International News / News Articles

Unrest in Ukraine: Political and Military Crisis reaffirm East-West Divisions

by Robert Callobridge.

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In February, leaders of Ukraine’s government authorized the use of lethal force against protesters, an act that left 77 dead, demonstrators emboldened, and a fugitive president charged with mass murder. In the aftermath, Russian military forces landed in the country’s southern peninsula while the country veered ever closer toward financial and economic collapse. With the international community reeling from the bold nature of Russian invasion, the former Soviet Republic’s interim government is struggling to address an east-west divide that threatens to tear the country apart.

East-West Divide

Ukrainian civil unrest has been stewing since November of 2013, when President Viktor Yanukovych, who came to power on a wave of support from Russian-speaking minorities in eastern Ukraine, turned down a European Union (EU)-backed trade agreement and loan guaranty plan in favor of a Russian-backed proposal that left many of the structural changes demanded by the EU unfulfilled.

Since constitutional changes were hurried through the Constitutional Court of Ukraine shortly after Yanukovych was elected in 2010, the country has been polarized by a east-west divide between the Russian-speaking minorities of south and eastern Ukraine – including the Crimean Peninsula – and the more European-friendly citizens of western Ukraine. The decision on whether to accept the EU trade agreement offer was widely seen as an important factor in determining whether the country would align itself with Europe or Russia.

In the aftermath of Yanukovych’s decision to accept the Russian offer, pro-European protesters overwhelmed Kiev, the former Soviet Republic’s capital city that sits in the western part of the country. While initially peaceful, the protests turned violent in January amid brutal crackdowns on dissent from the Yanukovych government. By mid-February, the capital and many other parts of the country were plunged into turmoil.

Protests Turn Violent

Riots began on February 18th, when an estimated 20,000 protesters advanced on the buildings of parliament in support of reversing the constitutional amendments that were passed after the 2010 election. As they confronted police, violence erupted, with the police using tear gas, flash grenades and even live ammunition – including automatic weapons and sniper rifles – in an attempt to quell the massive crowds. Protesters eventually broke into and burned several buildings – including the headquarters of the Party of Regions, which Yanukovych led.

The following day, the authorities instituted a de facto state of emergency, with police checkpoints, travel restrictions, and school closures all in place. On February 20th, Minister of Internal Affairs Vitaliy Zakharchenko authorized the use of live ammunition against protestors, instigating the worst violence the country had seen in over a decade as at least 77 died in a 48-hour period. In response, Parliament suspended Zakharchenko and issued a decree urging an immediately end to military actions against protestors. Two days later, it impeached Yanukovych, issued a warrant for his arrest, and named Oleksandr Turchynov, speaker of parliament, as interim president.

Following the impeachment, Russian nationalist politicians and activists began demonstrating in Crimea, a southern province of Ukraine dominated by Russian-speaking minorities and loyal to their Russian ties.

Russian Invasion

On February 27th, thousands of armed soldiers wearing unmarked uniforms and wearing masks seized a number of important buildings in Crimea, including the parliament building and several airports. They cut off communications between Crimea and Ukraine and forced the Supreme Council of Crimea to dismiss the acting government of the region, replacing them with fiercely pro-Russia politicians controlled by the Kremlin.

These newly-installed Crimean leaders immediately issued pleas for help to Russia, attempting to prevent the popular uprising in western Ukraine’s Kiev from impacting the Russian ties of Crimea. On March 1, the Russian parliament authorized Russian President Vladimir Putin to use military force in Ukraine  — immediately inciting international concern and triggering an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

Turchynov, Ukraine’s acting President, said he had ordered the country’s armed forces to full readiness because of the “potential aggression”. He also issued enhanced security at the country’s nuclear power plants and strategic infrastructure. The interim government bolstered those actions with clear calls for Russia to immediately fall back.

While tensions mount, Russia insists its actions are only in protection of its citizens and interests, and cites “massive defections” of Ukrainian forces and undefined threats against Russian citizens. “If revolutionary chaos in Ukraine continues, hundreds of thousands of refugees will flow into bordering Russian regions,” the Russian border service said. State-owned news agencies claimed that more than 675,000 Ukrainians had already fled into Russia over January and February. Western reporters have determined most of those claims to be unfounded and unsubstantiated.

Despite the dubious claims, there was little resistance in Crimea against the incoming 6,000 Russian troops. The opposition to Russian invasion stemmed mostly from Kiev and other European capitals, wary of Russia’s motives and worried about the potential for the former superpower to destabilize the politically and economically fragile region.

The new government of Ukraine accused Russian forces of a major escalation in Crimea, saying the invading troops had demanded immediate surrender or threatened armed assault.

“What we are also indicated to the Russians is that if, in fact, they continue on the current trajectory that they’re on, that we are examining a whole series of steps – economic, diplomatic – that will isolate Russia and will have a negative impact on Russia’s economy and its status in the world,” said President Barack Obama, after previously intimated that Russia would “face costs” associated with its invasion.

Europe joined in the cries against Russia, with Polish foreign minister Rodosłow Sikorski saying “the EU will revise its relations with Russia if there is no de-escalation.”

The G8 have already stopped all planning for a conference of the world’s eight largest economies that was supposed to be held in Sochi, Russia.  But beyond vague indications of costs – outlined only tenuously by Secretary of State John Kerry following Obama’s initially threats – there seems little indication that the United States will follow up those statements with military action. When pressed by NBC’s David Greggory whether all options were on the table – a euphemism for threats of military intervention by the United States – Kerry re-iterated his outlines without answering the question.

In the mean-time, Russia consolidated its foothold in the Crimean, with some reports indicated the country had demanded the surrender of Ukrainian naval ports and seagoing vessels. Despite an hour-long call with Obama in the days following the initial invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin is continuing forward, with Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev – Putin’s deputy – beginning to call for the construction of a 12-mile bridge connecting Crimea with the Russian mainland.

On March 4th, in his first appearance since the Russian invasion of Crimea, Putin called the ouster of former Ukrainian president Yanukovych an “unconstitutional coup” and said that Russia reserves the right to use military force to protect its compatriots.  He later added that because Russia views Yanukovych as the sole legitimate leader of Ukraine, Russia was legally justified in invading Crimea because Yanukovych – who fled the country in late February and is largely believed to be awaiting asylum in Russia – requested it.

Western governments are largely baffled by the bold action, many struggling to perceive Russia’s endgame through Putin’s eyes. While some believe that this is the first step in a strategy that will lead to an eventual Russian annexation of Crimea and southern Ukraine, others believe that it is a means of Putin demonstrating the sustained influence he has over the country.

While Putin may be flexing his muscles in Ukraine, McFaul doesn’t “think [Putin] knows where he’s going with this in the endgame,” former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul told the PBS Newshour. “It’s a way to put on notice to the people of Ukraine and to the rest of Europe that he’s not just going to vie away, in his view, Ukraine.”

Following his announcement, 300 Ukrainian soldiers marched on Belbek Air Base in the Crimean, turned back only by warning shots fired by the Russian troops occupying it.

 The people of Russia “want it to be a country that’s respected in the world,” said McFaul. “I just was in Sochi just a few days ago, and Russians were incredibly proud of the new Russia, as they called it, that was on display there. This action in Crimea is wiping all that away.”

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