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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 9 New Delhi February 16, 2019

Russia-Ukraine: Brotherly Ties Turning into Hostilities. How and Why?

Sunday 17 February 2019

by R.G. Gidadhubli

Russia and Ukraine were brotherly Slavic states with close, cordial and consistent social, economic and political relations for centuries. They were also major economically and strategically powerful Republics of the former Soviet Union. Hence questions arise as to how and why the brotherly relations have turned into hostilities that aggravated in November-December 2018. An effort has been made to examine the major issues in this contribution.

On November 25, 2018 ships of Russia and Ukraine collided in the coastal region of Crimea. There was accusation by the Ukrainian and Western media that a Russian Coast Guard cutter rammed into a Ukrainian Navy tugboat near the Kerch Strait, which is a crucial location, being the bottleneck between Russia and Crimea. But Russia made a counter-allegation accusing Ukraine of orchestrating the clash at sea asserting that the Ukrainian boats had entered Russian waters. The Kerch Strait assumes great geos-trategic and geopolitical significance since it is the only route for ships travelling to the Sea of Azov that separates the Crimean Peninsula from the mainland of Ukraine and Russia. Moreover, Ukraine has several ports, and the Black Sea is the arena usually patrolled by the NATO.

Moreover, what added to the bilateral conflict was that Russia also seized 24 sailors in the Black Sea off the coast of the Russia-controlled Crimean Peninsula. As per Russian reports, the captured sailors were transferred to a detention centre in Moscow.

Looking back, since 2014 there have been on-going conflicts between Ukraine and Russia over the allegation against Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. This accusation has been denied by Russia justifying that a referendum held on the issue found the people of Crimea overwhelmingly supporting Russia’s action. Having taken control over Crimea, Russia built a bridge over the Kerch Strait connecting Crimea with Russia in May 2018 and has asserted control over the Strait.

Realising that Ukraine has been losing the battle, the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, has spared no effort to make this incident not only a bilateral conflict but also an international issue to gain support from the West. The frustration of Poroshenko seems to be evident from his sarcastic remarks on the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, charging him with behaving like a “Russian emperor” and treating Ukraine as a Russian “colony”. He even added: “We can’t accept Russia’s aggressive policies. First it was the Crimea, then eastern Ukraine, now he wants the Sea of Azov.”

To safeguard national interest Poroshenko has taken several crucial policy measures. This is evident from the immediate response since Ukraine instituted martial law for 30 days in parts of Ukraine which are mainly inhabited by Russians.

Secondly, on December 6, 2018 in the Ukrainian parliament Verkhovna Rada, 277 lawmakers approved a move by President Poroshenko to terminate the country’s Treaty of Friendship with Russia. Moreover, the legislation also allowed Ukrainian border guards to open fire without warning on potential attackers. This is most unfortunate since in the eastern borders of Ukraine there is free movement of Russians and Ukrainians and there are allegations that Russians have been protesting against the interests of Ukraine during the last few years.

Thirdly, in the eastern regions of Ukraine bordering Russia, a substantial ethnic population is Russian as also in Crimea as they are living there for the last few hundreds of years. It is unfortunate that they are now called ‘separatists’ by Ukraine, since they may have pro-Russian sentiments. Since 2014 alleging the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Ukraine is blaming Russia for providing support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine who have been blamed for fighting the government in the war that has killed more than 10,300 people. But Moscow denies interfering in Ukraine’s domestic affairs and efforts made to bring about peace through the ‘Minsk Deal’ have not succeeded so far.

Fourthly, a highly unpleasant development is that Poroshenko has called on the NATO forces to send ships to the Sea of Azov to help protect his country. The NATO, which includes several Black Sea member-states, and the United States have routinely sent warships patrolling the Black Sea, despite Russian concerns. As of now Ukraine is a partner of the NATO but not a member of the military alliance. However, Ukraine has every reason to be content that the NATO has already assured that it “stands with Ukraine” and has even called on Russia to release the captured ships and their crew. As per reports, Russia has released the ships.

Fifth, Ukraine intends to involve another Western organisation. At the December 6 meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) held in Milan, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Pavlo Klimkin, urged for a sturdy response against Russia calling for increased sanctions against Russia, accusing Moscow of stepping up “aggression” against Kiev and sowing “instability and insecurity” in the OSCE region.

Western Response

There are mixed responses from the West on the latest conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has opined that the issue can be resolved through talks and there is no military solution to all these conflicts.

