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Mainstream, VOL. 52, No. 21, May 17, 2014

Russian Spring in Ukraine

Monday 19 May 2014, by Arun Mohanty


The much-talked about and controversial referendum in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions located in the eastern part of Ukraine (which is ruled by an interim government that came to power through a coup) took place on May 11, 2014. And its preliminary results show that an overwhelming majority of the population living in the region have voted in favour of indepen-dence.

According to Aleksandra Malihina, the chief of the Election Commission of the Lugansk region, 96.2 per cent of the people taking part in the referendum voted in favour of independence. In Donetsk 89.7 per cent people voted in favour of the region’s selfrule where- as 10.19 per cent people voted against indepen-dence. The voters turnout in both the regions was huge with more than 80 per cent of the total voters in the Lugansk region and more than 75 per cent in the Donetsk region taking part in the referendum. And this massive turnout in the backdrop of the ongoing military operations and intimidation must have come as a surprise as well as eyeopener for the interim government in Ukraine that was proclaiming that not more than 12 per cent people in the south-east of the country demand independence. The Ukrainian Army’s massive military operations with the use of heavy artillery against its own peaceful citizens in order to disrupt the referendum had little impact on the voter turnout but unfortunately led to dozens of deaths. More than twenty people were killed in the Donetsk region’s port city of Mariopol alone as a result of the interim government’s brutal military operations there. More than 300 people have been reported to be killed as a result of the military operations.

As expected, the OSCE has refused to recognise the outcome of the referendum, calling it ‘provocative and illegal’. The OSCE has urged to execute its roadmap for deescalating tension in Ukraine and has called all sides—Ukraine, Russia, Europe and the US—to adhere to the document. The US and EU have refused to recognise the results of the referendum and have threatened Russia with new sanctions if it accepts the outcome.

Russia, which had urged to delay the referen-dum as part of the understanding with the OSCE, has said that it ‘respects the will of the people and results of the referendum‘ and has expressed the hope that ‘practical implemen-tation of the results of the referendum would take place in a civilised way’.

So the referendum turned out to be a new turning-point in the Ukranian issue. The results of the referendum herald a new era in Ukraine’s contemporary history—the emergence of a new political reality. It is a precursor to the formation of a new state—Novorussia, the historic name by which the territory was known till the October Revolution. This territory was a constituent part of core Russia, and was not a part of Ukraine under the Russian empire. Bolsheviks for varied reasons had merged this territory with Soviet Ukraine that became a constituent republic of the USSR in 1922.

In the immediate aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis that entered a new phase following the coup on February 22 which brought an illegiti-mate government to power, the first major step of this government was to strip the Russian language, spoken by 94 per cent of the people, of its regional language status. This author had argued that Ukraine can no more exist as a unitary government and federation is the only way left for Ukraine to remain as a united state. However, the illegitimate interim government, led by Acting President Oleksander Torchinov and Acting PM Arseniy Yatsenuyk, hesitated to talk about making Ukraine a federation through a constitutional reform; instead they chose to talk about decentralisation of power—a trap into which the people in the south-east of Ukraine refused to fall.

The illegitimate interim government in Kiev in the meantime tried to build and flex its military muscle with tacit US support. A US $ 17 billion worth of IMF loan was promised to Kiev on the condition that it maintains its grip over the south-eastern part of the country. This was a clear signal to Kiev from Washington that the interim government has to hold control over the country’s south-east by any means, otherwise it won’t get the full amount of the promised IMF credit. Instead of talking to the people in the country’s south-east on the future federative structure of the Ukrainian state, the interim government chose to use brutal military force against its peaceful citizens to suppress the movement there. More than 400 US mercenaries are reported to be taking part in the military operations launched by Kiev. When the hope for negotiations for making Ukraine a federation died, the movement for independence gathered steam and people in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions chose their own People’s Governors defying the Central authorities in Kiev. They declared the formation of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic on their territories, and finally declared to hold referendum on the independence of their regions on May 11.

The referendum held in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, constituting almost one-sixth of country’s population and the industrial heartland of Ukraine, marks a new stage in the Ukrainian crisis and confirms the fact that Ukraine is on the path of sure disintegration. Three regions—Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk—have declared independence from Kiev. The illegiti-mate interim government in Kiev, supported by the West and neo-fascists, is absolutely responsible for the imminent disintegration of Ukraine. The heavily populated three regions are donor-regions which feed not only central but also western Ukraine. In such a situation, secession of these regions would make it next to impossible for Kiev to return the $ 17 billion IMF credit, particularly in the backdrop of the fact that Ukraine’s debt to Russia alone amounts $ 18 billion. The European price for Russian gas supplies to Ukraine would deliver a serious blow to its economy and it will find it difficult to recover from it.

