Ukraine: Independence and Ascendence

Photo Credits Wikipedia

Photo Credits Wikipedia

Smoke and fire lick the pavement of Independence Square in Kiev, an aptly named plaza, since the feet of Ukrainians have marched defiantly on its pavement for protests throughout history: the Orange Revolution, Ukraine Without Kuchma and, today, Euromaidan. Like the current demonstrations, the two former campaigns reveal the abuse of power in a dictatorial fashion; the Orange Revolution was in response to voter fraud, while Ukraine Without Kuchma protested the stifling and abduction of the press. Today, the abuse of power involves underhand crimes and ignored demands, but this time the rest of the world is getting involved. Important world powers, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, have already added their two cents into the mix, only increasing the prevalence of the recent protests. Multiple large newspapers, like The Guardian, have made statements that the crisis could turn into the next Cold War or even World War III. As of now, Ukraine has become an epicenter of news articles and conspiracy theories, all beginning at the birthplace of the recent demonstrations: Independence Square.

Since its erection in 1869, the Square has been christened with multiple names, but not until 1991 was it renamed the Prussian word “Maidan” in order to separate the country from its ruler: Russia. The symbol of the Square provides a fitting place for demonstrators to fight today against the frayed political system that has ruled Ukraine for centuries.

Ukraine’s History

Ukraine’s fight for independence rose from the fallen Austrian and Russian empires during World War I. The country was separated into multiple warring republics, while the Bolsheviks, Germans and Poles fought over Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, and its resources. By 1922, Ukraine had been reclaimed by the Soviet Union. 10 years later, Joseph Stalin created the Great Famine that killed four to five million Ukrainians by cutting off their vital supplies, undermining the power of the country. Then, in 1991, Ukrainian protesters joined hands in a 337 mile human chain from Kiev to Lviv. They supported the unity of Ukrainian People’s Republic and the West Ukrainian National Republic. Eight months later, Ukraine declared itself independent from Russia. Its sovereignty was formalized when, in December of the same year, the U.S.S.R. dissolved.

Viktor Yanukovych

Though Ukraine is 23 years from its most recent fight for independence, political insecurity is still brewing. Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, was elected in 2010. The country had spent the previous years in the midst of the Orange Revolution, where Yanukovych had been caught using electoral fraud in order to be elected as president. However, Yanukovych’s slate was wiped clean when he won the election fairly in 2010, beating fellow candidate Yulia Tymoshenko.

Almost immediately, Yanukovych’s sweet triumph turned sour. He demonstrated his unpopular pro-Russian views by extending the lease to Russia on the Ukrainian port, Sevastopol. He also denied the fact that the Great Famine was created by Joseph Stalin, stating that it was not the fault of the Soviets and was not genocide. Yanukovych’s controversial statements angered the people of Ukraine, many of whom had lived under Russian rule for most of their lives.

Other actions of the Yanukovych administration have been suspiciously dictatorial. Yanukovych’s presidential opponent, Tymoshenko, was promptly stripped of her Prime Minister position and was sentenced to seven years in prison for abuse of powers once Yanukovych was elected. The following year, Tymoshenko’s interior minister, Yuri Lutsenko, was also imprisoned—two moves still questioned by the public on whether Yanukovych had a large part in the arrests (the president eventually ordered Lutsenko released).

In 2013, despite a pro-Russian attitude, Yanukovych entered into a compact to sign an association agreement with the European Union; the agreement would open Euro-Ukrainian borders to commerce and travel. However, the contract would cause Ukraine to forfeit any trade with Russia, who opposed the agreement. Ukrainian citizens largely supported the E.U. agreement. However, days before the signing was set to take place, Yanukovych dismissed the agreement on the grounds that Russia had influenced his decision and the E.U. monetary offer that came with the contract was inadequate by European standards. In a single move, Yanukovych sparked a roaring protest on the streets of Kiev.

Within a few days, protests had scattered to eastern Ukraine and violence escalated dramatically. In a bloody climax at the Independence Square demonstrations, 70 people were killed in February, prompting a response from Parliament. The Party of Regions denounced Yanukovych and his administration crumbled, while the people and their representatives called for his impeachment. Earlier in the crisis, Yanukovych had passed and quickly repealed multiple ordinances that had resulted in the killing of demonstrators at Maidan, mostly from police clashes and bullet wounds. Parliament voted to arraign the president on the charge of murder on February 22. Yanukovych brushed the announcement aside, but fled the country soon after. Ukraine’s government has issued a warrant for his arrest.

