SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — For the past 10 years, professor Aleksandr Chemshit has been pleading in speeches, essays and interviews that Ukraine’s only chance to remain whole and stable was through reforms and smart diplomacy.
Now, he said, that chance is gone.
As the director of the school of philology and social sciences at Sevastopol National Technical University in Crimea, Chemshit now has a front-row seat to witness the unraveling of Ukraine at the center of one the most dramatic standoffs between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
On March 16, Crimean voters chose overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a referendum that international organizations denounced as unconstitutional and unfairly administered. Only Russia recognized the referendum as legitimate. The United States and European Union promptly slapped sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes, on a group of Russian and Ukrainian officials they blame for ratcheting up tensions in the Black Sea peninsula.
It was the latest maneuver in an escalating tug of war between the West and Russia over Ukraine, a country of 46 million that Chemshit said was already “weak and divided” before the diplomatic wrangling over its foreign policy orientation.
“The entirety of Ukraine can’t ever belong to either the EU or Russia because one half of Ukraine is oriented to Europe and the other half is oriented toward Russia,” Chemshit said. “But the EU and Russia fought for all of Ukraine anyway.”
And while the big powers deny the analogy of Ukraine as a geopolitical chessboard, locals say they feel like pawns in a zero-sum game where they get the losing end of the stick.
The crisis started last fall when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych spurned an EU trade deal that had been years in the making. Russia, which lured Yanukovych with $15 billion in loans and discounted gas, had also been seeking to incorporate Ukraine into its trade block, the Customs Union. Although many countries — including the United States — are part of multiple privileged trade organizations, both the EU and Russia made it clear that Ukraine would have to choose one or the other.
Polls showed Ukrainians were split on the issue, broadly along geographic and ethno-linguistic lines. Ethnic Ukrainians in the west generally favored integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, while residents of eastern and southern Ukraine, which contain large populations of ethnic Russians, generally preferred closer ties with Russia.
When the government stepped away from the EU offer, protests erupted in the country’s largely ethnic Ukrainian capital. In February, those protests culminated in bloody street fighting that left more than 100 protesters and police dead, and the Russian-leaning president fled the country.
Moscow responded by sending thousands of troops into the Ukrainian province of Crimea — a peninsula with a majority ethnic Russian population that also hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet — and orchestrating the referendum that would fast track the region’s annexation.
President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly insisted that Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population was threatened by “ultranationalist radical” factions — claims Washington has tried to debunk (the State Department even went so far as to put out a fact sheet on “President Putin’s Fiction: 10 False Claims about Ukraine”).
Likewise, Western policymakers have been dismissive about the referendum results, in which a whopping 97 percent of voters opted to join Russia. While it’s true debate was muzzled in the hastily arranged ballot (which took place under the watchful eye of Russian security forces), the official denunciations belie the genuine support that Russia enjoys in Crimea — and the real concerns its 2 million people have about the creeping “Ukrainization” of their way of life, whether imagined or not. Indeed, the heated rhetoric coming out of Washington, Brussels, Moscow and Kiev seems to have drowned out the fact that the recent events were just the latest chapter in Crimea’s long pursuit of autonomy.
Chemshit said that many in Crimea did not view the new government in Kiev as legitimate and feared the chaos of remaining a part of the country. Therefore, he said, Russia’s move to absorb Crimea was “the right thing to do,” although “one cannot call it legal.”
Overall, he said, many Russians over the years have felt betrayed by international processes through organizations like the United Nations and OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) that seem to favor Western interests.
At a pro-Russian rally in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, Aleksandra Shepilov said that international norms were irrelevant to the Crimea situation because the referendum was aimed at righting the historical wrong of Crimea’s 1954 transfer from the Soviet Union to Ukraine. (Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gifted Crimea, which had been ruled by Russia for centuries, to Ukraine ostensibly to mark the 300th anniversary of the country’s merger with the Russian empire.)
“The West has its truth, we have ours,” Shepilov said. “We want to be with Belarus and Russia. We don’t need the EU.”
Also present at the protest, Olga Timofeeva said the issue of the referendum was an example of Western double standards.
“For us it is strange that Obama doesn’t see the overthrow of the elected government in Kiev, but he considers our democratic referendum criminal,” she said, echoing a common refrain among pro-Russian protesters.
