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14 March 2014, Gateway House

Ukraine: Reviewing the fault lines

Crimea will hold a referendum this weekend on secession from Ukraine. The current crisis has brought to the fore Cold War era hostilities. However, an unstable Ukraine is in no one’s interest as it has implications for the region and the EU-Russia trade relationship

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What are the roots of the crisis in Ukraine, with the West and Russia taking opposing sides? And what are its implications in the future for the country’s neighbours?

The fault-lines from which the crisis has emerged are two-fold: the ethnic-demographic composition of the country; and the fact that Russia’s oil and gas pipelines pass through Crimea, in addition to Russia’s desire to control access to the Black Sea.

First, the ethnic divisions: Ukraine is a big country, with more than 46 million inhabitants. A majority are Ukrainians – 77 .8% or 37 .5 million; the second largest group are ethnic Russians, who constitute 17 .3% or 8 million of the population.

This population profile divides Ukraine along linguistic lines:  the east and southeast, including Crimea, are primarily Russian-speaking territories, and the rest of country is predominantly Ukrainian-speaking. This also geographically broadly corresponds to two sides of the river Dnieper – the left bank is Russian, the right of the river is Ukrainian.

The borders of Ukraine were established, artificially, during the time of the Soviet Union. The arbitrariness of the borders is evident in the fact that the Crimea peninsula was given to Ukraine in 1954 by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The preferences of Russians, who constitute the majority in Crimea, were not considered.

Crimea has the status of an autonomous republic. Today, Russians are a 58 % majority in Crimea, Ukrainians are 28 % of the population, and Crimean Tatars constitute 12%.

Some western regions of Ukraine were, until 1945, parts of various countries, including Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania. This makes Ukraine culturally diversified.

After the disintegration of the USSR, on 19 August 1991, Ukraine was declared an independent republic. The political elite, starting with President Leonid Kravchuk and right up to the recent President Viktor Yanukovych, led Ukraine in such a way that at the end of 2013, the country was nearly bankrupt.

In addition to the unrest this fostered, President Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) triggered mass demonstrations in Kiev. The agreement is a treaty between the EU and a non-EU country to create a framework for cooperation.

In an attempt to resolve the internal turmoil and crisis, on 21 February 2014, Yanukovych and the country’s opposition parties reached an agreement. This process was assisted by the EU, with the foreign ministers of Poland, Germany, and France, and Russia’s ombudsman, present at the signing of the internal agreement.

Under the deal, the president promised, among other measures, to form a coalition government and hold early elections. But only 48 hours later, anti-Russia elements began to occupy government buildings in the western parts of the country and in Kiev; Yanukovych reportedly fled to Russia.

Meanwhile, a new interim government was established, propped up by the EU and the U.S., and extremist right-wing parties got crucial ministerial posts, including in the ministry of defence and the ministry of interior.

One of the first laws passed by the new government made Ukrainian the only official language of the country. A law which allowed the use of Russian, the minority language, in minority-populated territories, was abolished.

This was the last straw that broke the patience of ethnic Russians; Russia felt cheated and a revolt started against the new establishment in Kiev on the left bank of the river Dnieper.

The second fault-line in Ukraine is geopolitical: in the post-Soviet world, Ukraine has become a contested space between the EU and Russia. This contestation, along with the need to control Crimea, has made Ukraine geopolitically significant. As a transit country for Russian oil and gas, Ukraine is crucial for Russia as well as for parts of Europe. It makes Ukraine a location of rivalry for influence between the EU, the U.S. and Russia.

It is a mistake to force the Ukrainians to decide between Russia and the EU. However, the strategic mistakes of the provisional government have helped Moscow, which can argue that it wants to protect its expatriates in Crimea. In turn, the parliament of Crimea has asked Russia to accept Crimea as an integral part of the Russian federation.

It is now clear that Ukraine has definitely lost Crimea. This will become evident when Crimea, now fully controlled by Russian forces, holds a referendum this weekend on secession from Ukraine. Russia will not give up its claim on Crimea and its strategically advantageous position, which allows control of the Black Sea.

The EU and the U.S. could argue that Russia had guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine, in an agreement signed in 1994 in Budapest, when Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons. But the EU and the U.S. can now only watch what will happen on the left bank of the river Dnieper.

Will Ukraine continue to disintegrate? That depends on Russia, which could argue using the example of Kosovo: if Kosovo was allowed to break away from Yugoslavia in 2008, why should Crimea not be allowed to do the same? So now all the countries bordering Russia, like the Baltic republics, will, with great suspicion, monitor their Russian minorities. The neighbours will also be increasingly nervous about what might happen in the Russian-speaking regions to the south and the east of Ukraine. Will these regions also demand unification with Russia? And neighbours of Ukraine such as Romania and Bulgaria will be relieved that they managed to enter the EU and NATO, with the security guarantees this brings.

If the unrest escalates into a civil war in Ukraine and secessionist movements in neighbouring countries, Ukraine’s western neighbours will witness waves of refugees, and must then face all the economic consequence of such an influx. But even if Ukraine survives this crisis as a state, the West will have to help with massive economic assitance. The survival of Ukraine is also ultimately in Russia’s interests, because the annexion of Russian-speaking regions will be extremely expensive for Russia.

But the EU remains Russia´s largest trading partner, and Russia is the EU’s third largest trading partner. So even if in political terms we may be at the beginning of a new “cold war” in economic terms it is likely to be business as usual.

Ambassador Jaromir Novotný is a former Deputy Secretary of Defence, the Czech Republic, and a retired diplomat.

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