Open Essay

The endgame in Ukraine and Putin’s putsch

Samantha de Bendern is an analyst of European political trends. She has worked with the European Commission and NATO
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The tragedy of a country caught between history and geography
The Livadia Palace, often called the jewel of Crimea, stands in a luscious park of cedars, pine trees and wysteria, where rose gardens and flower beds draw concentric rings on the paths that lead up to its white neo-renaissance facades. Here and there, the odd palm tree reminds one that we are in the South, by the shores of the Black Sea, just one degree North of Nice or Saint-Tropez. Indeed, everything here mirrors the French Cote d’Azur, the balmy weather, the incandescent light, and the deep blue of the sea a few metres below the palace. If ever there was a place close to Paradise, surely this must be it. Yet it is here, within the very walls of the Italianate palace built a few kilometres south of the Crimean town of Yalta, that Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met in February 1945 to seal a pact that put an end to World War II. In the process, they created deep fissures within the European continent that continued to fester for the four and half decades of the Cold War.

Historians often cite 1989 and the collapse of the Berlin Wall as the end of this war, and in the decade that followed, many East European countries that had fallen under Russian or Communist control after WW-II returned to the European fold. Some joined it for the first time as independent states, and the map of Europe that was drawn in Yalta simply faded away.

But ask any Ukrainian, and you will hear that the dividing lines that had torn the European continent apart for nearly half a century never stopped being part of Ukraine’s past and present. And if Crimea is where the Cold War began, it could well be the place where the endgame is finally played out. On 16 March, the peninsula voted to rejoin Russia in a contentious referendum that has been declared illegal by Kiev and much of the international community including the US, EU and 13 of the UN Security Council’s 15 members. Troops have massed on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine border, the US and EU are threatening sanctions, and Europe is now in the throes of its worse security crisis since well before the end of the Cold War.

When I visited the Livadia Palace in the Spring of the year 2000, I was a NATO civilian officer responsible for relations with the newly-independent states of the USSR. More than half of my work was with Ukraine. As my Ukrainian hosts took me around the baroque interiors of this early 20th century palace built as a summer residence for the last Tsar of the Russian Empire, what struck me most was how much part of Russian History this place was. Pride of place was, of course, the big conference room where the three world leaders had met in 1945 to carve up Europe. The most moving part of the visit, however, was a unique exhibition of informal family photographs taken by Tsar Nicholas II just before the Bolshevik Revolution. The whole place oozed nostalgia for the past, for Russia, for the lost empire.

Later during the trip, we visited Balaclava, the site of the Russian victory over the British during the Crimean War (1853- 1856). A British war cemetery stands to this day on a grassy hill overlooking the beach where British troops had landed in 1854. As far as my Ukrainian hosts were concerned, they were giving me a grand tour of one of the most beautiful parts of Ukraine. For me it was a fantastic opportunity to see many of the key places in Russian history I had hitherto only read about.

The purpose of my trip had been to lecture a class of young Ukrainian army officers on the nature of the NATO-Ukraine relationship. They were all part of the famous Black Sea Fleet that has again been thrust into the news headlines by recent events. Their very diverse questions seemed to epitomise the split attitudes towards Russia and the West in Ukraine: “What are you doing here in Crimea?” asked one, somewhat aggressively, “are you going to force us to join NATO?” “Will you protect us if Russia attacks us?” asked another.

Throughout the short history of its independence, Ukraine has tried to emerge with a strong single identity, and decide whether it faces East or West. The problem is that under the weight of history and geography, Ukraine faces both ways, much like the double-headed eagle so emblematic of its giant brother to the East. The very name ‘Ukraine’ is derived from Russian words that mean ‘on (U) the edge (krai)’.

Parts of western Ukraine were only incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1939. The west speaks Ukrainian, the east Russian. The cleavage was exacerbated during World War II when the Nazis designated those west of the Dniepr river (which runs through Kiev) as people to be assimilated into the Reich, and those to its east as Slavs to be exterminated (along with all Jews). Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, is rooted in Russian history as the birthplace of the Russian nation. Crimea, to the far south, is heavily etched in Russian political and military history as well as literature. The peninsula was part of what was known as the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic within the USSR until it was given to Ukraine by the then Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev in 1954.

However confused Ukraine’s identity may seem when viewed through the prism of history, a few things nevertheless are clear.

One: when Ukraine became independent in 1991, it was recognised as a sovereign state by the international community, including Russia, within the borders of the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. These include Crimea. In 1994, Russia, the US and UK made a further commitment to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity by signing the Budapest Memorandum, which gave Ukraine assurances that it would not come under attack by any party after having given up its nuclear weapons.

Two: Crimea is of vital strategic importance to both Russia and Ukraine. For Russia, Crimea is the historical home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and has been for centuries a significant (but not unique) warm water port with access to the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Because of its importance to the Russian navy, Ukraine agreed to lease some its naval bases to Russia, initially until 2017, then until 2042 in an agreement signed by President Yanukovich in 2010.

For Ukraine, it is (was) home to its largest naval base. Moreover, as Keir Giles, associate fellow, International Security and Russia and Eurasia Programme at Royal Institute of International Affairs, a London-based thinktank, explains, the heavily-industrialised east of Ukraine relies on access to ports in southern Ukraine for access to the sea. Cutting off Crimea from Ukraine will effectively hand these ports over to Russian control, strangling all heavy industry in eastern Ukraine, and making the region significantly economically dependent on Russia. Putin does not need to invade or otherwise destabilise eastern Ukraine to assert significant control over the region: control over Crimea effectively gives him two for the price of one.

