Lenin stands watch in central Simferopol
It’s been an unsettling experience watching the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea unfold, over the past few months.
During the summer I visited some of the places which are now attracting headlines. Independence Square in Kiev, or ‘Euromaidan’ as it has become known, was full of locals and tourists enjoying the sunshine; eating ice-cream, posing for sketch artists and splashing in the fountains. More recently it resembled the set of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie, with barricades, charred monuments and heaps of smouldering tyres.
Crimea was laid-back in the July heat. Teenagers skateboarded beside the Crimean Rada in Simferopol, which appeared on TV screens a few weeks ago being ‘stormed’ by armed men. The regional capital’s airport was busy with tourists heading to and from Russia or Kiev. It was one of the first strategic targets to be seized by Russian troops, or local militia, depending upon whose word you rely, as the emergency deepened.
The Lonely Planet guide book says that Bakhchisaray, in central Crimea, has a Middle Eastern feel. This baking hot, dusty town attracted coach trips from the coast during the summer, with its exotic atmosphere and ‘Khan’s Palace’. This year it has become a magnet for journalists, who want to write stories about how pro-Russian feeling on the peninsula threatens Crimean Tatars.
The ‘revolution’ or ‘putsch’ and its aftermath have been surrounded by propaganda and recriminations. To add to the confusion, events have unfolded at disorientating speed. For someone viewing from a distance, the blanket of fog which covered Kiev at the end of February was a neat metaphor.
Media coverage has not in general reflected how complicated and unfortunate the situation in Ukraine has become. A lot of it, especially the comment and analysis, seems to be informed more by pre-conceived ideas about Russia and the US, rather than genuine attempts to understand the story from different perspectives.
Admittedly, it’s hard to write about this crisis. Many articles in newspapers are out of date by the time they’ve gone to print. Information from Ukraine is confusing and often contradictory. It is still not clear whether tensions in the east of the country could spark some sort of military confrontation.
Most articles in the UK media have plumped for the straightforward view that Russia, under Vladimir Putin, is an aggressive power, intent upon expanding toward the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. Others have been a little more nuanced, suggesting that Putin’s actions during this crisis have been opportunistic, rather than planned. The most accurate accounts point out that few, if any, of the key players acted honourably, as tensions increased after President Yanukovych postponed negotiations for an association agreement with the EU.
Ukraine has become the victim of a prolonged geo-political struggle between ‘the West’ and Russia. Go back almost six years on this blog and you can read about the cultural and historical balancing act which Ukrainians continued to manage, more or less successfully, and the dangers of upsetting that equilibrium.
Almost no-one now defends Yanukovych’s record in government. Even his off and on ally, Vladimir Putin, has acknowledged that he was a greedy, corrupt and weak President. There were ample grounds for Ukrainians to oppose and protest against his rule. The fact remains, though, that he was elected fairly. Russia was understandably outraged when the US and the EU in particular urged protestors, in effect, to overthrow the government.
In the context of the protests at Euromaidan, it’s worth remembering that the opposition in Ukraine has continued to refuse to accept the outcome of the 2010 election. Despite a clean bill of health from the Council of Europe, OSCE and the CIS, Yulia Tymoshenko disputed the results and her supporters were still camped on Kiev’s main street, Khreschatyk, during summer 2014, to protest.
Euromaidan harnessed popular disillusionment with the President, but it was driven, particularly in its latter stages, by an undercurrent of extreme nationalism and it did not represent accurately the spread of opinion in Ukraine about drawing closer to the EU. Carl Thomson has written fairly about how Russian and eastern Ukrainian opinions were shaped by ‘Molotov cocktail throwing, firearm wielding young men who fought running battles with the police’.
Yankukovych was a rogue, but he was also a democratically elected President, who was driven from power by the threat of imminent violence. Even so, the new government in Kiev had an opportunity to gain acceptance both from ‘the West’ and Russia.
The basis of a compromise included a degree of power sharing with Russian leaning regions, official status for the Russian language and disarmament of armed paramilitary groups. Instead, there were extreme nationalists from Svoboda (or ‘freedom’) in the administration, attempts to rescind liberal language laws and involvement of the far right Pravyi Sektor organisation in the police and military.
Russian descriptions of the new government as ‘neo-Nazi’ are certainly exaggerated. The articulate young prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, for instance, is a moderate figure head, whose fluent English will endear him to western media. However the involvement of an ultra-nationalist minority has made it much more difficult for Russian speaking Ukrainians to accept the new administration, and for the Kremlin to recognise its legitimacy.
It’s hard to see how the new government could have been constituted without involving extremists. These far right groups were the ‘shock troops’ who drove the so-called ‘revolution’ as it became more violent. Afterwards, in an attempt to claim legitimacy from ‘the people’, ministers were presented to Euromaidan for the crowd’s approval. It was an odd, almost pre-modern ritual, with echoes of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Viewed from Moscow, where the opposition to Putin comprises a similar coalition of liberals, extreme nationalists and ultra-leftists, it may have looked like a salutary warning.
With attitudes in eastern and southern parts of Ukraine hardening, particularly in Crimea, events gained momentum. The initial Euromaidan protests were followed by counter-protests against the government in Kiev. The presence of Russian troops on the peninsula and the relatively chaotic state of the Ukrainian government gave Russia a perfect opportunity to act under the pretext of maintaining order.
Putin moved quickly. A groundswell of pro-Kremlin opinion in Crimea, the reality that pro-Russian militias and Russian troops were firmly in control and demands from the Crimean authorities for a referendum on becoming part of Russia, provided a chance to annex the region. It wasn’t right, but it did reflect the will of a majority of people in Crimea and it occurred against the backdrop of serious concerns about the legality of the government in Kiev.
The Russian President denies that his troops will now move into Ukraine proper. Despite the military build-up at Russia’s western border, it is likely that he is speaking genuinely, for the moment.
There are frequent pro-Russian protests in cities like Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk and there have been clashes.. If the Ukrainian authorities, whose interior ministry troops are reportedly coordinating their activities with Pravyi Sektor, were to attempt a crack-down on demonstrators, if there were bloodshed, Putin would still feel extreme pressure to defend people who are viewed in Russia as ethnic Russians.
The President is certainly not prepared to appear weak. It is quite possible that he will again find himself reacting to events and making a pragmatic effort to carve out the best result for Russia, from a volatile set of circumstances.
Rather than talking about a new Cold War and continuing to tug at the unravelling seams of independent Ukraine, ‘the West’ should now attempt to diffuse tensions. If the country can remain stable up to and through the Presidential and Rada elections, its new government can at least claim a credible mandate.
If Ukraine is to remain a viable state within its current borders, the new administration will have to reach an accommodation with Russian speakers and reflect its complex make-up in an amended constitution. The future is bleak if the country continues to be a chessboard for the US, the EU and Russia to play out their rivalries.