Crimean Crisis

On 24 December 1991, the USSR ceased to exist and it broke up into 15 independent states. This collapse, as well all know, signaled the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. The collapse was not sudden but was result of a number of events that took place in 1980s.

Among various reasons for collapse, the most important is economic one. The Soviet Union economy was in bad shape and Mikhail Gorbachev, elected General Secretary of the Soviet Union in 1985, had proposed to reform the economy and modernize the political situation in the country.

There were two major platforms of the economic reforms of Gorbachev. The first was the so called Glasnost, which literally means publicity or openness. Glasnost called for increased openness and transparency in government institutions and activities in the Soviet Union. It allowed more freedom of speech. Via this, it was held that the government officials would be held accountable to the people for their actions. Thus, Glasnot was good for the people of USSR as it allowed people to protest and allowed the media to report on various issues. But one of the fallouts of Glasnost was that many states used it as a newfound tool to acquire freedom.

The another major reform was the so called Perestroika. Perestroika literally meant “restructuring”. Gorbachev meant to restructure the Soviet economy so that it works more efficiently. Via Perestroika, the government there allowed some private ownership and released some of the tight control the government had on the economy. But that was no panacea for a country where people were habitual of seeing the government doing everything. In summary, these two tools of Gorbachev made things worse before they could be better.

Russia was considered to be the successor state of USSR by international law. Thus, it kept the nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union’s seat on the Security Council of the United Nations. After the breakup, Boris Yeltsin was the first President of Russia.

However, the people and economy of the Soviet Union were used to the government doing everything. Things got worse before they got better.

The first states which wanted freedom from USSR were the Baltic States of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. Soon more states such as Armenia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia joined the league. The communist government in Russia, which was a monopoly state power, felt the pressure. In August 1991, the Soviet hardliners kidnapped Gorbachev and announced to the world that he was too sick to govern. They virtually took over the power. When the Soviet people started to protest, they were shut down by the military. But the soldiers refused to shoot and arrest their own people. Thus without support of military, the attempt coup failed. The decisive actions of Boris Yeltsin were crucial for the failure of the coup.

 

However, the Soviet Union got dissolved on December 24, 1991. With this Soviet Union divided up into 15 separate independent countries. These countries were: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Out of the, 9 countries viz. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States).

About Ukraine

With an area of around 6 Lakh Km² (including Crimea), Ukraine is the largest country entirely within Europe and a very crucial location. It borders Russia on east and north east, Belarus in North West; Poland, Slovakia, Hungary on West, Romania and Moldova in South West and Black Sea and Sea of Azov in South and South East respectively. Among the 4.5 crore people that inhabit this country, 77.8% are Ukrainians, 17.3% Russians and 4.9% others. Ukraine is an ethnically diverse country with 18 recognized regional languages and many ethnic groups. We note here that all these ethnic groups are recognized by the Constitution of Ukraine as Ukrainians only. The largest population of ethnic Ukrainians outside of Ukraine lives in Russia where about 20 Lakh Russians consider themselves ethnic Ukrainians, while millions of others (primarily in southern Russia and Siberia) have some Ukrainian ancestry.

Understanding the tussle over Ukraine

The geography and demography of Ukraine is such that right since its birth, it has witnessed intense tussles between Europe and Russia. America has been trying to lure Ukraine into Western camp since the fall of Soviet Union in 1991.

West’s interests

One of the major interests of the west is Ukraine’s location as a transit state of energy. Roughly 25 per cent of European Union’s natural gas comes from Russia, and 80 per cent of that gas comes from Ukraine. The EU is struggling to revive its economy and Ukraine provides an attractive market for European goods due to its high per capita income second only to Russia in former Soviet Union states.

Apart from economic reasons, Ukraine is vital to the geopolitics of the region as NATO membership of Kiev would bring Moscow within striking distance of NATO missiles. The distance between Moscow and Kiev is 425 km and that would mean a big strategic victory for West in the containment of Russia.

Russia’s interests

Ukraine’s transit role is likewise important to Russia, but Russia also values Ukraine because of economic industries, like steel and agriculture, that serve as vital inputs for Russia’s economy. Russia is closely attached to Ukraine by history and cultural contacts. The Russian speaking population forms a substantial part of the society in Ukraine. It is a multi ethnic country with its festivals and traditions shared across the borders. Thus, Ukraine is intertwined with Russia sharing common culture and people.

