Cold War II

Print edition : March 21, 2014

An opposition demonstrator holds a Molotov cocktail during clashes with the police in Kiev on February 18. Photo: PIERO QUARANTA/AFP

Viktor Yanukovich, who was forced out of office and had to leave Kiev. Photo: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP

Yulia Timoshenko. She hopes to return to the political centre stage. Photo: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP

Members of the Interior Ministry in plainclothes who were detained by anti-government protesters during clashes being escorted out after they were granted freedom in central Kiev February 21. Photo: REUTERS

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland in Kiev on February 6. Photo: Andrew Kravchenko/REUTERS

The threat of civil war and disintegration looms large over Ukraine, caught between the European Union and Russia.

THE stand-off between the opposition and the government in Ukraine since November was seemingly resolved after the signing of a peace accord on February 21. The agreement between the government and the three main opposition parties was initialled in the presence of the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and Poland after violence escalated in the third week of February. Russia, too, sent a high-level delegation to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, as part of its efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the violent impasse that has been on for some time. But even before the ink was dry, the truce unravelled. The threat of civil war and disintegration of the country now looms large.

Despite Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich virtually capitulating under the intense diplomatic, political and economic pressure exerted by the West and having conceded to almost all of the opposition’s demands, he was forced out of office and had to leave the capital. His executive powers unravelled within 24 hours of his signing the accord with the opposition. Many of his own colleagues in the ruling “Party of the Regions” deserted him. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who had earlier praised Yanukovich for agreeing to a peaceful transition, turned around to congratulate the putschists on the success of their “revolution”.

The European Union (E.U.), goaded by its leading members France and Germany, had a big role to play in the regime change drama enacted in Kiev. On February 20, the E.U. imposed sanctions on Ukraine, including the freezing of assets and the banning of visas for government leaders. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the imposition of sanctions by the West as “blackmail” and said that it was encouraging the rioters to resort to more violence. “Both the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian President have more than once demonstrated their goodwill and proposed a compromise. In particular, they agreed to free those arrested in Maidan [the centre of the anti-government protest] in exchange for the freeing of the occupied administrative buildings. The government has honoured its part of the agreements, but the opposition has disrupted theirs,” Lavrov told the media during an official visit to Baghdad in the third week of February.

American interference

Leaked intercepts of phone calls between United States Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt reveal the depth of American interference in the internal affairs of the country. The two officials are heard discussing the possible scenarios of regime change in Ukraine while disparaging the role of the E.U. in colourful terms. “F--k the E.U.,” Victoria Nuland is heard saying. Pyatt is heard naming his preferred candidate to succeed Yanukovich. The two also made a highly publicised visit to Maidan where they distributed cookies to the protesters, many of them members of the neo-fascist Svoboda Party.

The Obama administration wants its own preferred candidate, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the leader of the Fatherland Party, to lead Ukraine. The E.U.’s favoured candidate is the former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko. “The highest ranking State Department official, who presumably represents the Obama administration, and the American Ambassador in Kiev are, to put it in blunt terms, plotting a coup d’état against the elected President of Ukraine,” observed Stephen Cohen, Professor Emeritus at New York University.

A statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry blamed the U.S. and the E.U. for turning a “blind eye” to the aggressive actions of the right-wing groups in Ukraine. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, speaking after the dramatic events in Kiev, said that the Kremlin would henceforth only do business with leaders “with legitimate and effective authorities—a leadership which people are not wiping their feet on like a doormat”.

Interim President

Immediately after the exit of the President from the capital, the rump in the Ukrainian Parliament passed a resolution impeaching Yanukovich and appointing Oleksandr Turchynov as the interim President. He is a close associate of the opposition leader Yulia Timoshenko, who has been in jail on corruption charges since 2011. The Parliament set May 25 as the date for new elections to be held.

Yulia Timoshenko was released from prison immediately after Yanukovich left the capital. She rushed to Maidan to address the jubilant demonstrators. Yulia Timoshenko, who came to power on the back of the “Orange Revolution” in 2004, seems to be harbouring hopes of a return to the political centre stage. She has excellent relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had made her release from prison her personal cause. The opposition, consisting of many factions and financed by oligarchs opposed to the government, are far from united. The ultra right-wing Svoboda Party, having neo-Nazi tendencies, played a leading role in the anti-government protest and violence.