Indeed, resentment persists over the way that Yanukovych, Ukraine’s unpopular but democratically elected president, was ousted from power. On Feb. 21, Ukraine’s opposition signed an EU-brokered “truce” with Yanukovych that called for early elections (though not as early as protesters wanted), a rollback of presidential powers and a stand-down of police forces in Kiev.
However, extremist elements within the protest movement refused to accept the truce and protesters continued to expand their control of the capital city. Yanukovych and dozens of members of the ruling party fled the country. Parliament (including many members of Yanukovych’s own party) then voted overwhelmingly to impeach the president and installed a new opposition-dominated interim government, although it lacked the required votes to make the impeachment constitutional.
Then, one of the newly constituted Parliament’s first moves was to repeal a 2010 law that gave the Russian language an official status alongside Ukrainian. Although this action was later vetoed by the president, the move struck a chord among Ukraine’s Russian-speaking communities that were already fearing the direction of the new regime.
“When they repealed the language law, what did they think the reaction in Crimea would be?” asked Andrey, a 28-year-old boat captain, who declined to give his last name.
Speaking before the referendum, he said, “Since I was a kid, I’ve had to learn half in Ukrainian, half in Russian; half of the TV is in Ukrainian, all government documents are in Ukrainian, but everyone here in Sevastopol only speaks Russian. No one ever asked us what we wanted. Now, at least, we’ll have a choice.”
While Moscow has stoked fears of a Ukrainian takeover in Crimea for its own purposes (and so far the only acts of aggression seem to be coming from the Russian side), experts say Western policymakers also never sought to assuage those fears. Michael Hikari Cecire, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said there was a chance for the international community to step into the Ukraine crisis that would have averted the dangerous standoff that is now unfolding.
“There may have been a brief window after Yanukovych fled Kiev for the new government, its partners in the West and Russia to come together to guarantee autonomy not only for Crimea but for other parts of the country where there is genuine fear — however unwarranted — that their language and cultural rights were under attack,” he said. “I don’t think there is any doubt that transitioning to enriched decentralization would have been far more preferable than the situation which is unfolding today: invasion, dismemberment and possible open war.”
But by the time Yanukovych had fled, Chemshit said, diplomacy had already failed in the eyes of eastern Ukraine.
Diplomacy also failed to predict Russia’s reaction to the loss of a country that it views as inextricably linked to its identity, security and history. Some experts say Russia’s naked power grab should not have surprised anyone. Contrary to speculation that President Putin has “lost touch with reality,” as German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly told President Obama, they say the longtime ruler is acting rather predictably based on Russia’s national interests, especially those on its periphery.
The port of Sevastopol is one of the only natural harbors on the Black Sea, whose deep waters and surrounding high hills make it ideal for docking large vessels and protecting them from high winds. Without the Sevastopol harbor, Russia would have to drastically reduce the size of its Black Sea fleet and would need to spend billions of dollars to upgrade facilities at other ports.
Moscow views the Black Sea fleet as vital to protecting its significant interests in the region and beyond, using it to project naval power (and by extension influence) in the Mediterranean and Middle East. The importance of this base has led some commentators to compare Russia’s intervention in Crimea to the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, which was launched ostensibly to protect the lives of Americans but also to ensure continued control of the Panama Canal.
America’s own poor record on the legality of its military interventions has also undermined its preaching on the subject. The irony of Secretary of State John Kerry’s condemnation that in the 21st century, countries don’t just invade each other “on completely trumped-up pretext” was not lost on critics of the Iraq War and its phantom weapons of mass destruction.
Putin is also reportedly still smarting at how the 2011 Western-led intervention in Libya morphed from a limited humanitarian mission into an all-out campaign to remove Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who wound up brutally killed by rebels.
Furthermore, Russian claims that the West was engineering the ouster of Yanukovych were bolstered when a leaked phone conversation revealed U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland debating which figures should make up the post-Yanukovych government. It reinforced the impression among many Russians that international law is malleable when it suits Western interests, with Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence often cited as an example.
