While searching for a topic to write about this week (the Afghan and Indian elections will have to wait until there is a result to write about) I found a video on the BBC showing the Russia media coverage of events of recent days in Eastern Ukraine. The contrast to the information the rest of the world has been seeing is astounding. So today I’d like to go through four aspects of this video, to see what Putin is saying and what the reality in Eastern Ukraine really is.
While Ukraine remains tense, and the threat of Russian invasion is still present, the last weeks haven’t seen too many new big events in the country. So today I want to focus on an allegation that has been thrown time and time again at the new government in Kyiv – that they are fascist anti-Semites. Is this true? Well firstly, which political parties are we talking about here? And how much influence do they have on the new government?
This weekend, Putin took the Crimea crisis and put it beyond diplomacy. As far as he is concerned, after the referendum last Sunday Crimea is now part of the Russian Federation, making negotiation unnecessary. This also makes all the Ukrainian soldiers besieged in their bases across Crimea foreign occupiers on Russian soil, and last night saw the first casualty of the conflict – apparently a junior officer named Kakurin. Other Ukrainian military men across the peninsula have been kidnapped or attacked. In response the Ukrainian government has allowed its soldiers to fire in self-defence. Whether Ukraine backs down or starts further violence, in either case Russia has changed the game of international politics in a stunning way. So today it’s important to not only look at the immediate consequences for Crimea, but also at what this means for international politics.
After seeming on the verge of war in the weekend, the situation in Ukraine seems to have temporarily stabilised, after Putin said there was no need to send troops to Ukraine. The use of force however is still a last resort. While suggesting that an invasion of Eastern Ukraine isn’t going to happen soon, this does ignore the thousands of Russian troops currently occupying Crimea. Ukrainian soldiers remain barricaded in their bases, surrounded by Russian soldiers. Earlier on Tuesday Russian soldiers fired in the air when other Ukrainian soldiers attempted to enter their own base. So how has Putin justified the Russian actions? And how do these justifications stand up?
“Events in Kiev amount to an anti-constitutional coup”
Putin makes a good point with this. The way Yanukovich was voted out of office by the parliament was possibly unconstitutional, and was at the least very unorthodox. However it is a vital point that Yanukovich left Kyiv for Kharkiv, and took away the security around government buildings. The opposition and protesters merely filled the power vacuum he left behind.
As for whether the protests leading up to the bloody events of February 20th were a coup, it depends on whether you side with the protesters or not. There were protesters, mainly Right Sector nationalists/fascists, who used violence against police. But the protests were peaceful until the police tried to clear the Maidan by force. The use of snipers by the police was also illegal, as protesters who posed no threat were shot. But Putin is certainly right to say that this was not the usual way to remove an elected President, no matter how corrupt.
Russian forces have not taken part in operations in Crimea
This is a lie. Russian troops are active in Crimea, they are blockading Ukrainian bases, and they are outside of their legal naval base in Sevastopol. The armed men who took over government buildings before the weekend were heavily armed and all equipped with the same weapons and uniform. A far cry from the protesters in Kyiv seen with air rifles. While there may be some “pro-Russian militia” as Putin calls them, Russian troops are definitely occupying Ukrainian territory. Every journalist in Crimea has confirmed this.
- The BBC’s Mark Lowen was told by an armed man that he was “a Russian soldier, based usually in Sevastopol”.
- Russian Armoured Personnel Carriers have been seen moving around Crimea, flying the Russian flag.
- Russian vehicles have been seen with licence plates from other parts of Russia
- Experts have said that the weapons and gear carried by the soldiers is only used by Russian elite soldiers such as the Spetznaz.
- Personal friends of mine living in Crimea have told me that there are Russian special forces present in their town, a long way from the naval base in Sevastopol.
Stating that all the actions taken in Crimea were by local pro-Russian groups flies in the face of reality.
Russian actions in Ukraine are in accordance with international law
This is also untrue, though it is made more complicated by the fact that the US and France have also taken actions in the past that were similarly illegal. Russia had no permission from the UN to intervene, and there was no immediate threat to civilians to justify this intervention (see the next point below). Russia has produced a letter by ex-President Yanukovich asking Putin to use force. However this is invalid for two reasons, the first being that the constitution of Ukraine states that only the parliament can authorise foreign troops in Ukraine. It’s also invalid because the letter is dated to the 1st of March, three days after Russian soldiers first entered Ukrainian territory.
