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Mainstream, VOL LII No 11, March 8, 2014

Ukraine in Turmoil

Tuesday 11 March 2014, by Arun Mohanty

Ukraine continues to be in the midst of a deep crisis provoked by the country’s ultra-nationalists in connivance with the West. Opposition parties that captured power in Kiev through a coup do not know what to do in order to resolve the unprecedented crisis. The densely populated industrial regions in the east and south of the country are in no mood to recognise the federal government that came to power in Kiev through the use of force. Regional governments in the east and south, mostly populated by Russian-speaking people, are determined not to obey orders from the illegitimate government in Kiev.

The West is crying foul against Russia for the unfolding situation in Ukraine while the former indeed is absolutely responsible for the coup that took place in Kiev with their connivance. One has to just look at the timing of the coup. Russia was busy and careful about smoothly completing the Winter Olympics at Sochi without any incident since it had a lot of stakes in the successful conclusion of the Games. The Ukrainian Opposition, with the support of the West, had most likely chosen the time to engineer the coup when Russia was still busy with the Sochi Olympics and could hardly react as it ought to have for fear of international criticism.

When the coup took place in Kiev to the surprise of Russia, it reacted by conducting a military exercise on its own territory, and President Putin got the approval of the Federation Council, the Upper House of the Russian Parliament, for use of force to protect Russian interests. The West accuses Russia of aggression against Ukraine and US State Secretary John Kerry blames Russia for “using 19th century methods in the 21st century“. First of all, not a single Russian soldier has crossed the border with Ukraine so far. Where is the aggression? Subsequently, President Putin has asked his troops to return to the barracks while retaining the right to use force in case Russian citizens and interests are hurt in Ukraine. It is good that Russia has not sent its troops to Ukraine and virtually achieved its objectives without the use of force. Russia could not have been accused of ‘aggression’ even if it had sent troops to Ukraine because it was invited by Victor Yanukovich, the legitimate President of that country. Do not forget, one of the foreign policy priorities of new Russia is to protect its people whereever they might be just like the US, and the threat to life of the Russians in Ukraine was real.

There is a Russian saying that the threat of force is more effective than the actual use of force. Russia has achieved most of its objectives by just threatening to use force. It is again a half-truth when the Western media accuses that the Russian troops are controlling Crimea. Russia’s Black-Sea Fleet is located in Sevastopol, the cradle of the Russian Navy, and it has a military base there which shelters its troops numbering upto 25,000. These troops are inside the barracks, as President Putin has clarified in his press conference, and the uniformed people in Sevastopol protecting various objects are self-defence squads, which have played a significant role in preventing the penetration of armed ultra-nationalists to the Crimean peninsula.

The peninsula is under the complete control of the local people. Ukrainian forces stationed in Sevastopol are in their barracks or have defected to the Russian side. Rear Admiral Denis Berezovsky, the commander of Black-Sea Fleet of Ukraine, appointed by the new regime, has defected to the Russian Fleet. The entire situation in Crimea remains under complete control of the anti-regime forces without a single shot being fired. The regional administration has declared to hold the referendum on the status of the peninsula on March 16, 2014 and the outcome of the exercise is more than clear with ethnic Russians constituting 60 per cent of the population, Ukrainians 24 per cent and Tatars 12 per cent. The Crimean parliament has overwhelmingly voted in favour of a resolution to be reunified with Russia. Other regional governments in the East and south of the country have also taken similar decisions to hold referenda on the status of their regions.

The new regime in Kiev has so far failed to install its own representatives as regional heads in the east and south of Ukraine with one exception in Dnepropetrovsk where one of the hated oligarchs, Andrey Kolemeisky has succeeded in taking charge as the head of the regional administration. Oligarchs financing the coup are being rewarded with appointments as heads of regional administrations. This is parti-cularly interesting in the backdrop of one of the main slogans of the demonstrators that read ‘Down with thieves and criminals’, meaning down with the oligarchs who have looted the country under daylight over the post-Soviet years in the name of reforms. Now they are being appointed as the regional heads to loot the remaining assets in the east and south of the country.