But Russia’s interests in Ukraine go far beyond the economic and cultural sphere. Ukraine is indispensable for Russia for military reasons. There is deep collaboration of arms manufacturers from both sides of border. The Black Sea region is controlled mainly through Crimean city of Sevastopol and any loss of influence there limits the Russian Navy’s blue water capabilities to secure its interests in Mediterranean Sea and Arab region.

Thus a strong Russia allied with Ukraine gives Moscow confidence and strength, particularly dealing with Europe and US while a Russia without Ukraine would turn very weak.

Understanding Current Crisis in Crimea

Crimea is a located on the northern coast of the Black sea and is separated from Russian region of Kuban by the Sea of Azov. The Kerch Strait connects the Sea of Azov and Black Sea and separates the Kerch city of Crimea from Tamar peninsula of Russia. The territory was annexed to Russian Empire in 1783. The peninsula became part of Soviet Union from 1921 until 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev transferred the control to Soviet Republic of Ukraine. This self governing region had voted to join Independent Ukraine in 1991 after collapse of USSR. Thus, it became the Autonomous Republic of Crimea within newly independent Ukraine in 1991, with Sevastopol having its own administration within Ukraine but outside of the Autonomous Republic. It is majorly inhabited by Russian speaking population, with minority of ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. The current Crimean crisis has its genesis in the tussle between EU and Russia over greater influence in the Ukrainian economy and the subsequent events.

Background to Crimean Crisis

On 21 November 2013, President Viktor Yanukovych refused the deal with EU for a political association and a free trade agreement. He signed a similar agreement with Russia in December instead. EU’s deal was a loan of $838 million subject to conditions of major changes to the regulations and laws in the Ukraine. Russia was ready to provide $20 billion loan and cheaper gas prices with no conditions like EU. Yanukovych chose Russia over EU and few knew what was going to unfold after that pact.

The snapping of Ukraine-EU deal led to protests in Western Ukraine The rallies were initially peaceful but eventually became violent in January 2014 after parliament, dominated by Yanukovych’s supporters, passed laws intended to repress the protest. The showdown between protesters and police forced Yanukovych to sign a deal on 21 February 2014 with opposition in presence of EU leaders and Russian mediator.

The 21 February deal had following components

  • restoration of Constitution of 2004;
  • constitutional reform to be completed by September;
  • presidential polls by December 2014;
  • an investigation into the violence conducted under joint monitoring of the authorities, opposition, and the Council of Europe;
  • a veto on imposing a state of emergency; amnesty for protesters arrested since 17 February; surrendering of public buildings occupied by protesters;
  • the forfeiture of illegal weapons;
  • “new electoral laws” to be passed and the formation of a new Central Election Commission

On 22 February 2014 the Right Wing radical groups took control of the capital city Kiev and Yanukovych had to flee from Kiev. The deal became redundant and Ukrainian parliament voted to restore the 2004 version of the Constitution of Ukraine. The Right wing radical groups had now taken charge of Ukrainian revolution with backing from West. Thus, the tussle between West and Russia over Ukraine seemed to be tilting towards West.

The struggle between Russia and West over Ukraine needs to be understood in wider perspective of the implications of any side gaining influence in the country. Why is West and Russia engaging in such an intense tussle?

Crimea’s Annexation

In the light of Ukraine’s importance and the steady shifting of it towards West made the situation precarious for Russia. The new regime passed a decree abolishing Russian as an official language. Also, West did not push for a systemic reform in Ukraine as decided in the deal of February 21.There was a sense of betrayal among the Russian side and Putin took an audacious decision to intervene militarily in the Crimean landmass to secure Russia’s interests.

Military intervention

Early morning of 27 February, men in military uniform in Simferopol, the capital city of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, seized the Crimean parliamentary building and the Council of Ministers building and replaced the Ukrainian flag with the Russian flag.
They ousted the prime minister appointed by the President of Ukraine and installed a pro-Russian politician, Sergey Aksyonov, as Crimea’s prime minister.
On March 1, 2014 both the houses gave approval to Putin to use military in Crimea for securing Russia’s interests. The military made sure that Pro- Russian protesters did not lose ground in Crimea.