However, the West is on shaky ground in condemning Russia for an illegal invasion. The US invasions of Iraq in 2003 or Grenada in 1983 were not approved by the UN, and there was no immediate threat to civilians or to the US. Grenada was condemned by the UN as a violation of international law. Both France and the UK also have a history of intervening in African conflicts. However the statement all children hear growing up applies here too: “two wrongs don’t make a right”. The Russian intervention is still illegal.
Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine are in danger from nationalists and neo-Nazis
While some in Ukraine may feel this way, nothing has yet happened to make these fears real. They have a real cause for complaint in the fact that their interests are not represented in the revolutionary government. Taking away Russian’s status as an official language at regional level was also badly timed by the government. But there have been no attacks on Russians or anyone else since the revolution, despite Russian claims to the contrary. It is understandable that people in the East of Ukraine feel uncertain and afraid seeing images of protesters taking control in Kyiv. However there has been nothing that in any way would justify armed intervention.
Crimea would choose to join Russia anyway
While the majority of Crimeans are ethnically Russian, 24% are ethnically Ukrainian and 12% are Crimean Tatar. These last two groups are less enthusiastic about joining Russia. The current Prime Minister of Crimea, appointed in the last few weeks, is a member of a party that received only 4% of votes in the last election. While the majority of Crimeans certainly are against the new Ukrainian government, the actual numbers in favour of re-joining Russia are unclear, and there are plenty of people who want the situation to remain as it is.
Both sides of the East-West divide can be accused of hypocrisy. The West is now condemning an illegal invasion while having conducting plenty itself. However, the hypocrisy of the Russian leadership is stunning. Time and time again they have blocked even criticism by the UN of the Syrian government, which has committed huge violations of human rights. In a bizarre comment the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday “An intervention through force under a pretext of protecting civilians causes the opposite, multiplies the suffering of peaceful citizens, and strips them of their fundamental human right – the right to life”. Thus begging the question “what is Russia doing”.
Finally, in recent days I have heard online and in conversations people repeat the above points about the hypocrisy of the West. There have also been plenty of people saying the West pushed Russia into action. This may all be true, but we cannot forget the country at the centre of this. This crisis is about Ukraine, and it is not Ukraine’s fault that the West lost some of the moral high ground. Ukraine shouldn’t be a plaything of the East or West, it deserves to be able to determine its own future. The next few days will show whether or not it will be able to do so.
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In the last few days, Russian troops have invaded Ukraine. Putting it as a clear statement like that shows clearly how dangerous the situation has become. It hasn’t come as a dramatic crossing of the border, but as a steady trickle of uniformed men taking over government buildings and transport nodes in Crimea. On Friday the airports were taken over; yesterday there were soldiers with heavy machine gun outside the Crimean parliament. Today Russian soldiers have surrounded Ukrainian army bases. Events have been moving so fast that the media has had trouble keeping up, let alone Western politicians. So what’s going on in this ethnically Russian region of Crimea? What is the endgame for the Russians? And why on earth are they taking such a risk?
If you’re wondering what’s so special about Crimea, here is a good explanation of why it was this region that is the focus of Russian attention.
It’s hard to say what exactly is going on in Crimea at the moment, are events are moving so fast and in such confusing ways. Focussing on actual events would be fairly useless, as within 24 hours this post would be outdated, so I’ll focus on the why’s and how’s of the situation. But the situation as of today is that either Russian soldiers or Russian controlled militias are in control of Crimea to a good extent. The Russian parliament has given Putin the green light to use the army on the territory of Ukraine “until the normalisation of the socio-political situation in that country”. In other words, until Russia has got what it wants. But what does it want?
The main factor behind this is that Putin is angry. What he would most like is to go back to the deal set up between Yanukovich and the opposition last month. That deal however fell through immediately, and the opposition took advantage of that to take over the country. This completely removed any Russian influence on the government. Putin’s also furious with the EU and US for consistently supporting the protesters and that is a fair thing to be frustrated about. If a Russian politician had gone to New York to give a speech at Occupy Wall Street the US would have thought that was outrageous. But his response to this anger has been to jump straight to almost the most violent response he can take.
This response though has been both subtle and extremely transparent. Everyone thought that it was a possibility that the Russians would intervene in Crimea, which is why no one expected them to do it. It was almost too obvious. Every step they took was such an obvious next step towards invasion that nobody believed they’d actually do it. But at the same time the method of invasion has been subtle. Instead of sending in uniformed Russian troops, they used militias and Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms. This meant they could claim that the Crimeans were doing it themselves, in the same way protesters in Kyiv took over government buildings. The Russian government then continued to say that they were not involved, while doing exactly the opposite, meaning the West had no clue how to react. Only now are Russian soldiers becoming openly involved.