The new regime has further infuriated the population in the east and south of Ukraine by its Russophobic steps and statements. It has annulled the language law that had provided the status of regional language to Russian. Russophobia has been brought to the centre-stage of the new regime’s politics. The militant nationalists are likely to serve in the Interior Ministry forces. The new Home Minister, A. Avakov, has promised that his Ministry would maintain law and order jointly with the “Right Sector” that constitutes of armed ultra-nationalists. Dmitry Yarosha, the head of the Right Sector, has threatened to ban the Party of Regions, the ruling party, and the Communist Party of Ukraine, describing them as criminal organi-sations. The house of Peter Semyonenko, the head of the Ukrainian Communist Party, has been gutted by the ultra-nationalists. The attempt to take over holy shrines of the Orthodox Christians and the threat to physically annihilate the Orthodox Church priests and destroy their churches have added another dimension to the already dangerous situation in the country. Ultra-nationalists were planning to export their ‘revolution‘ to the neighbouring districts inside Russia. Their leader, Yarosha, had given a call to Chechen terrorists to jointly form an alliance for fighting against Russia. Russophobia and destruction of historical monuments in several cities outraged the citizens so much that they have organised resistance movements in all major cities of the east and south of the country and Sevastopol took the lead in this process.

 In the meantime, the country has found itself on the verge of a serious economic meltdown and bankruptcy. International rating agency Standard Poor’s has downgraded Ukraine’s credit rating to the pre-default level—CCC. According to the London-based analytical firm Capital Economics, Ukraine would require around $ 80 billion external financing during the next 12 months, out of which $ 65 billion would be required for servicing sovereign and corporate debts and $ 15 billion for covering the deficit in the balance of payments. The new regime in Ukraine has assessed that 35 billion dollars would be required for preventing the imminent default. The country’s foreign currency reserves stood at US $ 20.4 billion in December 2013 and reduced to US $ 17.8 billion in January 2014, which means Ukraine has resources to meet its imports only for two months. If Russia would demand European prices for gas, Ukraine, which already owes US $ 2 billion to Gazprom, will face a total economic collapse and complete financial meltdown.

 Amid mutual mud-slinging between the West and Russia, no solution is in sight to end the Ukrainian impasse. The West, after making a lot of noise about Russian ‘aggression’ and threats to punish Moscow by boycotting the next G-8 summit at Sochi and imposing economic sanctions against it, has now called Russia to constitute an international contact group to find a solution to the Ukrainian tangle. The West apparently did not expect the massive outrage in the eastern and southern parts of the country that has the potential to disintegrate the country, described as an artificial construction by some historians. The West’s connivance with the ultra-nationalists of Ukraine has been further exposed by the leaks of the conversation between Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and EU Foreign Affairs Chief Catherine Ashton that suggests that it was not Victor Yanukovich who was behind the shootings in Kiev that apparently triggered the coup but provocateurs owing allegiance to the Opposition parties. This mass killing on Kiev streets was necessary for the Opposition to overthrow Victor Yanukovich’s government.

The West after mellowing down its Russia-bashing, looks set for finding a solution to the unexpectedly complex problem in participation with Russia. In its bid to find a solution to the problem, the US has urged Russia to start talks with the new dispensation in Kiev and proposed to return to the agreement signed on February 21 of the current year between President Victor Yanukovich and Opposition leaders of Ukraine, endorsed by the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and Poland. This is not a bad proposal but not all that easy to achieve.There are many questions here. If you return to the February 21 agreement that included early presidential and parliament elections, return to the 2004 Constitution that stipulated a parliamentary republic, withdrawal of security forces from the streets, in fact everything that the Opposition had demanded, who would be treated as the legitimate President—Yanukovich or Torchinov, the Acting President in the new regime, who would be the interlocutor from the Ukrainian side? Russia considers Yanukovich as the legitimate President who has been overthrown in a coup but sees no political future for him, though President Putin has ordered his government to start talks with Kiev.

Russia is likely to start the talks with Ukraine on its own terms. Since region after region in the east and south of Ukraine have defied Kiev’s new authority and are planning to have referendum on their status, Russia would use it to its advantage. Russia is unlikely to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine under the treaties of 1994 and 1997, but it would support the demand of Ukrainian regions for more autonomy. Using the example of Bosnia, an integral part of Serbia, that declared independence unilaterally, which was immediately supported by the West, Russia is expected to support Crimea in its aspirations. President Putin’s emphasis on Ukraine’s new Constitution on the basis of free and fair referenda means Ukraine can hardly remain an unitary state any more, and is likely to be converted into a federation with wide-ranging powers to the regions. This would help the regions in the east and south, not only populated by the Russian- speaking people but also having very close economic and cultural links with Russia historically, to save their industry and ensure economic development. In any case, Ukraine can barely remain an unitary state that it used to be so far. Though in the beginning it seemed like a defeat for Russia in the geopolitical battle with the West for Ukraine, the prospects of a Russian victory in the game look increasingly bright now.

Prof Arun Mohanty is the Chairperson, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Director of the Delhi-based Eurasian Foundation.