‘The only thing Ukraine really needs is to have Russia stay away from it’

The recent referendum in Crimea which showed voters wanted to join Russia was a serious blow to Ukraine, says Mykola Riabchuk, Research Fellow, Institute of Political and Nationalities’ Studies, Kyiv, and EURIAS visiting fellow at Vienna’s Institut for Human Sciences (IWM). Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Hardnews: 

Mehru Jaffer Lucknow 

What next, now that Crimea is no more a part of Ukraine?

The Russian takeover of Crimea is a serious political, diplomatic, and probably economic blow to Ukraine. It is a more serious blow to the entire post-WWII international order. In modern Europe, it is the unprecedented annexation of the territory of a sovereign state by a stronger neighbour, creating a new situation where the rules of international law do not apply and sheer might makes an aggressor undeniably right. On the one hand, the Russian move looks like a mere continuation of Russian — both Soviet and pre-Soviet — policies of bullying and blackmailing weaker neighbours as a primary political tool.

On the other hand, Vladimir Putin’s Russia crossed the red line twice. First, it not only recognized the “independence” of Crimea, but  also absorbed it immediately into the Russian Federation. This is something Russia had never dared to do with the Georgian Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Moldovan Transnistria. Second, Russia brutally violated the Budapest Memorandum, even though it was one of its signatories.

Back in 1994, Ukraine gave away its post-Soviet nuclear arsenal in exchange for security guarantees from all nuclear states, including Russia. Now, all nuclear aspiring countries will think twice before trusting any
international guarantee.

The West will react with various sanctions but the effect will be limited  on large, self-sufficient countries like China and Russia. This means that  Crimea will remain part of Russia in the foreseeable future even if its military occupation and annexation are not recognized internationally, exactly like the case of the Baltic states or the Japanese part of the Kurily Islands taken by Stalin.

Any cloud, however, has a silver lining. For the West, it might be farewell to illusions that Putinist Russia is an uncomfortable, but an acceptable partner in international affairs. The country that plays a zero-sum game and violates rules at its convenience should be treated as a rogue state. For Ukraine, the silver lining means a chance to consolidate the nation across regional, ethnic and linguistic lines. There are many signs today of external threat making many citizens of Ukraine think deeper about their citizenship, national belonging, and the need to solve internal problems peacefully, without external interference. For Russia, the silver lining might mean a gradual recognition that Ukrainians are different, they don’t dream about any “brotherly reunification”, and the best way to make Russia great and modern is not to suppress Ukraine’s westward drift but, rather, to follow it.

 

Please put into historical perspective the 1954 gifting of  Crimea to Ukraine.

The common wisdom disseminated by global mass media says that Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 as a propagandistic “gift” to celebrate 300 years of the so-called “reunification” of Ukraine with Russia. All the pre-1954 history of Crimea is either explicitly non-existent or implicitly “genuinely Russian”.

In fact, Crimea is a historical homeland of the Crimean Tatars, the only native people of the peninsula who, through the end of the 18th century, held their own state and cherished a vibrant culture like the still impressive Renaissance palace of Crimean khans in Bakhchisarai.

After the Russian takeover of the peninsula, they were subjugated and marginalized by the colonizers, and ultimately deported wholesale, within one night, by the Soviets in 1944 to Central Asia. Only by the end of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika were they allowed to come back but got no land or property or any assistance from the authorities. Instead, they encountered an extremely hostile reaction from the colonial settlers who never expressed any regret or repentance for the historical injustice or any sympathy for the ethnically cleansed people. Russian chauvinism, racism, and Islamophobia are quite conspicuous in the peninsula. The Crimean Tatars have pinned their hopes on Kyiv and the European Union (EU) rather than on Moscow for protection from the chauvinistic majority and for a boost to their cultural and economic revival.

Today, they are under real threat as more and more reports appear in the press about violent attacks by Russian nationalists on Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians and all pro-Ukrainian citizens in Crimea. While Ukrainians are able to find shelter in mainland Ukraine — and hundreds have already flown away from the Russian nationalistic mob, Tatars have no place to go. They are actually the one group in the peninsula that really needs international protection. It is simply immoral to sacrifice them to Russian nationalists and criminals who run the peninsula on Russian bayonets.

 

Why is Ukraine taking so long to settle down  after its independence?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2014