators were arranging a deal with Yanukovich in which he agreed to form a government of national unity and to hold early presidential elections.
But this did not satisfy the ultra-nationalist, right-wing extremists in control of the streets of Kiev who demanded that Yanukovich go immediately. Parliament responded by declaring Yanukovich deposed and, on its own authority, calling a presidential election to be held on May 25. Yanukovich has fled Kiev, reportedly to the Crimea. A warrant has been issued for Yanukovich’s arrest for mass murder and the Ukrainian parliament has voted that he be handed over to the International Criminal Court for trial.
Tymoshenko has been released from prison and will be one of the favourites to win the presidential election if she decides to stand. Her close ally, Alexander Turchinov, is the Acting President appointed by parliament. But it difficult to see how this election could garner sufficient legitimacy to hold the country together and allow order to be restored.
Rather, it is likely to further inflame the situation. The planned presidential election will not be in accordance with the country’s current constitution. Armed groups remain in control in key cities and towns in western Ukraine and in the capital, Kiev. Pro-Russian regions of south and east Ukraine — which constitute half the country — have refused to recognise the legitimacy of the new regime in Kiev. Such political chaos can only exacerbate the economic crisis.
If events continue their present course, Ukraine will fragment along an east-west ethno- political divide. In western Ukraine the ultra-nationalists and their armed supporters could become a dominant force, making uncomfortable bedfellows for the liberal democrats of the US and the EU.
It would also become a weak state, economically dependent on American and EU aid for its financial survival. Much of Ukraine’s wealth and industry is concentrated in the east and this region can be expected to increasingly turn towards Russia where it already has extensive economic and ethnic ties.
The first to secede from the Ukraine and to ally itself with Russia, could be Crimea. A majority of the people living on the Crimean peninsula are Russians, who don’t consider themselves to be Ukrainian, or that Crimea is part of the Ukraine. Indeed, Crimea only became part of the Ukraine in 1954 when it was given as gift to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic by the communist leader of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev.
Ironically, Crimea was gifted to Ukraine as part of the celebrations of 300 years of Russian-Ukrainian unity. Of course, at that time, the assumption was that Russia, the Ukraine and Crimea would all remain part of a single Soviet state. But when the USSR broke up in 1991 the successor states were based on the extant boundaries of the Soviet Republics, which meant Crimea remained in the Ukraine. The Russians in Crimea were not happy about this, but there was little they could do about it.
Crimea is the site of a major Russian naval base at Sebastopol – a city-port that during the Second World War withstood a German siege for nine months before going down to heroic defeat. In Russia the epic defence of Sebastopol is almost as hallowed as the siege of Leningrad and the victory at Stalingrad. The memory of those events is one of the deep ties binding Russia and the Crimea.
But nothing is ever simple in the Ukraine, and the Crimea has its own ethnic problem in the form of several hundred thousand Tatars who don’t want to join Russia. Many of them are descendants of Tatar families accused of collaboration with the Germans during the war and deported from the Crimea in 1944-1945. Russia claims to have no designs on the Crimea, apart from the maintenance of its Black Sea naval base at Sebastopol, and says that it should remain part of the Ukraine.
But there are plenty of precedents that suggest Moscow’s attitude could change. In 1990 an area called Transnistria, which was populated by ethnic Russians, declared itself independent of the then Soviet Republic of Moldova, which has historic ties with Romania. When Moldova became independent in 1991, following the breakup of the USSR, Transnistria remained independent and along with Russian help, fought a war with Moldova to remain separate.
Transnistrian independence, such as it is, has been underwritten by Russia ever since.
A more familiar example of Russia sponsoring secession is that of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These two territories are breakaways from Georgia. In 2008, Russia fought a war with Georgia in defence of their secession and then recognised their sovereign independence. It is not difficult to image Russia acting the same way in relation to Crimea and the Ukraine. The new regime in Kiev has made it clear that will not accept secession, but it may not have the wherewithal to prevent it.
The identification with Russia is less strong in east Ukraine but this was Yanukovich’s political base – a region dominated by Russian speakers with an economy dependent on the Russian market. East Ukraine’s differences with West Ukraine are religious as well as linguistic, economic and political.
While the Eastern Orthodox Church predominates in east Ukraine, west Ukraine is mostly Catholic. For long periods of history east and west Ukraine were separated economically, politically and culturally. The most recent period of separation was from 1917-1939 when eastern Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and western Ukraine a territory of Poland. The two parts of the country were only reunited because of the Second World War and the Red Army’s invasion of Eastern Poland.
Publicly, Moscow said at the time the Red Army had been sent in to protect Ukrainians following the German invasion of Poland and the first deal with Hitler allocated east Poland (which contained Western Belorussia as well as Western Ukraine), to the Soviet sphere of influence in return for Russia’s neutrality when he attacked Poland. This was the notorious Nazi-Soviet pact of 23 August 1939.
For Ukrainian nationalists – particularly the armed ultras — it is an uncomfortable fact that a united Ukraine was created by Soviet force of arms in 1939. But what role will Russia play in today’s unfolding events? Will it help to seal the cracks in Ukrainian unity or will it facilitate further fragmentation?
Ukraine occupies a very special place in Russian national consciousness.
According to the country’s foundation myth, it was in ancient Kiev that the first Russian state was established. Russian and Ukrainian are part of the same language group. Indeed, for millions of Ukrainian citizens, Russian is their first language. The Russians consider the Ukrainians to be their Slavic brothers and sisters and see Russian-Ukrainian unity at the heart of Russia’s rise to be a great power in the modern era. Millions of Ukrainians work in Russia and there is extensive cross-border migration.
In contemporary Russian eyes, Ukraine is the most important part of its “near abroad” – the border zone of former Soviet Union states. It is a zone in which Russia expects to wield power and influence commensurate with its status as a great power. Russia also has extensive business interests in Ukraine and the territory is crucial for the transit of Russian gas and oil to western Europe.
From a security point of view the Russians are concerned that Ukraine could serve as a platform for a further eastward expansion of NATO— a September 1939.
Behind the scenes, Stalin had done a deal with Hitler that allocated east Poland to the Soviet sphere of influence in return for Russia’s neutrality when he attacked Poland. This was the notorious Nazi-Soviet pact of 23 August 1939.
President Putin has a grand vision for a Eurasian Union to rival the EU and the loss of the Ukraine to the west would be a grievous blow to that plan.
Russia’s response to the new regime in Kiev has been predictably negative. Moscow has refused to recognise the new government and the $15 billion financial package has been suspended. If it comes to the crunch Russia will opt for a separatist solution but a divided and unstable Ukraine is not in its interests.
Russia wants a partnership with Ukraine and the West in which its interests are protected and its sensibilities respected. Russia will only become a problem for the Ukraine if its backed into a corner by the extremists and ultras and feels obliged to protect its ethnic kith and kin.
* Professor Geoffrey Roberts, a specialist in Russian and Soviet history, is Head of the School of History at UCC.