Crimean check

Print edition : April 04, 2014

Ukrainian soldiers at a checkpoint in Chongar village, near the Crimean border, on March 10. Photo: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS

Demonstrators holding Russian and Crimean flags and posters as they rally in front of the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol on March 6. Photo: Sergei Grits/AP

The Russian-speaking people of Crimea want a referendum held on the question of rejoining the Russian Federation.

THE celebrations in Kiev and some Western capitals following the installation of an “interim” government in Ukraine were short-lived. The unconstitutional regime change in the country seems to have boomeranged on the coup plotters and their Western backers. Overthrowing a democratically elected government can no longer be a cost-free venture as the fast-paced events in Ukraine have shown. The silent majority in Ukraine has struck back. Overnight, the people of Crimea rose up in revolt after the capital, Kiev, was taken over by the armed opposition.

President Viktor Yanukovich had got most of his votes from the eastern part of the country in the presidential election. His rival Yulia Tymoshenko’s support base had been in the traditionally pro-Western southern part of the country. It was obvious that it would have been difficult for the opposition to win an election in a fair and free manner given the linguistic and cultural make-up of Ukraine. “It’s an unconstitutional overthrow and an armed seizure of power. No one has challenged that. No one says that it is not true,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a press conference following the ouster of Yanukovich and the formation of a Western-backed government in Ukraine.

One of the first things the Ukrainian Parliament did after the ouster of the government was to remove the recognition given to Russian as one of the two official languages along with Ukrainian. The autonomous republic of Crimea was from the very beginning not comfortable being part of an independent Ukraine. The West-backed, extreme-right-wing-led putsch in Kiev was the last straw for the majority Russian-speaking people of the Crimean peninsula and large areas of the east. The “interim” government in Kiev has four Ministers belonging to the neo-fascist Freedom Party. Many of the protesters in Kiev who had massed in “Maidan” were seen wearing armbands with swastika-like symbols.

Putin has warned that in the forthcoming general elections announced by the interim government in Ukraine, neo-fascists and extreme nationalistic elements could “pop out” and gain control over the government. The leader of the “Right Sector” movement, Dymtro Yarosh, has announced his candidature for the presidency. This nationalist group played a crucial role in the overthrow of the legitimate government. Video footage has emerged of mysterious snipers targeting both security forces and demonstrators during the chaotic days leading to the ouster of Yanukovich. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Right Sector is “calling the tune” in Kiev and is using “terror and intimidation” as its methods.

Ukraine has a long history of xenophobic nationalistic politics. Many Ukrainians in the West actively collaborated with the Nazis, a fact that still rankles the Russian psyche. More than 20 million people in the Soviet Union lost their lives in the Second World War. Stepan Bandera, the leader of Ukrainian ultra nationalists, joined hands with the Nazis hoping to carve out an independent Ukraine. More than a million Jews were exterminated on Ukrainian territory. After the War, Bandera was feted by the West as a Ukrainian freedom fighter. He was assassinated, allegedly by the KGB, in the late 1950s in Vienna.

In the first week of March, the Crimean Parliament voted to hold a referendum on March 16 on the question of splitting from Ukraine and rejoining the Russian Federation. Crimea was part of Russia until 1954. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had decreed that it be made part of Ukraine for administrative purposes.

Both the upper and lower Houses of the Russian Parliament have unanimously approved of the steps being taken by the local administration in Crimea. The “interim” government in Ukraine has described the move as a violation of the country’s Constitution. The Barack Obama administration has also deemed the move illegal.

In other Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, including the industrial city of Donetsk, there have been big demonstrations demanding secession from Kiev. Many experts and commentators had warned about the dangers to the unity of the country if the democratically elected government was removed unconstitutionally.

Since the latest crisis erupted, Putin and Obama have been in regular contact. The Russian President has also been in touch with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and other European leaders. Germany is Russia’s biggest trading partner in Europe.

Washington had accused Moscow of dispatching an invasion force to Crimea. Under a long-term treaty, Russia is allowed to station troops in its military base in Sevastapol. At present, there are 25,000 Russian troops based in Crimea. Russian officials claim that most of the armed men surrounding Ukrainian military bases are local Crimean residents.