Ukraine, under the current illegitimate inte-rim government, is fast turning into a failed state. What has happened in Crimea, and subsequently in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, is only the beginning of the disintegration process, which is likely to spread to Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Kherson, Odessa, Nikolayevski and other regions very soon. The new authorities in Donetsk and Lugansk are planning to appeal to the UNO for recognition of their independence. As soon as the new authorities resolve the organisational, political, cadre and financial issues linked to their independence, a similar process is likely to gather momentum in the above mentioned regions as well.

The illegitimate interim government is not in a position to resolve the crisis through the use of military force. The military operations launched by the Kiev Government in the course of a month have not succeeded in bringing even a single small town under its control in the rebellious territory. The Right sector, consisting of fascist forces, may be good at annihilating innocent people, but cannot resolve any serious military problem. That is why the resistance forces in the rebellious territory clearly have an advantage over the official military forces. The resistance forces in Donetsk and Lugansk are likely to extend their support to the resistance movement in other regions, particularly in Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk and Odessa. If these regions secede from Ukraine, one should forget about the existence of Ukraine within its current borders, and that would turn Ukraine practi-cally into a failed state.

Ukraine is a fragile state with almost no history of independent statehood except for a very brief period in the 16th century during the existence of Zaparozhesky Syche. Different parts of the present-day Ukrainian territory had belonged to different empires—like the Lithuanian, Polish, Austro-Hungary and Russian empires etc., at different times. The western part of Ukraine, which was known as Galicia, was always a part of Europe, and was brought under the USSR from Poland only on the eve of the Second World War by Stalin. While Catholicism is practised in west Ukraine, Orthodox Christia-nity is practised in the rest of Ukraine. The Ukrainian state has been stitched with territories belonging to different civilisations and empires. This is not to argue that it does not have the right to continue as an independent state within its present borders.

A country with such civilisational divides and historical faultlines should be extra conscious to keep its flock together and the territory united. Unfortunately, Ukraine could not develop itself as a modern nation-state within two decades of its independence. It has utterly failed in developing a pan-Ukrainian national idea and a national elite with a vision for the entire country. The dubious attempt to impose the Ukrainian language in a country—where 94 per cent of the population prefer to speak the Russian language and accept Russion culture, and establish the rule of neo-fascists—can hardly help in ensuring its territorial integrity.

The anguish and discontent in the country, particularly in its south-eastern part, was simmering for a long time as a result of the Ukrainisation of the country by the minority, and the near ban on the Russian language and culture. But the illegitimate interim government, dominated by ultra-nationalists, that came to power as a result of a coup, and its first major step to deprive the Russian language of its regional language status provided the trigger for widespread discontent among the people, particularly in the south and east of the country. The government, in order to address the discon-tent, should have gone for a negotiated settlement for making Ukraine a federation; instead, it chose to use military force and the neo-fascists to suppress the movement. This in turn triggered a process that increasingly looked like a national-liberation movement. The illegitimate interim government in Kiev can hardly put down this movement now.

There can be several scenarios of development in the near future. Russia is unlikely to use the Crimean tactics to reunite this territory with it immediately. Though Russian President Vladimir Putin retains the permission from the Federation Council, the Upper House of the Russian parliament, to use force, he may not do so unless its citizens are attacked, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has made it clear. People living on the rebellious regions are likely to opt for Russian citizenship. If those citizens are attacked, Russia is unlikely to sit as a silent spectator and may resort to the use of force in their defence. The new authorities in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions are going to appeal to the UNO for their recognition following which Russia might extend diplomatic recognition to them. These two regions might survive like South Ossetia and Abkhazia under Russian protection. Moreover, leaders of the rebellious regions are already contemplating another referendum for reuniting with Russia. If such a referendum is held, it is not difficult to guess the outcome of this exercise, which would provide additional legal ammunition to Moscow to bring the territory under its fold.

Having said all this, I would like to emphasise that possibilities for keeping Ukraine’s territorial integrity are far from exhausted. Taking into consideration the advantage that Russia and the rebellious regions now enjoy after the referendum, members of the illegitimate interim government in Kiev and their masters in Was-hington and Brussels must immediately launch serious negotiations that would make Ukraine a true federation with enough autonomy to the regions and would address Russia’s genuine security concerns. Otherwise no force can prevent Ukraine’s disintegration process, which is fraught with serious consequences for Euro-pean as well as global peace.

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

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