Similarly, the European Union has failed to muster support for any immediate new steps to either impose new sanctions on Russia over the naval incident or increase enforcement of existing sanctions on Moscow. The EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has stated that the bloc will “act appropriately” while continuing to monitor the situation.

As compared to Europe, the USA has been very critical of the incidents. The US President, Donald Trump, cancelled his scheduled meeting with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, at the G-20 industrialised nations gathering in Argentina in the first week of December. Moreover, the USA has carried out an “extraordinary” flight over Ukraine under an international military surveillance treaty, amid what it called a pattern of “increasingly provocative and threatening activity” by Russia.

Mr Mitchell, who headed the US delegation at the OSCE meeting, was frank in stating that the member-states “cannot turn a blind eye when Russia attacks the national sovereignty and borders of its neighbours, undermines basic human freedoms, and weakens our common security”.

What might aggravate the crisis is that on this issue the CNN has reported that the United States was also making plans to sail a warship into the Black Sea, but that has not been confirmed. Pentagon has alleged that Russia’s “unprovoked attack” on Ukrainian vessels in the Black Sea “is a dangerous escalation in a pattern of increasingly provocative and threatening activity”. While this statement is very aggressive and that might worsen relations with Russia, at the same time it added that the USA “seeks a better relationship with Russia, but this cannot happen while its unlawful and destabilising actions continue in Ukraine and elsewhere”.

It is important to note that Steven Pifer, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former US ambassador to Ukraine, has been candid in his article “Round 1 goes to Russia” urging that the West should make clear that Russia will face concrete consequences if it does not “release the Ukrainian naval vessels and crews and allow Ukraine free passage” through the Kerch Strait,

Russia’s Reaction

As expected, the Russian response has been highly critical of Ukraine and the West. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pinned the blame for years of tensions on Ukraine’s “outrageous actions” and its “Western sponsors”. Hence addressing the OSCE gathering, Lavrov in December 2018 asserted that Kiev is free from any punishment, shielded by its Western supporters, who justify all its wrong actions. It is important to note that Ukraine and Russia are both member-states of the 57-nation OSCE, a security and human rights watchdog.

Secondly, Konstantin Kosachev, who heads the International Affairs Committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, said the US military presence in the Black Sea will only increase tension in the region, as the Russian news agency TASS reported.

Thirdly, Kremlin spokesman Peskov criticised Poroshenko’s request to the NATO to deploy naval ships to the Sea of Azov, alleging that it is “aimed at provoking further tensions”.

Fourthly, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, was frank in stating that the naval confrontation was a ploy to boost his Ukrainian counterpart’s popularity ahead of an election in March 2019 and thus was driven by Poroshenko’s “electoral and domestic policy motives”.

Fifth, as per Russian reports in the second week of December, a Russian court has ordered 12 of the 24 Ukrainian sailors who were captured by Russian Coast-Guard forces be held in custody for two months. On this issue the UN chief called for restraint by both Moscow and Kiev.

Conflict over Religion

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has not spared even religion although both belong to Orthodox Christianity, an Istanbul-based organi-sation. Christianity was introduced into ‘Kievan Rus’ by Greek missionaries from Byzantium in the 9th century spreading across the territories of Ukraine, Russia and Belorussia. The Metropolitan’s residence of Christian Bishop was originally located in Kiev and later shifted to Russia when Ukraine was under the threat of Mongol invasion in the 11th century.

During the last several centuries the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church has been managing churches in both Russia and Ukraine and there was no conflict. But in the last few years there are differences emerging among the religious heads of Moscow and Kiev possibly influenced by local political powers.

It is unfortunate that tensions have been building up amid questions over the ownership of churches, monasteries, and historic properties. On December 4, 2018 the Ukrainian Police searched several Russian Orthodox Churches and the homes of Russian Orthodox priests in several cities in Ukraine, amid growing tensions over the fate of Ukraine’s competing Orthodox faiths. A police spokeswoman told the AFP that security services were searching homes of priests who are loyal to the Russian branch of the Orthodox Church.

Possibly due to the unending conflicts and differences, the Istanbul-based organisation that serves as the spiritual headquarters for Orthodox Christianity has moved to grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence from oversight by the Russian Church in Moscow. But the Russian Church has vehemently opposed this move and announced it would break ties in protest. Moreover, on December 14, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has appealed to the UN and has sent letters to world leaders asking them to ‘protect’ and assist followers of Russian Orthodoxy in Ukraine as they face what he called official pressure on Moscow-appointed clerics.

In the prevailing scenario, there is no likelihood of an end to hostilities between Russia and Ukraine.

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a Professor and former Director, Centre for Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

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