Putin has denied the accusations that Russian troops “invaded” the Crimean peninsula. According to Russian officials, their troops already based in Crimea had only ensured that the armed men did not use force to disarm Ukrainian soldiers confined to their bases and create a full-blown crisis that could then be exploited by Moscow’s enemies. Putin has accused Washington of having different yardsticks on the issue of military intervention. “It is necessary to recall the actions of the United States in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, where they acted either without any sanction from the United Nations Security Council or distorted the contents of the resolution, as it happened in Libya,” he observed.

There was widespread fear in the Crimean region and the eastern parts of Ukraine that those responsible for the violence in Kiev would use their newfound power and political momentum to send a military force to subjugate them. Hence the speed with which the Crimean parliament called for a referendum on March 16.

Washington has accused Moscow of instigating the move and has announced the implementation of “smart sanctions” against Russia. The European Union (E.U.) has reluctantly followed suit. But these sanctions are not being taken too seriously and are mainly of a cosmetic nature. Travel bans have been imposed on a few Russian officials and businessmen. Russia is now a $3-trillion economy and Europe is heavily dependent on energy supplies from the country.

Washington had initially warned that Russia would be excluded from the G8 if Crimea seceded from Ukraine. Announcing the sanctions, Obama cited the Russian actions in Crimea “as unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”. The U.S. has further strengthened its military presence in Eastern Europe by deploying additional fighter planes and also a guided missile destroyer ship to join a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Black Sea. Russia responded by staging massive air defence drills in western Russia. In the second week of March, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) ordered the deployment of AWACS planes to monitor the situation in Ukraine.

If the West has its way in Ukraine, the country will be the next NATO member. When President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to dismantle the Berlin Wall and the Warsaw Pact, he had got a commitment from President George H.W. Bush that NATO too would be dissolved. But despite the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the East bloc, the U.S. chose to expand it recklessly by including former communist countries in Eastern Europe and surrounding Russia with military bases. The interim Prime Minister of Ukraine, Arseny Yatsenyuk, announced on March 7 that he had already invited NATO to hold a meeting in Kiev to further strengthen the cooperation. Russia considers Ukraine a “fraternal country”. Most of the former Soviet republic’s trade is with Russia, and Crimea has had a special status within Ukraine as an autonomous republic. There are indications that Moscow is not all that keen to see the break-up of its neighbour. Russian officials have said that Moscow wants a legitimate government in place in Kiev even as Washington wants the international community to recognise the West-backed government as a “fait accompli”. The controversial U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, admitted in December that the U.S. had invested more than $5 billion “to ensure a secure and prosperous and democratic Ukraine”.

Many countries, including India, have supported Russia’s position. India’s National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon said there were “legitimate Russian and other interests” involved in the region. The Kremlin issued a statement in the first week of March that the new Ukrainian leadership had imposed “absolutely illegitimate decisions” on the eastern and south-eastern parts of the country. “Russia cannot ignore appeals connected to this, calls for help, and acts appropriately, in accordance with international law,” the statement said. Lavrov told the media in the second week of March that the only basis for constructive talks should be the February 21 agreement between President Yanukovich and the opposition under which a national unity government was to be formed and new elections held in December.

Besides, as many commentators have pointed out, Obama’s remarks on Crimea in particular smack of rank hypocrisy. In recent times, the U.S. has midwifed the birth of two new countries—Kosovo and South Sudan. Serbia, which considers Kosovo the spiritual heartland of the Serbs, had vociferously objected to the territory being detached. Even today, many countries have refused to recognise the breakaway state of Kosovo. The U.S. today has one of its biggest military bases in Central Europe. In fact, the Yugoslav Federation itself was first broken up by the machinations of the West. The final break-up of the Yugoslav Federation could only be achieved with the 70-day NATO war of 1999.

In 2012, South Sudan came into existence thanks mainly to the efforts of the Bush administration which arm-twisted the government of Sudan to allow its oil-producing part to secede. As illustrated by recent events, South Sudan was far from ready to become an independent nation. A fratricidal war is currently on in that country. The neoconservatives in the Bush administration were even talking of redrawing the map of West Asia by creating smaller states that could be easily manipulated.

It has also been pointed out that the Obama administration has vehemently objected to subjecting Israel to international sanctions despite the country illegally occupying Palestinian territory. Valentina I. Mativiyenko, the chairperson of Russia’s upper House, compared the scheduled referendum in Crimea to that which will be held in Scotland later in the year. Scotland is seeking to separate from Britain. However, the Kremlin is unlikely to incorporate the Crimean peninsula into the Russian Federation in a hurry. As things stand, Crimea has been under de facto Russian control since Ukraine became independent.