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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 13, March 22, 2014

Russian Spring in Crimea

Sunday 23 March 2014, by Arun Mohanty


Till a fortnight back nobody could ever imagine that the Ukrainian crisis, triggered by the ultra-nationalists in connivance with the West through an armed coup that overthrew the legitimate President of the country and brought a government full of semi-fascists, would snowball into a Crimean crisis, the worst one after the end of the Cold War. Ultra-nationalists along with their Western masters are completely responsible for this impasse. The problem with the West is that it never got rid of its Cold War-era mindset and never ceased to perceive Russia as its worst enemy. The last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, barren in geopolitical thought, naively believed in his concept of “universal human values”, ”Common European Home“ and gave concession after concession to the West on significant strategic issues. Post-Soviet Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin took the process to its logical end through his de-ideologisation drive making Russia a junior partner of the West.

Russia permitted German unification with the verbal promise from the West that united Germany will not be a NATO member and that the NATO would not embark on eastward expansion. Russia lost its sphere of influence in East Europe, that was quickly filled by the NATO through inclusion of new members into its fold. Russia was driven out of its zone of strategic interests in the former Soviet space through the NATO expansion into the region. Three Baltic states—former Soviet republics— were admitted into the NATO bringing the military bloc‘s infrastructure closer to the Russian borders. The NATO is going ahead with its plan to build a missile defence system in East Europe ignoring Russia’s security concerns. Finally, the NATO, in its latest round of east ward expansion, is making a serious bid to bring Ukraine and Georgia into its fold.

Ukraine obviously is the red line for Russia without which Russia can never retrieve its global great power status. The West, well-aware of this fact, is hell-bent upon tearing Ukraine away from the Russian geopolitical orbit and bringing it into the NATO fold. The West as a whole, and the US in particular, unleashed its first ‘coloured revolution‘ in 2005 to prevent Victor Yanukovich, the pro-Russian political leader, to take power though he was elected as the President in a fiercely-fought election. The West managed to make Victor Yuschenko, the blue-eyed boy of the US, the new President of Ukraine by use of street force, and he did every-thing possible to make his country a NATO member and launched dubious initiatives like GUUAM (consisting of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova) to inflict damage on vital Russian interests in every sphere. Yuschenko was arming and providing all support to Georgian President Mikhail Shakashvili during the Russia-Georgia war in 2008. All attempts of Yushchenko to make his country a NATO member failed as the idea of Kiev‘s NATO membership is not exactly popular in the country with barely 20 per cent of Ukrainians supporting the initiative. Yushchenko lost the presidential election held in 2010 to his rival Yanukovich and polled hardly four per cent of the votes.

An ‘either or option’ on the issue of his country’s integration was imposed on Yanukovich who had won this round of presidential election thanks to his largely pro-Moscow platform in a free and fair poll recognised by the West. While Moscow was advocating a tripartite agreement between the EU, Russia and Ukraine, the West was forcing Kiev to sign the association agreement with the EU, completely ignoring Russian interest, and the draft association agreement had political and security clauses that were obviously designed against Russia’s strategic interests. The association agreement, had it been signed, could have produced disastrous consequences for the Ukrainian economy. More-over, the West‘s bailout package was not attractive for Kiev, which is why Yanukovich postponed the signing of the agreement at the Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit, and this enraged the West, which worked on a new plan for the second ‘coloured revolution’ in Ukraine to overthrow him from power.

Once again street power was used in complete connivance of the West to take over power in the country. As a result, the ultranationalists captured power in a coup forcing the legitimate President to flee. The first step of the interim government that seized power in Kiev was to scrap the regional language status of the Russian language that is spoken by a majority of the people in the country. The neo-fascists unleashed terror in certain parts of the country, and 20,000 out of them have been recruited to form the National Guards to ensure de-russification in Ukraine. Armed neo-fascists penetrated into different cities to establish their power in the country. This triggered unprecedented mass upsurge of the Russian-speaking people living in the southern and eastern parts of the country. The local administrations of these regions—that include Crimea, Kharkov, Danetsk, Lugansk, Odessa, Nikolaev, Kherson, Dnepropetrovsk etc., which are densely populated, highly industria-lised and closely connected with Russia histori-cally—refused to recognise the new authority in Kiev that came to power through a coup.
Crimea took the lead in the mass protests against the illegitimate interim government in Kiev.

It was at this point of time that Russia, which seemed to have lost this round of the geopolitical battle with the West, seized the opportunity and turned the tables against the latter. Russia, to the surprise of the West, changed the situation in its favour by extending a helping hand to the Russians and Russian-speaking people in the region. Russia could not have sat silently on the Crimean issue since the region is historically, strategically, geopolitically too important for Russia. Moreover, Kiev’s illegiti-mate interim government was in a hurry to sit on the NATO’s lap. If you look at the ethnic composition of the peninsula, you will find that 60 per cent of the population are native Russians whereas 25 per cent are Ukrainians by origin but feel themselves as Russians.

