The election of the pro-Russian President Yanukovych came at a high price to Ukraine. Soon after he came to power, Yanukovych rejected the country’s aspirations to join NATO by submitting the law describing Ukraine as a militarily non-aligned country, declining any ambition to join the North Atlantic alliance. The same year, the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, overturned the constitution by annulling the 2004 amendments and converting the parliamentary-presidential state into a presidential-parliamentary system, thus increasing the president’s powers. Yanukovych was the one who agreed to extend the lease on Russia’s naval base in Crimea, for a further 25 years until 2042. The last minute rejection of the Association Agreement (AA) with the EU in Vilnius last year was just one part of a series of anti-Western decisions the President had made in order to draw the country back under Russian influence.
The rejection of closer ties with the EU triggered pro-European mass protests in the streets of Kyiv which later turned into the deadliest events in the history of independent Ukraine. Nevertheless, Ukrainians did not risk their lives for the European Union; neither did they fight to shape the foreign policy of the country. Hope for a better future of Ukraine is what made them stand together in the freezing winter, resist the special forces of Ukraine and face the government snipers. The Ukrainian disaster opened up a new opportunity for democracy in the country; however, it is not the first opening for Ukraine. The 2004 Orange Revolution shows that “the day after the revolution” is what matters.
Post-revolutionary Ukraine faces a long list of challenges – among them deeply rooted corruption, injustice and bankruptcy; but, most urgently, the Russian occupation. While the West was discussing the ideological victory over Ukraine after Yanukovych fled the country, Putin had already prepared Russian scenario – to explode a territorial conflict by taking control of the autonomous region of Ukraine, Crimea, mostly populated with ethnic Russians. On the one hand, Russian lawmakers introduced a bill on the new territories that would enable the Kremlin to attach the region according to the Russian law. On the other hand, the Russian army was deployed in Ukraine. In just a few days, Putin had 25,000 troops on the Ukrainian ground, heavy artillery and its Black Sea Fleet ready for combat.
According to him, Russia’s responsibility to protect Russian citizens in Ukraine from “Nazis” who had taken the power through a coup d’état in Kyiv was the justification for Russia’s military action, much the same as the justification offered by Moscow for its occupation of Georgian territories in 2008. The Russian army took over the Ukrainian military in Crimea, cancelled flights to and from all destinations except Russia, blocked internet sources and built administrative lines, not allowing international observers. On 16th March an illegal and unrecognized referendum on joining Russia, boycotted by the Ukrainians and Tatars residing in Crimea, took place. Despite the efforts of the USA and the EU, the President of Russia approved the decision to guarantee Crimea’s stability within the borders of the Russian Federation.
Triggering territorial disputes in the post-Soviet countries that try to escape from the Russian orbit has become Putin’s common practice to regain influence. Most of the Eastern Partnership countries are not homogenous and they lack the practice of powerful local governance. This provides an opportunity for the Kremlin to encourage separatist movements and use them to its advantage. Russia controls Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia –both Georgia and Moldova being countries that are trying to transform in accordance with the European, democratic model.
However, compared to these cases, Putin had acted quickly and decisively in Ukraine. Though Crimea is populated with ethnic Russians, separatist sentiments there are chaotic and underdeveloped. Most importantly, Crimea lacks a leader who would lead such a movement. For these reasons, Russia’s previous attempt to promote separatism in 2004, during the Orange Revolution, failed. This time as well, Russia has not had a reliable ally who could organize the separatist idea. Even the party of the recently self-declared Prime Minister of Crimea, the Russian Unity, held only 3 seats out of 100 from the last 2010 Crimean parliamentary elections. Thus, in Ukraine, Moscow has had to construct the necessary conditions for separatism on its own as rapidly as possible.
The current situation in Ukraine is more than meets the eyes. The country is on the brink of war with Russia while having no resources to engage into a military conflict. In this crucial period, the strategy of the new Ukrainian government seems to be mobilizing international support and pressuring Putin to withdraw. But Ukraine’s war with Russia can only be postponed, not avoided. Under the name of the Eurasian Custom’s Union, one might see Putin’s efforts to recreate the modern version of the Soviet Union. Hence, he does not need countries that may stand as examples of successful transition to democracy in the post-Soviet space. A democratic Ukraine is incompatible with Putin’s interests, thus if Ukraine continues to pursue a pro-Western course, war with Russia may prove inevitable.
Crimea is on the way to becoming another frozen conflict zone. Though, the biggest fear is how far Putin will go in Ukraine. If Russia maintains its current speed it may occupy additional territories outside the region. Permanent Russian occupation will seriously hinder Ukraine’s pro-Western aspirations. The current international alarm about the impunity of Russia in Ukraine shows that the crisis is serious and that the country is important both for the EU and for the US. Nevertheless, the question is, whether, because of Ukraine, the West will initiate another Cuban Missile Crisis or start a Third World War on the 100th anniversary of the first one? Apparently, this is not the case.