Referendum

On March 16, 2014, a referendum was held on the status of Crimea by the legislature of Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the local government of Sevastopol. The referendum asked the people of Crimea whether they wanted to join Russia as a federal subject, or if they wanted to restore the 1992 Crimean constitution and Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine.

The official result from the Autonomous Republic of Crimea was a 96.77 percent vote for integration of the region into the Russian Federation with an 83.1 percent voter turnout. The very same day Russia recognised the referendum results.

Inking of annexation

Defying Western sanctions Putin signed the treaty of annexation in Moscow on 18 March 2014 making Crimea part of Russia. The act invited hostile reaction from West and Kiev. The annexation marked a major diplomatic victory for Russia securing its interests in the region.

Crimea’s importance

One wonders how a small piece of land can be so important for Russia when Ukraine had switched sides from Russia to West.
Why is Crimea so important
for Russia that Putin used military intervention when he knew that he would be inviting harsh criticism and could be tagged as aggressor?

The intervention in Crimea was caused by a multitude of factors. Though a small piece of land, Crimea is vital for strategic reasons.

Strategic location of Crimea

The city of Sevastopol in Crimea has been a special port as the base of Russian Black Sea Fleet. It was through this port that Russian Navy made its presence felt through the Istanbul strait into the Mediterranean Sea. It is important for Russia as a marine trade route to Arab countries of Africa and Asia. Thus, control over Crimea ensures that the West’s plan to contain Russia by squeezing it out of Black Sea and Caucasus (the region comprising of Georgia, Turkey , Azerbaijan) is neutralized. The map below shows the strategic importance of Crimea.

Message to West calling for a bipolar world The Russian intervention in Crimea is also intended to send a strong message to West that the bipolarity of world is intact and Russia is still a World Power. Events in Libya signalled decline of Russian influence in world. That has sought to be corrected by President Putin by taking strong stance against West’s efforts to engineer a regime change in Syria. Russia also took exception to US’ demand to extradite NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and brokered an agreement between Iran and West over the nuclear programme of Iran. All of these efforts are a deliberate effort on Russia’s part to redeem itself as a World Power as it was before the fall of Soviet Union. Crimea is even more important for Russia as explained above and thus it had become a diplomatic imperative for Russia to intervene in Crimea militarily.

Personal agenda of Putin

Many international affairs analysts point towards a personal agenda of Putin in the intervention. His popularity had been dented by a sluggish economy, rising living costs and ire among the middle class over a series of heavy-handed laws and policies aimed at muffling the opposition. The Crimean annexation has skyrocketed his popularity again and established him as a strong and decisive leader capable of protecting Russia’s interests.

Moreover, he may seek a re-election in 2018 Presidential polls. Although more than four years remain until the next presidential election, the ground is already taking shape and the first noises have been made about who might enter the 2018 race. In that scenario, Putin would like to present himself as the face of Russia in the time of crisis.

His legitimacy restored by this diplomatic victory over West also helps him to quell the pro-democracy demonstrations that had engulfed Russia during the period of 2011-13. Thus, the Crimean ploy puts Putin on the brink of becoming the greatest leader of Russia putting him on par with Stalin.

Crimea was never a part of Ukraine

Another justification given by Russian side is the Crimea was never a part of Ukraine anyways. It was ‘gifted’ by Russia to Ukraine as a gesture of friendship in 1954. Many had called it a historical wrong. It was only correct to regain the territory which belonged to Russia as Ukraine had shifted loyalties from Russia to West. Thus, the question of disrespect of territorial integrity doesn’t arise at all.

West’s Reaction

Sanctions

Annexation of Crimea evoked strong reactions from US and its allies. Leaders from US, UK , Germany and Japan condemned Russia’s annexation and called for restoration of territorial integrity of Ukraine. Sanctions were imposed to prevent Russian and Crimean officials and politicians to travel to Canada, the United States, and the European Union. Japan announced milder sanctions than the US and EU. These include suspension of talks relating to military, space, investment, and visa requirements.

