As negotiations continue between the United States and Russia, many Americans are left wondering how a regime change could so easily spiral out of control. The history behind Russia’s relationship with the West is complex and interconnected; thus, it should be closely examined and considered in order to understand the conflict that many have predicted will lead to sanctions reminiscent of the Cold War.
Pavel Sudoplatov, a Soviet intelligence chief, wrote of the political and geographically charged unrest in 1994. “The origins of the cold war are closely interwoven with western support for nationalist unrest in the Baltic areas and western Ukraine,” Sudoplatov argued.
If this sentiment is true, are the events in Crimea calling for peace or war? Most of the following information, if not otherwise attributed, was collected from a video by New York Times bestselling author John Green. Green is also the creator of the YouTube channel “vlogbrothers.”
Let’s start with The Crimean War, which was fought from 1853-1856. The war was sort of a holy war between the Catholics and the Orthodox living on the peninsula, but the larger cause for the war was Europe fearing that Russia’s power would expand as the Ottoman Empire declined. This led Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire to team up to defeat Russia. One of the consequences of the Russian 1856 military defeat was that it halted the Russian expansion to the West and South and encouraged expansion to the East. This is according to Orlando Figes’s “The Crimean War, A History.”
Toward end of WWI, Russia experienced a communist revolution, and Ukraine enjoyed a brief period of independence as a result. Ukraine then became part of the USSR. The relations between Ukraine and Russia were stable until newly instated USSR leader Joseph Stalin took control following WWII. During his regime, Stalin wanted to push the USSR toward industrialization through tactics that exterminated a substantial percentage of the Ukrainian population, based on Marxism–Leninism ideologies. Stalin’s agricultural policies in that time starved and killed 10 million Ukrainians between the years 1932 and 1933. Stalin also deported several million Ukrainians and the entire indigenous population of Crimea, Tartars, to Siberia. During this time, Stalin also moved many ethnic Russians into Ukraine, especially in the Crimean peninsula, which was the main industrial region at the time. This is according to Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands.”
Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, transferred the Crimean peninsula from Russia to Ukraine in 1954. Khrushchev had many ties to Ukraine and was intent on denouncing Stalin’s legacy. As a result, Khrushchev initiated a process of de-Stalinization to re-stabilize the region.
In December of 1991, the Soviet Union broke ties with Ukraine. Ukraine formed their own national referendum, and 90 percent of people (the majority of which were living in the Crimean peninsula) voted for independence from Russia. Of all former Soviet Union republics, however, Ukraine remained most closely aligned with Russia. Other republics, like Estonia, voted to join the European Union, but Ukraine did not
In Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election, Viktor Yanukovich, a former Soviet central planner, won the election against Viktor Yushchenko, a reformer. The opposition leader, Yushchenko, led massive street protests in Kiev, which came to be known as the Orange Revolution. Protesters (correctly) alleged a large-scale voting fraud, took to the streets as the “orange coalition,” and ultimately succeeded in getting a new election. In the meantime, Yushchenko was allegedly poisoned and disfigured with dioxin at some point during the bitter campaign. He was hospitalized and recovered in time for the second election. The second ballot was held, in which Yushchenko and his orange coalition won handily.
During his term, Yushchenko wasn’t able to push through austerity measures meant to deal with Ukraine’s rising debt. Additionally, many people in the eastern parts of Ukraine wanted to be more closely aligned with Russia, so they did not approve of the president’s friendliness toward Europe and the EU.
Yanukovich, on the other hand, wasn’t finished. He ran again for president in 2010, this time against a reformist woman, Yulia Tymoshenko, who had served as Yushchenko’s prime minister after the Orange Revolution. Russian-friendly Yanukovich won, but Tymoshenko refused to recognize the results, arguing that the election was again rigged. Yanukovich ended up in the president’s office, and Tymoshenko ended up in prison on a multitude of charges.
In November 2013, Ukrainian president Yanukovich announced that Ukraine would abandon an agreement to strengthen ties with the EU and would instead become a closer ally of Russia. This is when the protests began in Kiev. Those protests grew until Feb. 20, 2014, when Ukrainian military and police killed dozens of protesters. The next day, Yanukovich disappeared from Kiev. The protesters had won. They installed a new temporary government, which was backed by the United States and its allies, to prepare for new elections.
Around the same time, Russian troops moved into the Crimean peninsula, which they said was to protect ethnic Russians in the peninsula. This violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity was a big deal for the Western countries aligned with the United Nations and/or EU.
Crimea voted to rejoin Russia, which can be argued as problematic on many levels. It’s difficult for Crimea to demand independence because it is physically attached to Ukraine and all of its water and electricity come from Ukraine. It is impossible for Crimea to remain a part of Russia because Ukraine would have to agree to the change in allegiance. Much of the western part of Ukraine is closely aligned with the EU.
According to The United Nations, the UN General Assembly has voted for a resolution submitted by Ukraine denouncing Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The resolution affirms commitment to Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, and it calls on UN members and nations to refrain from actions aimed at disruption of Ukraine’s national unity. Russia has in turn rejected the resolution, reminding U.N. and E.U. nations that the vote to rejoin the federation came from Crimea itself and not Moscow.
In the meantime, The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO, has backed the resolution submitted by the UN and stands guard in many of the eastern European countries neighboring Ukraine and Russia. Many of these countries are former Soviet Union Republics and fear that the Kremlin, too, will invade their borders. This is according to PRI’s The World.
One of the countries on Russia’s radar is Moldova. The new leaders in Kiev have said Putin could seek to link up pro-Russian regions in Moldova, and Georgia to Ukraine’s east, according to Reuters. Many regions of Moldova and Georgia identify as ethnically Russian and represent a population similar to the Russian-leaning people in Crimea. Additionally, the troops conducting reported “exercises” on the Crimean border with Ukraine point to an impending invasion further into eastern Ukraine.
The key issue in the Russia/Ukraine situation is dependent on how far Putin is willing to go to re-establish economic, political, and military hegemony over former Soviet states. The United States and its allies have received pressure namely from the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), which have unanimously and forcefully backed Russia’s position on Crimea. The UN reports that 54 additional nations refused to back the resolution condemning Russia for the invasion.
The fact that BRICS and 54 other nations support Russia suggest that its anti-Western leanings may be more strongly held than most previously believed, according to The Diplomat. This support for Russia also suggests that forging anything like an international order with Western nations will be extremely difficult. The fact that 69 countries either abstained or voted against the UN’s resolution points to a difficult road ahead. Only time will tell how negotiations will play out. It increasingly appears that another “Cold War” would divide East and West beyond repair. So I’ll ask again: Are the events in Crimea calling for peace or war? And if it’s a call to war, who should be held responsible for the destabilization that follows?
-Spring 2014/Internship at The Daily Herald