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.
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.