The forgotten Ukraine crisis

New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Syed Ata HasnainUpdated: Dec 22, 2018, 01:04 PM IST


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About 17 per cent of Ukraine’s population or 8.5 million is ethnic Russian and wishes to retain its Russian linkage for mutual security.

In the last three years with the humdrum of events in the Middle East, the European immigration crisis and a host of other competing geopolitical issues, somehow the crisis in Ukraine, which came into being in 2014, and its potential implications for European security bypassed most international concerns. It has come back into the reckoning with the recent Russian seizure of three Ukrainian ships sailing to the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait. Under a 2003 treaty between Moscow and Kiev, the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov are shared territorial waters but Ukraine claimed their ships were fired upon and prevented access they legitimately sought; six sailors were injured too. The Russians have been playing a game of denial while preventing freedom of navigation to Ukraine to access its eastern region by sea. This region is home to two important ports, Berdyansk and Mariupol, from which major Ukraine export and import trade is carried out. There is more to it considering that this is the region close to the area where the minority ethnic Russian separatists are preventing domination of the Ukrainian majority and thus Western control.

Very few are aware today that one of the sharpest hybrid conflicts is currently prevailing in Ukraine and is alleged to be sponsored by Russia; the European Union and NATO believe that it has Russia’s stamp all over it as a part of the resurgence in Russian concern about its security of the western flank. It’s a complex issue which had all the likelihood of blowing into a much larger crisis; yet it has festered with international attention far too focused on other areas of concern. That concern is returning; so it is important to know how this began four years ago and what the larger strategic implications are.

When Ukraine separated from the erstwhile USSR in 1991, both Russia and Europe wished to incorporate Ukraine into their respective transnational strategies due to its unique geostrategic location almost akin to Turkey, as a bridge between Europe and the Caucasus. Incorporation within the European structure would mean an aggressive march of the Western alliance towards the Russian ‘near abroad’ region; something that was progressively happening with assimilation of former Warsaw Pact countries.

However, Russia had additional stakes here. About 17 per cent of Ukraine’s population or 8.5 million is ethnic Russian and wishes to retain its Russian linkage for mutual security. Independent Ukraine has rested on a fragile social consensus of a population holding onto an ever fading promise that prosperity would come from leaving the Soviet Union and joining the West. Yet Ukraine is poorer than it was in the last year when it left the Soviet Union.

There have been uprisings in 1994, 2001 and 2004 (Orange Revolution) but the increasingly massive protests failed each time to fundamentally change things. 

These protests, termed the Maidan Revolution, have traditionally commenced from Kiev’s central square called the Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Ukraine remained divided between becoming Euro or Russia centric, even as the bigger states of the EU rejected attempts to admit it to the elite Euro club.

The Euro-Maidan revolution of 2014, which saw protests against the democratically elected and Russian supported President Viktor Yanukovych, was what the Russian leadership feared the most. A potential easing away of the controls over political and economic strings which tied the nations in the region to Russia’s interests. Russia’s principal motive in seizing Crimea and backing the separatist movement in the east was not to gain territory, but above all to suppress the Euro-Maidan and to restore Russia’s influence over the government in Kiev that Yanukovych had previously guaranteed. The Maidan threatened Russia’s interests not only in Ukraine: it showed that oligarchic-capitalist states in the region could be overthrown by a sustained popular uprising.

Russia aimed to prevent Ukraine’s further incorporation into the Atlantic alliance through an association agreement or a free trade regime with the EU or a path to NATO membership. It was alarmed at the economic consequences for itself of an EU-Ukraine free trade regime and at the possibility that this might become a back door for Ukraine to get into NATO. Through the last four years, Russia has pursued hybrid conflict below the threshold; that threshold may be crossed with it naval actions against the Ukraine Navy; the latter has threatened to pursue its right to sail into the Sea of Azov.

While economic sanctions by the US-led Western alliance were placed early and continue, there are three reasons for the continuing crisis. These are: The unrelenting revival of Russian imperialism since 2000, the divisions in the Western alliance over policy towards Russia, and the diminished capacity of the USA to project its own power into the region. The US also worries about the potentially enhancing German power over the region if given a free hand but is incapable of doing much on its own. In the meanwhile, the oligarchs who run Ukraine are unable to revamp its economy unless the country steps towards either of the competing camps.

Given the recent instability in France and Belgium and the expected spread of instability to other parts of Europe, Ukraine remains one other area of major concern in the European security matrix unless the Western alliance and Russia can come to some terms of agreement for joint control without decided advantage to either. The question is will the people of Ukraine allow joint control or attempt to take things in their hands, leading to yet another round of instability.

(This article was originally published on DNA. Read the original article)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)