So what will happen now? It’s impossible to say. This is the most dangerous situation in Europe since the end of the Cold War, and if Russian soldiers cross into Eastern Ukraine things could very quickly get out of hand. It seems most likely that Russia is trying to destabilise Ukraine, to keep them weak and prevent a strong EU allied state being set up on their doorstep. But this just as well could be the beginning of a full invasion of Eastern Ukraine. No one knows for sure, maybe not even Putin.
The problem is that the Russian government is not acting in the way you’d expect a rational government to do. The relationship with the West is at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War and Russia has lost the goodwill of the world built up (at the cost of 50 billion dollars!) at Sochi. The risks of these actions are tremendous, and it’s hard to see what the gains are. But Putin seems to be acting out of a nationalist mindset in which the outside world’s opinion is unimportant, and strength is the only thing that matters. The new Ukrainian government, made up of a mix of revolutionaries and politicians, is lacking in strength and will have to work hard for unity. This makes it almost impossible to say what will happen in the next few days. But it’s highly unlikely that it will be anything good for anyone involved.
On Wednesday I will post with an update on the situation, and a look at how the West has reacted and what else it can do.
Last week saw the most violent events in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history. Almost 100 people were killed in Kyiv, with many of them being shot by police snipers. After a day of horrific violence last Thursday, a deal was made to end the conflict. But just 24 hours later President Yanukovich was gone, protesters were in control, and parliament had voted in a new interim President. So how exactly did everything take place so fast? And with Ukraine divided and uncertain, what will happen next?
For an overview of the reasons for the protests, see my post from last month: Protests in Ukraine – A fight for the future
After the deal was signed to end the violence, it seemed for a few short hours that that would be the end of things for a while. In many ways that would have been a more politically unifying option for Ukraine than what’s happened now. While it left Yanukovich still in power after so many deaths, it at least kept the Eastern provinces and Crimea involved in politics. These are the supporters of Yanukovich, and the provinces that lean closer to Russia. With Yanukovich as President until election, they would have had someone in power who represented them. But events overtook the deal.
On Saturday Yanukovich was nowhere to be found, and there was no security around all government buildings. It’s actually still unclear why he not only left for Kharkiv at such a moment, but took away all the security. Revolutions are always full of this sort of confusion. But in any case, by the end of the day the opposition was in control of the country. Ordinary Ukrainians were wandering through Yanukovich’s palace of a house, which was now guarded by protesters to stop looting. It shows how corrupt he was that he could afford all this in his 4 years as president of a poor country.
So what’s the situation now?
At the moment there’s a clear divide between parliament and ex-President. Parliament is on the side of the revolution. It has ordered the release of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, and elected one of her allies Oleksandr Turchynov acting President. Yanukovich has been deposed, and today parliament recommended he be sent to the International Criminal Court. Parliament has the strong support of Kyiv and the Western provinces, as well as the ministries. Even the Interior Ministry, the ones who employ the feared riot police Berkut, have switched over to the revolution.
On the other side there is Yanukovich. He’s now a fugitive, and losing support even in the East of the country. Sources say he tried to leave the country through the airport in his hometown of Donetsk, but his bribes were refused by border guards. Still however, the East and Crimea do not support the revolution. They see the Western Ukrainian protesters as fascists, something that goes back to the early days of the Second World War. Many Western Ukrainians supported the Nazis for a short while, seeing them as an escape from Stalin, until the Nazis showed how brutal they could be.
This divide is a huge problem for the new government. It’s not quite as simple as is portrayed in the media, with the West wanting Europe and the East wanting Russia. Most Easterners are proud to be Ukrainian. But they feel no allegiance to the new government, and they suspect (probably correctly) that the government feels little allegiance to them. In the eyes of the East the revolution was a coup. It’s still very unclear what the Eastern provinces will do, and whatever choice they make will have a huge impact on the country.
Winners and losers
The big loser in this is Russia. Ukraine has indicated they will now sign the EU trade deal that started this whole thing off back in November, which leaves Russia back where they started. They see the new government as illegitimate, and are absolutely furious at the turn this revolution took on Saturday. Any reports of Russia considering a military intervention to ‘protect’ the Crimea or the East are highly unlikely though. This would destroy the relationship with the US and EU, and isolate Russia completely, as well as risking a more widespread war.