Political Agreement with Kiev

After Crimea going east, the Kiev authorities decided to ink the same deal which Viktor Yanukovych had rejected in lieu of Russian bailout package. The deal provided for security and defense cooperation, though it is far from full EU membership and doesn’t include an important free-trade element yet.

Hague Declaration

On March 24, 2014 the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, UK and US came together to condemn the actions of Russia in Crimea and took the decision to expel Russia from G-8 until it “changes course” in Ukraine. The countries took this decision under the “Hague Declaration”. Moscow response to this action was rather stoic saying that G-8 was an informal organisation and it was anyways inconsequential.

The Australian Prime Minister even called for keeping Russia out of G-20 summit in Brisbane on 15-16 November 2014. However, there were strong reactions against this by BRICS countries warning Australia from taking any such action.

Security Council resolution

On March 15, 2014, US sponsored a security council resolution describing the referendum of Crimea illegal. The resolution was blocked by Russia which used its veto power. The fate of resolution was pre decided but it was still proposed aiming at isolating Russia and showing the strength of opposition against the Crimean annexation. China abstained from voting on the resolution with the rest three powers of Big-5 voting for the resolution.

UNGA resolution

On March 27, 2014, The UN General Assembly approved a resolution describing the referendum leading to annexation of Crimea by Russia as illegal. The draft resolution, which was titled ‘Territorial integrity of Ukraine’ was co-sponsored by Canada, Costa Rica, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and the US. It affirmed council’s commitment to the “sovereignty, political independence, unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders.” The resolution tried to underscored that the March 16 referendum held in Crimea and the city of Sevastopol has no validity and cannot form the basis for any alteration of the status of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea or of the city of Sevastopol. The resolution got 100 votes in its favor, while 11 nations voted against and 58 countries abstained from the vote. India abstained from voting on the resolution along with China. The resolution was symbolic in nature.

India’s Stance

India has walked a tightrope over the Crimean crisis. With US and Russia pitted bitterly against each other, the response from Indian side has been a measured one. The statement from Ministry of External affairs referred to the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych as change in government and emphasized on the importance of establishing a legitimate democratic process so as to arrive at a solution that meets the aspirations of all sections of Ukraine’s population.

But New Delhi has also iterated that Russia haslegitimate interests in Ukraine and did not criticize the Russian incorporation of Crimea. Thus, the balancing act done by India should be seen in wider perspective of its foreign policy.

The democratic principles of India and its Non Alignment policy

India has historically stood for people’s aspirations all across the world. Support for Palestinian cause and Blacks’ struggle in South Africa for equality are just illustrations of that. In Ukraine, the Maidan protests drew crowds from the all sections of society against Viktor Yanukovych. The public was angry with the inept regime and took to streets to vent their frustration. New Delhi has taken that in cognizance and hasn’t criticized the earlier regime’s removal as coup unlike Russia. This also strengthens India’s commitment to Non Alignment policy in international politics.

All weather relations with Russia

India did not criticize the deposition of Viktor Yanukovych but distanced itself from Washington in imposing sanctions against Russia. India abstained from voting on the 27 March UN General Assembly 68/262 entitled “Territorial integrity of Ukraine” against Russia which seeked to isolate Russia on Crimea. India also joined other BRICS countries deploring sanctions imposed on Russia by US and its allies.

Global strategic partnership with US

Over the past decade, India has tilted towards Washington and forged a strategic partnership. In the meantime India has maintained close relations with Russia as well. Russia and US are bitterly pitted against each other in Ukraine and ensuring that the tension does not impact India’s relations with either of them has been the hallmark of India’s diplomacy.

India’s interests in Ukraine and the region

Ukraine accounts for 40% of former Soviet Union’s military industrial complex.
Indian helicopters majorly depend on Ukrainian companies for engines eg. Ivchenko-Progress, Motor Sich. Motor Sich has signed a contract with Indian Air Force for supply of 100 engines for An-32 military and transport aircraft.
Generations of Indian naval engineers are familiar with Zorya – Mashproekt, where they picked up their basic lessons in maintenance of high-performance naval engines.

It is important for India that the crisis in Ukraine is resolved peacefully through diplomatic efforts. India’s stand on Ukraine is hence is intending towards maintaining stability of the region and to straddle the ever widening geopolitics.