The president’s location is, at the time, unknown. It has been revealed that Yanukovych made a stop in Kharkiv in the eastern Ukraine before going to southern Balaklava. From there, he attempted to fly over the Russian border, but was stopped. Now, he could be in any number of places: Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria, Belarus or the United Arab Emirates. He may even still be inside Ukraine, or have been granted access into Russia.

Once Yanukovych was indicted, protesters flooded into his private estate outside Kiev. In the reservoir nearby, journalists—who had been discretely oppressed during the Yanukovych administration—recovered hundreds of papers that the president had disposed of following his impeachment. Painstakingly separating the pages of each soggy document, the journalists landed on a reporter’s goldmine: copious amounts of evidence detailing lavish spending and corruption committed by Yanukovych during his reign.

Russian Interference

With a leaderless country and riots in the streets, Ukraine seemed to have fallen into sheer pandemonium. However, the crisis only intensified when Russia entered the fray. Citing a need to protect Russian citizens, Putin approved Russian military action in Ukraine. On March 3, Russia sent out an ultimatum to Ukrainian forces that they surrender the next day at 3:00 GMT, or face a Russian attack on the southern Ukrainian peninsula, Crimea. Meanwhile, Russian naval ships waited in the surrounding seas while fighter jets flew over Ukraine. Although 73% of Russians opposed military actions against Ukraine, the Russian Duma had already drafted a bill for the annexation of Crimea. Both of the countries appeared to be preparing for a confrontation.

In order to honor Putin’s mandate, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev ordered a bridge to be built that arced from Russia to Crimea. Medvedev posted on his Facebook page on March 2 that “Russia needs a strong and stable Ukraine…and not the poor relative, always standing with his hands outstretched.” The move to annex Crimea, however, is in direct violation of the Budapest Memorandum. Signed in 1994 by the U.S., U.K. and Russia, the document promised security assurances against threats or force against Ukraine’s territorial integrity or political independence. The Memorandum is not a concrete pledge that the three countries will step in to protect Ukraine, but it states that the three powers respect Ukraine’s borders and independence.

Although Russia and Ukraine are the countries primarily embroiled in the conflict, other nations have concerned themselves with the crisis. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has condemned Russian military intervention and pulled his ambassador out of Moscow. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has shared similar sentiments. President Obama declared in the Press Briefing Room on March 3 that Russia was on “the wrong side of history” for mobilizing forces around Crimea. He then stated that “the world is largely united in recognizing that the steps Russia has taken are a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, Ukraine’s territorial integrity.” No doubt, President Obama is referring to the long struggle between Russia and Ukraine, and the latter’s struggle for independence over the past 150 years. The Russian Federation Council, however, saw Obama’s statement as an act of aggression and appealed to their president, Vladimir Putin, to recall their Washington D.C. ambassador. Although Putin has made no move in regards to his American envoy, the appeal has been passed. Despite Russia’s move to expel the United States from the current equation, American government officials are still visiting Ukraine.

In honor of the Budapest Memorandum, United States Secretary of State John Kerry visited the country on March 4 and pledged $1 billion in a loan and technical assistance to the Ukrainian government. In addition, the money will help Ukrainian households that have been hurt by the depletion in Russian energy subsidies and assist in the continuation of Ukraine’s national banks. In the New York Times, Kerry declared, “Here in the streets today I didn’t see anybody who feels threatened except for the potential of an invasion by Russia.” The fight for government reform in Independence Square has morphed into a fight against Russian invasion. Kerry disagreed with Putin’s side of the story that Russia was only trying to protect the Russian-Crimean population.

In response to the sudden outcropping of intense anti-Russian sentiment, the Ukrainian cities Donetsk and Odessa have begun pro-Russia rallies in an effort to bring their former sovereign back into power. Many Ukrainians have also fled to Russia; hundreds of thousands have crossed the border. Even the Ukrainian naval commander, Denis Berezovsky, has defected and encouraged his compatriots to do so as well. Meanwhile, other cities have been abandoned by government officials, leaving urban areas ungoverned and chaotic. Governor Mikhail Dobkin of Ukraine’s third most populous province, Kharkiv Oblast, has fled the country to Russia, along with the mayor of Kharkiv, the region’s administrative centre.