Yanukovich has since retreated to the eastern region to mull his next move. He has described the happenings on February 22 as a coup d’état and insists that he continues to be the democratically elected President of the country and will never relinquish the presidency to opponents whom he describes as “Nazis”. However, his own party has issued a statement criticising him for his “cowardice and decision to flee”.

Lavrov, talking on phone to the three European Foreign Ministers who negotiated the short-lived peace deal, accused the opposition leaders of reneging on their commitments and said they “were following the lead of armed extremists and pogromists whose actions pose a direct threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and constitutional order”. Russia has not yet announced its decision regarding the continuation of its $15-billion bailout package for Ukraine. Moscow has recalled its ambassador to Kiev.

The anti-government demonstrations of the last three months have been the biggest since the Orange Revolution (2004-05) that brought to power a pro-Western government led by Yulia Timoshenko. At that time too, the target of the protesters’ ire was Yanukovich, the country’s President. The opposition at the time attributed his victory in the elections in 2004 to rigging and corruption. Since then, the country has been polarised between the mainly Russian-speaking east and the more pro-European western part of the country.

Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union, is heavily dependent on Russia for its energy imports. Russia and Ukraine have shared historical and cultural roots. More than 20 per cent of the population in Ukraine is Russian speaking. Crimea, along with its port of Sevastopol, was ceded to Ukraine in the 1950s when Nikita Khrushchev was the Soviet leader. Russian officials have said that if Ukraine breaks up, Moscow will assist Crimea in the same way it helped South Ossetia in its war with Georgia.

As recent electoral trends have shown, a significant section of the populace in the western region wants Ukraine to cut off its traditional ties with Russia and become a full-fledged member of the E.U. But the people of the more industrialised eastern region want to move in the opposite direction. Many observers, in fact, predict a Yugoslavia-like scenario for Ukraine, with the country splitting into two or three parts. A break-up of Ukraine would also be a trial run for a similar exercise to be undertaken in Russia under the overall supervision of the E.U. and the U.S.

Yanukovich, after he won the elections three years ago, tried to tread a middle path, having established good relations with both Moscow and the West. But by the beginning of last year, he seemed to be veering towards the E.U. by initially agreeing to sign a trade and political agreement with Brussels. However, at the eleventh hour, he announced that he was not yet ready to sign the deal with the E.U.

It is no secret that the Russian government is not too happy with losing yet another former Soviet Republic to the West. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) will be able to further encircle Russia militarily if the West succeeds in its plan for a regime change in Ukraine. In the second week of December, the Ukrainian President, in the face of massive protests, announced that he would start negotiations with the E.U. again on the proposed free trade agreement. “We want to achieve conditions which satisfy Ukraine, Ukrainian producers, the Ukrainian people,” Yanukovich said. Yanukovich’s statement came after he held an “all-nation round table”, which included three former Presidents of the Republic—Leonid Kuchma, Leonid Kravchuk and Viktor Yuschenko.

Meanwhile, the turmoil has affected the country’s economy further. The country is in urgent need of the $15-billion loan it had asked from the International Monetary Fund. The IMF has introduced conditions, which include the removal of gas subsidies for domestic consumption. This will increase the price of domestic heating by 40 per cent. Besides, most of the gas consumed in Ukraine comes from Russia, which could retaliate if Ukraine once again cosies up to the West. With its network of energy pipelines, military bases and heavy industry, Ukraine has avidly been courted by the West ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

As it is, the Ukrainian economy is dominated by a group of oligarchs. Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions, like the opposition, is backed by powerful oligarchs who have their business interests in the east of the country. Most of them want their country to veer towards the E.U. and the West. Western media reports claim that both government policy and the protests are being strongly influenced by a group of oligarchs. “The Ukrainian oligarchs see better long-term possibilities to secure their wealth and find a foothold in the world market through collaboration with the E.U.,” an analyst told Financial Times in London. For the E.U. too, Ukraine, with its population of 46 million, extensive raw materials and productive agricultural land, is an attractive prospect for full membership.

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