Borderland Blues

Geopolitic troubles haven’t abated for Ukraine ever since it was formed from the debris of the Soviet collapse, but the recent crisis is simply a symptom of the East-West confrontation
Sabika Zehra Delhi

It all began when hundreds of Ukrainian protesters, mostly students, who camped at the Independence Square in Kyiv, woke up to the beating and manhandling by the riot police in the early hours of November 30, 2013. Videos and images of this violent crackdown and clearing of the national monument by the government authorities served as a battle cry that spread across the country, gathering hundreds of thousands of masked anti-government protesters into the city centre. Similar to the anti-Morsi protests in Egypt, the Independence square in Kyiv was reclaimed by the public and the allegedly ‘corrupt’, albeit democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, pulled a disappearing act. Since that momentous day, the country has been at war with itself, resulting in loss of territory–Russia annexing Crimea–and a civil war in Eastern Ukraine. Worse, it has become a bloody battleground between Russia and the Western world over issues of energy and hegemony.  

Ukraine continues to sit on the cannon of chaos after new and frenzied elections on 25th May 2014, and amid expectations from the popular ‘messiah’ – the West-backed billionaire the country mandated to take it out of political and economic instability. Restoring stability appears to be a mammoth task, especially after the violent change of its government, annexation of Crimea by its formidable neighbour, chronic economic lethargy, an emptying sovereign coffer, and most recently, the fierce separatist wave gripping the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Billionaire Petri Poroshenko, who was declared President after he secured almost 56 per cent votes, reiterated that his priority would be strengthening ties with Europe, citing it to be the appropriate pathway to getting Ukraine back on the track of progress. However, his victory has not elicited a collective sigh of relief on the streets of Ukraine. Many separatists in the eastern parts have refused to recognize him as the new president, just as Poroshenko publicly refused to cut any deal with the armed groups in the Russian-speaking East, and instead adopted a tough line with the “insurgents.”

Furthermore, the elections themselves have received a mixed response from various international monitors. Oleksandr Turchynov, Uraine’s acting President, declared the voting to be “free, without artificial restrictions and administrative pressure.” US President Barack Obama also issued a statement congratulating Ukrainians for casting their ballots “despite provocations and violence” and condemned the Russian-backed separatists for “disenfranchising entire regions.” Furthermore, a team of more than a thousand European observers, sent to Ukraine by Organization for European Security and Cooperation (OSCE), also gave the elections its stamp of approval. However, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, voiced his displeasure arguing that not all candidates were given equal opportunity to campaign properly. In addition, he said that many candidates even faced threats to their lives, while others were assaulted.

(Dis)advantages of strategic location for weak states

Violence and instability is on the rise as clashes between forces from Kyiv and the armed pro-Russian separatist groups intensify in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine. Kyiv accuses Russia of supporting the separatist movement and covertly providing assistance to the militants in the form of weapons and other supplies. These protesters proclaimed their break from Ukraine and announced their own “independent” country, People’s Republic of Donetsk. They have blocked 80 per cent of the voting centres in the Sunday elections in these regions and taken over the Donetsk airport. As a response, Kyiv launched airstrikes at the sites occupied by eastern rebels and undertook its most visible and vigorous government military operation against the separatists, plunging the regions further into a state of mayhem.

All of this leads to the question whether Ukraine has ever remained stable since the post-Soviet independence.  Even a cursory look at the political evolution of this country, aptly called “The Borderland” (literal translation of “Ukraine” into English), reveals an inherent lack of political autonomy. Ukraine has served as the playground of Western and Russian interests to a point that there are deep fractures within its domestic constituencies – the pro-European, Catholic, ethnic Ukrainian-dominated Western province and the Russian-speaking Orthodox people with a neo-Soviet tilt in the Eastern province. Attempts by one wing of Ukraine to dominate the other have historically been the reasons for conflict. In the wake of aggressive global realpolitik, a strategic geographic location for weak states turns out to be a curse, as is evident in the cases of Afghanistan, Syria and now, Ukraine. These countries have become a chessboard for grand power-politicking games. The Ukrainian crisis could be seen as a part of a larger East-West confrontation.