Whether or not the EU and NATO see their eastward expansion as a zero-sum tool to limit Russian influence in its neighborhood, this is the prevailing view among Moscow’s political elite. The country has seen its once vast empire shrink dramatically since the fall of the Soviet Union, and Putin has long complained of the humiliations he says Russians have suffered since losing their superpower status. “Millions of Russians went to bed in one country and woke up abroad” when the Soviet Union collapsed, he lamented in an address shortly after the referendum. “Overnight, they were minorities in the former Soviet republics, and the Russian people became one of the biggest — if not the biggest — divided nation in the world.”
Ukraine, a key buffer with “sacred” ties to Russia, as Putin put it, apparently was the last straw. That may be why Moscow is calculating that the price of Western sanctions and international isolation outweighs the costs of losing Ukraine. It is also probably banking on the fact that the European Union, reliant on Russia for economic trade and natural gas, won’t press too hard on sanctions.
Now that Crimea’s annexation is a fait accompli, experts hope diplomacy can keep the situation from snowballing. Russia has proposed revisiting the Feb. 21 power-sharing agreement and drafting a new constitution that would create a federal system to give Ukraine’s regions greater autonomy. Moscow’s road map would also cement Ukraine’s political neutrality and make Russian the second official language. In an effort to defuse tensions, Ukraine’s new government has said it won’t seek NATO membership and that it is open to granting regions greater powers, but it’s also mobilizing thousands of reservists in an effort to beef up the country’s weak army and deter Russia from occupying any more territory.
Cecire said that in the long term, the opportunity is still there for both sides to hammer out a new governing structure with expansive federalist powers for provinces in Ukraine. Despite the cultural and linguistic divisions, he said he is optimistic a solution similar to the structure used in Canada might be possible.
But such an arrangement would also require assurances from outside forces not to push or pull the country into either the EU or Russia’s sphere of influence. And now, Chemshit said, the distrust between Moscow and the West is nearly absolute.
It also remains to be seen whether Ukraine’s current political conditions could support a more decentralized system, or if its problems with rampant corruption, fiscal mismanagement, kleptocracy and weak rule of law would worsen.
Endemic graft is also a bipartisan tradition in Ukraine. While Yanukovych was widely seen as an inept, crooked president, many of his rivals, including opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, don’t fare much better in the court of public opinion. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s economy is in shambles. The new government in Kiev says it needs $35 billion in assistance over the next two years to avoid default. After its initial deal offered few immediate benefits, the European Union finally stepped in with a $15 billion aid package to plug Ukraine’s finances, and the International Monetary Fund recently came up with a $14-to-$18 billion bailout that could unlock $27 billion over the next two years. Ukraine desperately needs the cash infusion: Russia has already significantly hiked up the price it charges the government for natural gas. But the loans mean that Kiev will have to adopt the painful structural reforms long demanded by the IMF that it has resisted for years.
Chemshit said that Ukraine got to this point by taking all of the wrong political practices from the Soviet Union. Ukraine, like the Soviet Union, he said, created an extremely centralized system and based the diverse country around a single foundational ethnicity — Ukrainians. This system has failed to address Ukraine’s fundamental problems while also not creating a true political class of the kind that might have emerged from the dozens of independently functioning provincial and local governments.
Instead, since independence, Ukrainian leaders and oligarchs have battled over their personal fiefdoms while the economy has stagnated. After a long depression, Ukraine didn’t improve on the GDP mark it held in 1990 until 2005. Its economy lags behind every other member of the former Eastern Bloc; even Belarus is twice as wealthy on a per-capita basis. And in 2013, Ukraine ranked 144th out of 177 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Perhaps that’s why some Ukrainians are holding out little hope that this latest bout of political brinkmanship will change their fortunes.
Maksim sells month-old newspapers at the train station in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital. The latest editions are “too expensive” for him to acquire so he sells the dated — and likely used — issues for 10 cents each.
Asked whether the country would be better off without Yanukovych, he shrugged.
He then pulled out a pen and circled key paragraphs in a local newspaper article about a corruption scheme through which a Crimea-based shell company was reportedly given a $180 million government contract for reconstruction work at the Odessa airport, despite having no recorded construction experience or having bid on the tender.
“You see these games that are being played high above us? The big people will always make their money off of it,” he said. “We’ll just get poorer or stay the same.”
About the Author
Nicholas Clayton (@ClaytonNicholas) is an Istanbul-based contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.