Last week Ukrainians celebrated as their corrupt pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, fled Kiev in the face of a popular revolt. The Parliament met to ratify the popular uprising as Ukrainians celebrated – at least in the western part of the country.The eastern portion is mostly ethnic Russian, however, and while they don’t like Yanukovych, they reject the revolution in the West. The current hot spot is the Crimea, which is over 85% ethnic Russian with very few ethnic Ukrainians. Russia’s parliament gave President Putin approval to send Russian military forces to protect the interests of ethnic Russians in the Crimea.
So, what’s going on?
The Ukraine is a split country. The eastern party is heavily ethnic Russian, while the west is primarily Ukrainian. Moreover, the Crimea itself was given to the Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954, when it didn’t seem to matter what was actually in Russia. 13% of the Crimea’s population are ethnic Tartar, who were brutalized under Stalin and oppose being annexed by Russia.
In recent years the EU and Ukraine were working on an free trade and association agreement that would have brought Ukraine closer to the West, and yielded nearly $30 billion of aid and grants. This was seen by many Ukrainians as a way to start needed economic and political reform. Putin pressured Yanukovych to reject the EU agreement in favor of a closer trade relation with Russia, as Putin builds his own customs union, currently including Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. If Ukraine joined that group, it would increase Russia’s economic clout in the region and stymie EU efforts to democratize and modernize Ukraine.
The Customs Union allows travel between the three states with just an internal passport, as well free trade. It appears less a move towards free trade than an effort by Russia to piece by piece re-create as much of the old USSR as it can. Putin has said the collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe and a mistake. In August of last year Ukraine became an “observer” to the customs union, a first step towards joining.
The biggest obstacle to Russia’s plan was the imminent agreement between Ukraine and the EU. To prevent Ukraine from signing the EU deal, Putin used a carrot and stick approach on Yanukovych. Russia cut natural gas costs, promised $15 billion aid to Ukraine, but also closed the borders of the custom union to Ukrainian goods for a time. Yanukovych ultimately scuttled the EU deal.
That act triggered a wave of protests that ultimately grew to a revolt forcing Yanukovych to leave the country. Ukrainians in the West were horrified that the country would turn its back on the west in order to cozy up to an authoritarian regime in Russia. What seemed a victory for Putin has suddenly turned into a crisis. His response has been to invade Ukraine, but so far limited to the Crimea.
To Russian nationalists, the Crimea is an integral part of “Mother Russia.” Yes, Ukraine has internationally recognized borders, and allowing Russia to change them with force violates fundamental tenets of international law. However, the alternative might be civil war and bloodshed, for a conclusion that probably is no better. The Crimea has been part of Ukraine for only 50 years, has hardly any ethnic Ukrainians, and would be a small price to pay to get true independence and the capacity to move towards the West.
Still, hardliners in Kiev do not want to give up any sovereignty, and there is fear that this could spiral into other conflicts. If other former Soviet Republicans disintegrate into ethnic fragmentation the result could be cascading instability.
Yet when Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke from Georgia in 2008, it ironically made it easier for Georgia to pursue its own path without constant crises with Russia. A Ukraine without the Crimea may be “freed” to turn to the west. If Ukraine resists to try to keep the Crimea, that could be an incentive for Putin to up the ante, and take more of Ukraine – the places where ethnic Russians still make up a large part of the country. So would Russia be satisfied with just the Crimea, or might it demand Ukraine be split on broader ethnic grounds?
Compare that map to this map of Ukrainian ethnicity – it is clear that the vote followed ethnic lines, meaning that Ukraine is an ethnically divided state. It is not at all clear that it will be possible to avoid some kind of division, given that there appears to be no compromise between tilting west to the EU, or east to Russia.
The US and the EU have limited options. While some hawks want to chug the 7th fleet into the Black Sea and announce complete support for the interim government in Kiev, it’s hard to see how escalating the affair would be American or EU interests, and easy to see how that could set up a path to an even more dangerous and volatile crisis. It’s also almost impossible to envision Russia simply giving up on control of the Crimea.
I think a division of Ukraine in some way is the best solution. Both parts of Ukraine have important pipelines, each have oil shale deposits which could be potentially lucrative. The UN should call for a cease fire recognizing de facto Russian occupation of the Crimea. If it becomes obvious that Russians in other parts of eastern Ukraine do not want to be with the western portion of the state, talks on a peaceful divorce from the Ukraine should begin, overseen by the UN. While some will see that as a victory of Putin – Russia forcing the division of a sovereign state to expand its sphere of influence – it is it. It shows that there are real limits to Putin’s goal of asserting regional hegemony; the western portion of Ukraine would over time be stronger and more prosperous. That would bring western influence deeper into the region.
One thing is for sure, an escalation of the crisis and violence is not in anybody’s best interest.