Contrary to popular idealist conceptions that revolutions can’t be bought or made, we have routinely witnessed externally orchestrated revolutions and their dire consequences, especially since 2011, all over the world. The general perception about the revolutions in Ukraine have transformed from an enthusiastic, proactive and hopeful glow of the 2004 Orange revolution against election fraud, to enormous uncertainty about the future and even fear of a full-fledged civil war. The violent protests in Kyiv that ousted a democratically elected pro-Russian President and the antagonistic counter-revolution carried out in the Southeastern part of the country are seen by many as the harbinger of a bloodied national disintegration. There is strong evidence that organizations such as USAID, National Endowment for Democracy and other NGOs have funded the protest groups that demonstrated against Yanukovych in Kyiv. In response to the western interference and assistance in Kyiv, Russia has fanned the separatist movement in the eastern parts of the country and initiated a counter-revolution.

Clash of international interests

Ukraine shares an intricate historical past with Russia, dating back to the 9th century with the founding of Kievan Rus, the first eastern Slavic state. Ukraine is also an eminent economic ally that Russia wants to include in its proposed Eurasian Union (a customs union with eastern European countries such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia). Militarily, Ukraine acts as a buffer zone between Russia and the West. The two countries also have a bilateral agreement that grants Russia its only warm water port, as also its Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.

Russia views EU’s efforts to expand eastward to Ukraine as detrimental for Russian national interest, as it would lead to the strengthening of Western institutional ties at the expense of their Russian counterparts. The Russians view the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program as a stepping-stone towards an ultimate military alliance that would bring NATO right to the Russian borders. A comparable situation emerged earlier in 2008 in Georgia, which led to a brief war and the Russian occupation of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. While Russian President Vladimir Putin justified his country’s role in Ukraine as an attempt to protect the ethnic Russians from the “neo-Nazism” emanating from Kyiv and being supported by the west, in Crimea he held that Moscow was merely assisting the free choice of the population, using the example of western intervention in Kosovo and assistance in achieving independence from Serbia in 2008.

Conversely, EU and US policymakers have resorted to a series of steps to exert their influence and protect their interests in Ukraine. Both EU and US announced $15 billion and $1 billion respectively in economic aid and technological assistance over a span of a couple of years to Ukraine, on the condition that it abides by the policy reforms and austerity measures recommended by the International Monetary Fund. The actions of Russia are strongly condemned by the West and United States as a stark violation of international law, including the non-intervention articles in the UN Charter, and breach of the 1997 Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation between Russia and Ukraine that required mutual respect for territorial integrity. The US, EU, Japan and Canada have imposed sanctions on more than seventy Russian and Ukrainian officials and businesses with links to the Crimean incident and separatist tensions in the eastern parts. The US has also undertaken a number of initial steps to reassure allies in the regions by sending F-16 fighters to Poland to begin joint military exercises. It also reinforced NATO’s air presence in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and also Poland.

The Ukrainian crisis could also be considered as a part of a larger energy war. NATO and EU are desperate to end their dependence on natural gas from Russia. On the other hand, Russia needs to protect its vital economic interests by maintaining its near monopoly of natural gas by its state-owned corporation, Gazprom. Russia supplies 30 per cent of Europe’s natural gas and more than 80 per cent of that travels via pipelines that run through Ukraine. Russia also supplies 35 per cent of Europe’s oil. If the deal between Putin and Yanukovych for economic integration of Ukraine with Russia (instead of the EU) had passed, NATO and EU’s energy dependence on Russia would only increase.

Over the last two years, energy giants such as Chevron, Exxon, and Shell have discovered several new natural gas fields in western Ukraine and Poland. These deals were being blocked by the proposed trade deal of Ukraine with Russia. However, with the ousting of Yanukovych, the natural gas field deals in Ukraine are being signed between the corporations and the new pro-EU administration in Ukraine. This threatens Gazprom’s energy monopoly in the region. Russia is responding by scrapping the gas price discounts for Ukraine, therefore pressuring the neighbour by increasing its debts to almost 2 billion US dollars. Putin also warned Europe about a probable disruption in the gas supply because of its interference in and the aggravation of the political turmoil in Ukraine.

Possibility of reconciliation

Henry Kissinger notes that “if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s (EU or Russia) outpost against the other – it should function as a bridge between them.” He also highlights the inherent and historic links of Ukraine with Russia, that prevent Russia from considering Ukraine “just another foreign country,” which should be taken into account by western policy makers. Nonetheless, Russia must realize that forcing Ukraine into becoming a satellite state and continuing on this path of aggressive politics would result in heavy costs for Moscow and a repeat of history of reciprocal pressures from Europe and US. However, any hope of an absolute resolution of the Ukrainian crisis rests on compromise between the different factions within the country. The only way Ukraine can hope to achieve stability is if it is able to cultivate its political and territorial autonomy such that it can maintain beneficial relationships and cooperation with both the West and Russia, without being controlled by either. 

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