Current Status

Crimea now is under de-facto control of Russia. With the annexation of Crimea being over, the eastern parts of Ukraine have occupied the centre stage in Ukrainian political turmoil. The eastern parts of Ukraine have large Russian speaking populations and the three major cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv have seen armed protests against the incumbent Kiev regime. The rebels have seized the government offices in the cities and their demands range from greater autonomy under Ukrainian flag to a Crimea like split based on referendum. Kiev is not blinking at the moment and has not acceded to demands of a federal structure state in Ukraine. It has planned an anti-terrorist operation to clean up the government offices from rebels by military operation.

Russia has also voiced its concerns over the situation in the Russian speaking regions of Ukraine and called for a federal state in Ukraine granting greater autonomy to provinces. It has maintained that there is no plan from Russian side of any military invasion but kept up the pressure through other channels.

Russia has cancelled the subsidised gas supply to Ukraine. Gazprom (Russian energy company) has hiked gas prices by a third to $385.50 per 1,000 cubic metres from a rate of $268.50. This is part of Russia’s plan to put diplomatic pressure on Ukraine through economic sanctions.

In this scenario the Geneva accord reached between Ukraine, the European Union and the United States and Russia on 17 April holds key to resolve the crisis in Ukraine.

Geneva Agreement

  • It calls upon to refrain from violence, provocation and extremism.
  • Armed groups are to lay down their weapons, and occupied public spaces and buildings are to be vacated.
  • The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is to monitor agreed de-escalation measures centrally.
  • A constitutional process is to begin and include broad national dialogue across all Ukrainian regions and constituencies.
  • And in parallel to these political steps, economic and financial support is to be discussed by the international community.
  • Geneva Agreement holds great promise in de-escalating the tension and build trust between Russia and US to resolve the crisis in a peaceful manner.

Future Outlook

The struggle between West and Russia has left the public in Ukraine in despair. The popular protests which started as a hope to bring about a change were hijacked by Fascist groups and the subsequent events have led to territorial disintegration of Ukraine with Crimea splitting via referendum. Ukraine today stands torn apart on linguistic lines. Its economy is in tatters thanks to the kleptocratic regime of Viktor Yanukovych. The hard lines taken by the Right Wing government might spell doom for Ukraine as the eastern parts may follow Crimea’s footsteps. The country stands on the brink of a civil war in the current circumstances.

Geneva Agreement is a ray of hope for resolving the stand-off between Europe and Russia over Ukraine and needs to be implemented. Already, there have been disagreements between both the sides over the interpretation of the agreement. The incumbent regime has denied laying down of arms in public places and offices in Kiev which is its stronghold but called for laying down of arms by Pro-Russian forces in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk.

One major reform that should be implemented is Federal Structure of government must be adopted. Federalism empowers the integrity of nation as has been the experience in India. Ukraine with its diversity has the best chance to maintain its integrity and prosper only by accepting the federal structure. That would build trust between the provincial and Central government and fulfil the aspirations of all sections of Ukrainian society.

There has been constant bickering between Russian and Western leaders blaming each other for the crisis in Ukraine. There needs to be a restraint from both sides. One thing that is certain though is that neither side would want Ukraine to slip into a civil war because its stability is important for both Russia and West as they have common interests of energy transit routes and trade.

Thus the future of Ukraine rests over the statesmanship of its leaders and action on the ground by implementing the Federal Structure and Geneva Agreement.

Timeline of Crimean Crisis
November 21, 2014Viktor Yanukovych refuses deal with EU which starts Euromaidan protests.
February 21, 2014Yanukovych accedes to opposition in a deal for reforms
February 22, 2014Right Wing radical groups seize Kiev and Yanukovych flees
February 27, 2014Pro- Russian armed groups take control of Simferopol
March 1, 2014Putin gets approval for military intervention from Duma
March 15, 2014Security Council Resolution against in UN blocked
March 16, 2014Referendum in Crimea
March 18, 2014Crimea becomes part of Russia following a treaty
March 24, 2014Russia expelled from G-8
March 27,2014UN General Assembly Resolution against Russia passed, India abstains
April 17, 2014Geneva agreement calling for de-escalation of tensions signed

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