Over three months after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, Ukraine has witnessed the growing prominence of right wing organisations, supported by the West in an interim government. Increasing East-West tensions have resulted in sanctions against Russia and the Crimean Parliament voting to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. While diplomacy has commenced with U.S.-Russia talks, the Ukraine crisis is going to be protracted.
Q. What are the core issues at stake for Russia and the West in this crisis?
The dispute has acquired a Cold War flavour. The West is trying to expand its influence and wrest Ukraine away from Russia despite their strong historical and cultural links. Russia wants to retain Ukraine as a buffer between itself and NATO, which has, despite undertakings given to the last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, as the Soviet Union dissolved, moved steadily eastwards.
Historically, Ukraine has had the closest links to Russia – it was a part of the Russian empire for 400 years. The Russian Black Sea Fleet has been based in Sevastopol in Crimea for the last 200 years. So close were relations that Crimea, a part of Russia, was gifted to Ukraine in 1954 by the Ukrainian-origin General Secretary of the Communist Party, Nikita Khruschev.
Losing influence in Ukraine could jeopardise Russian access to the Black Sea and therefore, the Mediterranean Sea, which will negatively impact Russia’s ambitions to remain a global player.
Q. Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama, along with his European partners, have both taken positions on the legalities of Russia’s actions in Crimea. Whose assertion is more credible?
The legal issues relate to considerations of sovereignty and interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine, and both are probably culpable, though in different measures.
EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, European foreign ministers and American officials have been visiting the Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kiev and openly exhorting protesters against the elected president. At the same time, there is a widespread belief that Russian organisations were strengthening the pro-Russia elements in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
While the West accuses Russia of violating Ukrainian sovereignty by sending troops into Crimea, Russia claims that the troops were always based in Crimea and that now any action they take will be to protect Russian-speaking citizens — after a law allowing Russian to be used as an official language in Ukraine was scrapped — and their compatriots.
This is a valid position if the western record on the so-called responsibility to protect is invoked. American and NATO forces have entered numerous countries for reasons ranging from the protection of their own people to saving the locals from their rulers – from the Reagan administration’s invasion of Grenada (1983) to the bombing of Libya (2011). Today, there are American-led forces in Afghanistan, following the 2001 terror attacks in the U.S., and until recently in Iraq, under the pretext of neutralising weapons of mass destruction that, in fact, did not exist.
Q. Are Russia’s actions a violation of the 1994 ‘Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances’, under which Russia, the U.S. and the UK agreed to accept the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine as an independent state?
This agreement was signed shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Ukraine as an independent country. It was intended to ensure that Soviet-era nuclear warheads based in Ukraine were removed from its territory and dismantled: 1,600 were indeed handed over to the Americans.
It is possible to argue that at the time, Russia was so weak that it was coerced into giving the undertaking, which was not in its interest. Under the subsequent 1997 ‘Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between the Russian Federation and Ukraine’, Russia received 82% of the Black Sea Fleet’s ships after paying the Ukrainian government a compensation of $526.5 million. The initial agreement for the Fleet to stay in Crimea was extended by 25 years beyond 2017, and it allows Russia to station up to 25,000 troops there. So, in terms of treaties, the Russians seem to have acted correctly.
Q. While the NATO countries are broadly on the same page about the course of action in Ukraine, they have different interests. For example, Germany watered down the EU’s conclusions on Ukraine after its favoured Ukranian leader, Vitaly Klitschko, was sidelined in the interim leadership. What are Germany’s interests here?
Germany is Russia’s biggest European trading partner and a large consumer of Russian gas. It has, over 20 years – since the dissolution of Soviet Union – sought to build a productive relationship with Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is aware that the announcement by the EU and the International Monetary Fund of up to $15 billion in aid to Ukraine will leave Germany to foot the largest part of the bill. Therefore, while Germany may be reluctant to break with its NATO partners, it seems to prefer not to be associated with threats and ultimatums to Russia. Germany would rather have a negotiated resolution to the problem, which could otherwise seep westward to other Eastern and Central European countries.
Q. A negotiated resolution is clearly the desirable result, but what are the most likely outcomes of the Ukrainian crisis? What effect will this development have on the right-wing parties in Ukraine and in other European countries?
While all parties, including the UN and EU, do not want armed hostilities, it is increasingly unlikely that Russia will move out of Crimea after its parliament’s decision to accede to Russia with a referendum on the way. The high profiles that western leaders have maintained in the protests will only have strengthened Russia’s resolve to keep itself in Crimea, and seek a pro-Russia or at least neutral government. There is also the possibility that eastern Ukraine (Russia-oriented) and western Ukraine (oriented towards Europe) may, de facto though not de jure, separate as two countries.
Anti-semitic and right wing Ukrainian sympathisers had fought alongside the Nazis in the Second World War, as they also did in Croatia. But now, unfortunately, they are an influential part of the West-backed interim government in Ukraine. It is also possible that these groups will increase their votes by drumming up more anti-Russia sentiments as and when the elections occur, leading to even greater prominence. At the same time, it will encourage hard nationalist groups whose presence in coalitions in other European countries is already growing.
Q. Since signatories of free trade agreements with the U.S. are allowed to import American shale gas, will the U.S. leverage a scenario in which Western Europe is denied hitherto vital Russian gas, in order to push for the signing of the U.S.-EU FTA, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)?
After the Russians discontinued the flow of gas through pipelines in Ukraine in 2006 and 2009, Western Europe began to further diversify its sources of gas, including supplies from Algeria and Norway via undersea cables. If Russia actually tries to reduce or terminate the flow of gas through Ukraine, it will certainly add urgency to negotiations for the TTIP. But the effect may not be immediate, because it takes time to build the necessary infrastructure, both in the importing and exporting countries. Moreover, the U.S. and EU countries already have major trade relations – with Germany ($148.9 billion), UK ($92.2 billion) and France ($70.4 billion). These are the U.S.’s fifth, seventh and eighth largest trade partners respectively, and this will only be augmented by the TTIP.
Q. India has made a statement calling for a negotiated and inclusive resolution in Ukraine. But what should be India’s position in the future?
Since India will be unable to influence the developments in Ukraine, it should not take a high-profile position. India also has to balance its critical historic relationship with Russia – which remains its largest supplier of arms – and an expanding relationship with the U.S., which is becoming an important partner in the defence arena and in trade and diaspora relations. Therefore, India must analyse the issues on merit, factoring in the legitimate interests that any country has in its neighbourhood, which includes non-discriminatory treatment to ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine.
Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.
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