Not only have Ukrainians gone to Russia, but Russians have entered Ukraine. On March 3, Russian troops invaded Crimea, a large, peninsular region in southern Ukraine and the recent epicenter of protests. Met by a mixture of relief and anger, more than 15,000 soldiers have been guarding the Russian base on the peninsula. Ukrainian troops have been forced to side with the Russians, and Ukrainian soldiers who refuse to sign contracts with the Russian militia have professed to being harassed by threatening phone calls.

Now, the Cossacks, an ancient military force known for employing violent tactics in order to maintain peace during the recent Sochi Olympics, are entering Crimea. Residents believe that the Cossacks are entering Ukraine in order to turn neighbor against neighbor.

Iskander Babilov, a Ukrainian citizen, said in a New Yorker interview, “Their strategy is not to have the Army fight us, it is to have us fight each other, so they can say that the Army needs to stay to keep the peace.” Today, Crimea is 58% Russian, 24% Ukrainian and 12% Crimean Tartars (a Muslim community in the region). Bad blood between the three is not unfamiliar—Tartars and Russians have a long history of animosity. Babilov says that the arrival of Russians has already created tension between the three ethnic groups. However, Russia is not unsupported in their mobilization of military forces. The newly elected Prime Minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, has appealed to Russia for “assistance in guaranteeing peace and calmness” in a public address published in The Guardian. The United States disapproves of this measure, urging Crimea to remain Ukrainian.

Referendum and Reconciliation?

Despite the pressure from the United States government, the Crimean legislature made plans to vote to join Russia through a referendum. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government, which holds no Russian sympathy, has declared the Crimean prime minister outside the law. Now, parliament has submitted a bill to maximize protection of Ukraine, as well as set the country on course to joining NATO.

However, even if Ukraine is successfully annexed by Russia, will much change? “First, if there is an annexation of Crimea, a referendum that moves Crimea from Ukraine to Russia, [the United States] won’t recognize it, nor will most of the world,” explains United States Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken on CNN. Blinken also says that annexing Ukraine will only augment the international pressure already on Russia.

Despite the voting system being a seemingly unbiased and democratic method to determine the fate of Crimea, partisan influence may have had more of an impact on voters than the Crimean government may want to let on.

On March 16, the referendum began; even at the start of the vote, it was clear that the province would vote for secession, which may be because pro-Ukrainian and Tartar voters vowed to boycott the referendum. One journalist reported a picture of voting stalls draped in the Russian flag in a last attempt to sway voters. During the referendum, pro-Russian demonstrations took place from polling stations in Crimea to Maidan in Kiev. By the end of the day, 93% of Crimeans had voted to join Russia.

Ukrainian officials dismissed the entire operation. Ukrainian ambassador to the U.K., Volodymyr Khandogiy, stated in The Guardian, “A referendum, any vote in the situation when you have foreign troops stationed there would not produce any meaningful results. The votes would be casted with the foreign occupation of Crimea.” Other international powers have declared the referendum illegal. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke out against the vote and hopes that Russia will help start constitutional reform in Ukraine to protect rights of Russian-Ukrainian minorities, instead of annexing Crimea.

The E.U., as well, stated in The Guardian that the referendum is “illegal and illegitimate and will not be recognised.” On the other hand, Putin has fought back and has proclaimed the vote perfectly legal. The backlash surrounding the referendum has led many Ukrainians to believe that war is imminent.

Now, in an awkward place between Ukraine and Russia, Crimea lies an unrecognized, seceded republic. The next steps that the two countries take in defense of the region will determine the future of Crimea.

If a territory dispute begins between Ukraine and Russia, then perhaps the republic will be devastated and destroyed. If one of the powers decides to let Crimea go, then there could be a strained settlement that causes war later.

Or maybe it will end the crisis if one of the countries bows out gracefully. Already, Russia and Ukraine have claimed a military truce until March 21, so perhaps a peaceful ending to this saga might be in the cards. However, Ukraine has declared that they are keeping soldiers in Crimea and has called on its national guard for assistance.

In all, the outcome of the crisis is unknown, but it is certain that whatever happens will determine the future of Crimea as well as the relationship between Ukraine, Russia and other international powers.

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