EDITORIAL: Putin's power-grab in Ukraine
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, March 15, 2014
To most Australians, Ukraine is far away, and few know much about the history of relations between Ukraine and Russia, and why Russia has moved to occupy Crimea, the part of Ukraine which is predominantly ethnically Russian and where Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based.
The history of Ukraine and Russia goes back over 1,000 years when the people in this region converted to Christianity. The languages and cultures of the two countries are similar but distinct, like German and Dutch, or Spanish and Italian.
During the Soviet era, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, but Ukrainians always had a strong sense of separate identity which, on the dissolution of the USSR, led to the formation of an independent Ukraine in 1991, with its own constitution, parliament, national leaders and political parties.
As part of the political settlement arising from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine agreed to surrender its nuclear weapons. In exchange, its independence was guaranteed by what is known as the Budapest Memorandum, co-signed in 1994 by Russia, Ukraine, Britain and the United States. Separately, France and China also endorsed the memorandum.
The terms of the memorandum were quite explicit. Titled, Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection with Ukraine’s Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the document recorded that Ukraine promised to remove all Soviet-era nuclear weapons from its territory, send them to disarmament facilities in Russia, and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Ukraine kept these promises.
The three other signatories undertook to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine … [and] reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations”.
They further promised “to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind”, and to seek to resolve any conflict which might arise through both the UN and multilateral negotiations.
While an independent nation, Ukraine is divided internally. Western Ukraine, where the Ukrainian language is very widely used, is pro-Western and wants closer political and economic ties to the European Union. In eastern and southern Ukraine, the principal language is Russian, and a majority of the population want closer co-operation with Moscow.
Since independence in 1991, Ukraine has slowly slipped economically, to the point where a decision had to be made about whether to align with the West or the East.
After the Ukrainian Parliament in Kyiv had voted to build economic ties with the West, the country’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych unilaterally signed a multi-billion dollar rescue package with Russia’s President Putin, under which Ukraine would be firmly aligned with Russia.
This agreement prompted street protests which, over several months, grew into a mass uprising which culminated in the shooting of scores of protesters in Independence Square (Maidan) in February.
The mounting level of street protests was such that Yanukovych was forced to flee to Russia, and his government collapsed. The Ukrainian parliament elected an interim president and prime minister, and brought forward the next election to May 25 this year.
After Yanukovich fled, it became obvious that he and his cronies had engaged in massive corruption, enjoying lifestyles of unbelievable luxury while most of the people lived just above the poverty line.
While people in western Ukraine rejoiced, there were angry protests in the Russian-oriented east of the country.
President Putin, sensing that Ukraine was moving out of Russia’s orbit, decided to capitalise on the pro-Russian feelings of people in the east, and moved to seize control of the most vulnerable part of Ukraine, the Crimean peninsula which had become part of Ukraine only in the 1950s. Putin claimed that the lives of Russian-speaking Ukrainians had been threatened — a laughable proposition given that eastern Ukraine, including Crimea, is largely autonomous, and there were no threats to Russian-speakers.
Russian-backed militias and special forces soldiers surrounded Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea, demanding their surrender. Most refused to comply, but have avoided military clashes, thereby putting the onus on Moscow to fire the first shot.
This action provoked appeals from the Ukrainian government in Kyiv for Western support, and the Putin government has been reminded of its solemn obligations to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Western nations have threatened sanctions if Russia does not withdraw immediately, and the Ukrainian government has swung solidly towards the West.
In light of Russia’s dependence on Western capital, principally acquired through exports of oil and gas, concerted Western action against Russia could be effective.
Vladimir Putin has stated that the collapse of the Soviet empire was a disaster. It would be ironic if his latest actions were to accelerate that very process.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.