The big winner in this is the EU, seeing as Ukraine looks like it will join the trade pact after all. The deal between Yanukovich and the opposition, even if it did fall through, was a triumph of negotiation, especially for Poland and its representative. Finally, with all the problems the EU’s been having, seeing Ukrainians fighting for their place in Europe will make Brussels feel a bit better about the future.
At the moment making predictions for the coming days and weeks is wild guessing. It’s still unclear what the response of the East and Russia will be. The new government will have to work hard to stay united, with at least four very different leaders who might want to run for President. Ukraine’s economy is in deep trouble, and hard decisions will need to be made. But for the moment, these are the few days after every revolution when people are living in the moment, and realising what they’ve done. Hopefully the new leaders of Ukraine will find strength for the difficult days ahead.
I lived in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk for 5 years, and the problems of the country are therefore not just something happening in a distant place. I hope that these protests will eventually be able to bring real change to Ukraine, and a government worthy of the great people who live there.
This week the long-running protests in Ukraine turned violent, with riots on the snowy streets of Kyiv, and the first deaths reported on Wednesday. Barricades have gone up around the centre of Kyiv, and for the first time the protests spread to other cities. So what exactly is happening? What do the protesters want? What has the government response been? And what does this say about the future of Ukraine?
The protests started in late November after President Yanukovich backed out of a trade deal in the EU in favour of a deal with Russia. The protests were at first mainly pro-EU and against Russian pressure, but have now become more focused on opposing a government system they see as corrupt and oppressive. Thousands of people have packed Kyiv’s central Maidan Square and set up camp, despite the freezing temperatures and snow. Events flared up again since the 16th of January after the government passed anti-protest laws (through a highly suspicious show-of-hands vote in parliament) that brought in harsh new punishments and restrictions, and were condemned as “anti-democratic”.
After the police tried to disperse the protest under the new laws, riots have begun on Hrushevskogo Street, also in the centre of Kyiv. These protesters are more radical, and less inclined to negotiate with the government. This video shows how violent the riots are, and how heavily the police are cracking down. Also this week the protests spread outside of Kyiv, to cities mainly in the west of the country. In numerous places protesters took control of regional government offices, even forcing the governor to resign in Lyiv.
While this started as a movement in favour of the treaty with the EU, this is now something far greater. Ukraine is a country with a truly dysfunctional political system, which has only gotten worse under the current President Yanukovich. The government works in a heavily authoritarian, top-down manner, without a strong free press to counter it. It is supported by a symbiotic relationship with oligarchs, whose business efforts prosper from close government contacts. Unfortunately the opposition is divided and ineffective. Even when they got into power after the 2004 Orange Revolution, they quickly succumbed to infighting and the corruption of the system. This last issue is another reason for protests, the incredible corruption in Ukraine. It affects everyone in the country, and spoils everyone in government.
This government’s response to the protests has been simultaneously heavy-handed and ineffective. In the night of the 30th of November police violently cleared the Maidan square, which only caused the protest movement to really get going. After the protest laws were passed this week the police caused rioting by attempting to disperse the protests. Three people have died, including one man who was apparently taken to a forest where he was tortured and left to die, and there are numerous videos online showing police brutality (Warning: link contains graphic content). Part of the problem is the specific forces being used against the protesters. They are the Berkut, special well-paid riot police, who have a reputation for brutality, and are strongly loyal to the government. Unlike the badly paid regular police, the chance of them turning against the government is small.
However, the major problem the protesters have is the East/West divide in Ukraine. As can easily been seen on this map from the BBC, the protests are a very Western phenomenon.
Support for the protests in the East of the country is much more limited. In the city of Donetsk, where I lived, Russian is the only language used, and support for Yanukovich is extremely high, despite the corruption. The area is heavily industrial, and has very close trade ties to Russia. Western Ukraine on the other hand has historically looked towards Europe, and has always been eager to escape the Russian grasp. These events could pull the country further apart, though there is also possibility that the scenes of police violence in Kyiv could widen support for the protesters.
So what happens now? The president has offered opposition leaders concessions, and even the job of Prime Minister. However the leaders have refused, demanding new elections and the signing of the trade deal with the EU that started this all. It is also unclear how much control these leaders have over the protesters, especially the more radical ones. Joining government could alienate these radicals, and mean the opposition leaders become sucked into a system which is seen as corrupt. At the moment it remains a battle of wills, with President Yanukovich clinging on to power, and the opposite holding out to achieve all its goals. Hopefully the result of this fight will be a freer and more democratic Ukraine.
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