Unlike the other regions of Ukraine, which were parts of different empires at different times, Crimea was always an integral part of the Russian empire and subsequently Soviet Union ever since it was incorporated into it in 1783 by Catherine the Great. Catherine built Sevasto-pol, the major city of the region, which is the cradle of the Russian fleet and home to Russia’s historic Black Sea fleet that maintains the Russian power projection upto the Middle East. It is from this territory that Orthodox Christia-nity, Russia’s main religion, had spread to the entire country. Russia had fought a bitter war with the Ottoman empire and the West to protect its Orthodox Christian population living on the territory in 1853. France and Great Britain—Russia’s geopolitical rivals in Europe at that time—had sent their troops to Crimea during this war in which Russia was defeated. Sevastopol had received the award of Hero-City because of its heroic resistance to the fascist forces during the Second World War. This territory, which is considered sacred for the Russians, was gifted to Ukraine while celebra-ting 300 years of Ukraine’s incorporation into Russia by the Soviet leader, Khrushchev, an ethnic Ukrainian. It did not matter then since it was one great country—the Soviet Union—and the boundary between the Russian Federation and Ukraine was an administrative boundary, not a state boundary.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 largely because of the mistakes of its leaders. Ukraine declared independence on the basis of a referendum, a policy that is now being denounced as illegitimate by the West after Crimea declared its independence on the basis of a referendum. The Crimean people slept in one state and got up in another state. There was euphoria about independence in all parts of the Soviet Union but not in Crimea. Crimea, which was an autonomous republic under Ukraine, declared itself as a republic on the basis of a referendum and adopted its own Constitution. Subsequently, an autonomous status was imposed on it by eroding much of its autonomy. During my visits to Crimea I always got a strong impression that the people living there were never reconciled to the fact that they were not part of Russia any more and nurtured a dream to be re-unified with Russia.

The neo-fascists in power in Kiev by default provided the opportunity for re-unification of Crimea with Mother Russia. If Russia would not have risen up to the moment and come to the rescue of the Crimean people, neo-fascists would have taken over power in the peninsula. Russia, by its timely response and support to the people of Crimea, prevented the takeover of the peninsula by the neo-fascists in the same way they had captured power in Kiev.. The takeover of Crimea by the neo-fascists would have meant loss of the Russian Black Sea fleet base in Sevastopol, shifting of the NATO infrastructure close to the borders of Russia and converting the Black Sea into a NATO Lake. Russia could have barely afforded that.

So it supported the referendum on the peninsula on its independence, which now the the West denounces as illegitimate. The West is falling into the trap it had once laid for Russia by exposing its double standards. The West made a precedent in Kosovo by recognising its independence through a referendum. What about the independence of the former Soviet republics? All of them declared their indepen-dences on the basis of one-sided stage-managed referendums. The West now raises the objection when Crimea declares its independence from Ukraine and accession to Russia in the same way exposing the Western hypocrisy.

Now the Western countries are threatening to impose sanctions on Russia and have declared a travel ban on 21 important personalities from Russia and Ukraine. The West is threatening Russia but Russia does not seem to be scared. By signing the treaty for Crimea’s accession to Russia, Putin has achieved several of his objectives. First and foremost, henceforth the West can never hope to get Crimea in its fold and its dream to turn the Black Sea into a NATO Lake is shattered forever. Secondly, Ukraine can hardly be admitted into the NATO since the bloc’s charter stipulates that no country with territorial dispute can be given its membership, and with Crimea’s controversial accession to Russia, Ukraine now has a territorial dispute with its formidable eastern neighbour.

Geopolitical experts are now splitting their hair over Russia’s next moves. Will Russia annex the rest of Ukraine? There are wild speculations about Moscow annexing other CIS territories too. Russia will not incorporate other restive territories on the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine notwithstanding the unprece-dented pro-Russian mass upsurge there. There are demands to hold Crimea-like referendums to determine the status of those regions that defy the illegitimate interim regime in Kiev. Moscow has already proposed to work for a negotiated settlement of the vexed situation in Ukraine. It proposes to have tripartite discu-ssions involving Russia, the West and Ukraine.

But who will represent Kiev? The present neo-fascist regime in Kiev, that has barely any control over the country, is not at all acceptable to Moscow. There has to be an interim government. which would be internationally recognised and is acceptable to Moscow. Moscow’s proposal includes the formation of a Constituent Assembly to shape the contours of new federation that Ukraine has to be if it wants survive as a state and adoption of a new Constitution that would provide large-scale autonomy to regions. This is likely to be the outcome of political negotiations and diplomatic efforts. But the West so far does not seem to be in a mood to abandon the current illegitimate regime that came to power as a result of a coup and has hardly any control over the country. The regime is legitimising the neo-fascist forces by recruiting them into the National Guards in the pattern of the SS troops. If the West does not abandon its present policy and see the writing on the wall, Russia perhaps will not hesitate to support a process that will split Ukraine vertically between the eastern and western parts of the country.

 After all, Ukraine in its two-decade-long independence has not been able to build a nation-state; could not create a single Ukrainian identity nor could develop a single ruling elite. Ukraine, within its present boundary, had never been an independent state. Its different parts were parts of different empires at different times. Thanks to Stalin and Khrushchev, Ukraine could possess the status of a quasi-state for nearly 70 years. But Ukraine—with its historical fault-lines, civilisational divide and fragile state structure—can hardly survive the onslaught of neo-fascists if they are permitted to execute their plan. If the West plays its card not very astutely by not taking Russia’s legitimate interests into account, Ukraine might be split between the western and eastern parts, with the eastern part gravitating towards Russia and the western part towards Europe.

Whatever might be the case, the Russian spring in Crimea will alter the geopolitical balance in favour of Moscow, hasten the end of unipolar world and accelerate the process of formation of a multipolar global order, with Russia constituting one of its most powerful poles. The West would make some noise for some time and then reconcile to the new reality with a resurgent Russia playing an ever more active role in world politics.

Prof Arun Mohanty is the Chairperson, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Director of the Delhi-based Eurasian Foundation.

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