Three: Until now, the West, as incarnated both by the EU and NATO, has been incapable of working out a consistent, coherent and unified attitude towards Ukraine. Ukraine could not decide whether it belonged to the East or the West, and the West could not decide either.

What I took away from my years working at NATO is that the unspoken understanding among all of us was that Ukraine was firmly within Russia’s sphere of influence and would never join the Alliance, no matter how many reforms it undertook to qualify for membership. Ukrainians knew that, Russians knew that, and even the Allies knew that.

While not offering any tangible security guarantees to Ukraine, this policy of neither opening nor closing the door to Ukrainian membership handed Russia the perfect propaganda tool to continue invoking the threat of encirclement and NATO encroachment, and, thus, stoke pro-Russian, anti-Western sentiment in the regions inhabited mostly by Russians. By sticking to a policy that all knew deep down to be a non-starter, the West also lost the opportunity to help Ukraine address some of its internal security problems via institutions that would have been more universally welcome throughout Ukraine and less unpalatable to Moscow.

Moreover, because many NATO members are also members of the EU, to the extent that the two together are often referred to as the ‘Euro-Atlantic community’, both Putin’s and ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovich’s propaganda machines were able to easily conjure the confused spectre of Western economic and military domination, incarnated by an EU Association Agreement that was to be signed between Ukraine and the EU in November 2013.

It was a rejection of this agreement by President Yanukovich in favour of a trade agreement with Russia that sparked the protests in Kiev, that eventually lead to the current crisis in Crimea. But contrary to propaganda being peddled by the Russian media, these protests were not overwhelmingly inspired by anti-Russian sentiment. They were actually a rejection of a cronyist corrupt regime which was choosing to associate with another cronyist corrupt regime, instead of moving towards integration into a system that guaranteed—imperfectly perhaps—the rule of law, transparency, governance, and respect for human rights. The irony of all this is that while in Western Europe ultra-right wing parties are rejecting the EU and brandishing new found nationalist sentiments, in Ukraine such parties supported the EU as a guarantor of its economic future and sovereignty.

The Russian media and Russian politicians now talk of protecting Russian speakers in Crimea against ‘fascists’ and ‘terrorists’ in Kiev, but so far the only people bearing any remote resemblance to terrorists in Ukraine are the heavily-armed men in unmarked uniforms now patrolling the Crimean Peninsula. As they bear no insignia, they do not come under the protection of International Humanitarian Law, and it would have been hard to fault Ukraine for treating them as guerilla fighters or terrorists while Crimea was still under Ukrainian control.

Russia has denied that the troops currently in Crimea are Russian, but all eyewitness accounts and video footage of the troops point to the fact that they are Russian. In denying the Russian presence in Crimea, President Putin has shown a level of hypocrisy that even the most hawkish Kremlin watchers had hitherto not thought possible.

The offensive against the media has also reached a height of lies and propaganda that has shocked those who were used to the frequent silencing of journalists through violence, imprisonment or murder. Western journalists in Crimea have been harassed and their equipment confiscated. Local Ukrainian media has been blocked and the airwaves in Crimea were dominated by Russian controlled media in the run-up to the referendum, thus, stifling any chance of a balanced debate. In Russia, websites and newspapers critical of Putin or of the events in Crimea have been either blocked, shut down, or had editorial teams removed. Nothing like this has happened since the beginning of the Glasnost era in 1987.

Putin has also shown a cynical attitude towards legal processes in his refusal to accept the ousting of President Yanukovich, voted by a strong majority in the Ukrainian parliament, while at the same time accepting the takeover of the Crimean parliament by the new pro-Russia Prime Minister who came to power on the back of an armed militia. On 1 March, at a Kremlin press conference, Putin overtly stated that the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which Russia agreed to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity, no longer had any validity because there had been a regime change in Kiev, which he likened to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. As Jim Greene, former head of the NATO military liaison office in Kiev put it: “Putin just picks and chooses what he likes and makes up his own version of international law.”

The cherry on the cake has to be the wording of the referendum on the status of Crimea, which could have been a spoof on the worse type of Soviet speak gone adrift. Voters had the choice between ticking two boxes:

One: are you in favor of Crimea becoming a constituent territory of the Russian Federation?

Two: are you in favor of restoring Crimea’s 1992 constitution [which basically allows Crimea to shape its relationship with Kiev as and how it seems fit]?

According Keir Giles, this amounted to asking voters whether they want to join Russia or leave Ukraine. None of the options offered the choice of keeping the status quo. Even before the vote on Sunday, Crimea was lost to the West.

During the Cold War, the unspoken rule of the game was that both parties had radically different worldviews and played the game according to these. Within this system, mutually accepted misunderstandings dominated relations between the Soviet Union and the West, and a certain degree of stability ensued. Today, Russia claims to be part of the capitalist world order, and has joined or wants to join the various clubs of countries that set the rules of this world order: the G8, WTO, OECD (the latter froze Russia’s accession process on 13 March). But its blatant disregard of all the rules of international conduct, both in Georgia in 2008 and today in Ukraine, show that it not only has no concern for them, but is prepared to twist them in order to have its own way.

Following protests between pro- and anti-Russian groups in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, the Russian Foreign Ministry declared on 14 March that Russia ‘realizes its responsibility for compatriots’ lives in Ukraine and reserves the right to protect these people’. In a strictly legal sense, this would apply to Russian citizens, not the Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east of the country that this text is clearly referring to. By blurring the lines between ‘Russianness’ and Russian citizenship, Putin seems to be recreating the history of Hitler’s annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland on the Eve of World War II. Back then, the threat of nuclear war between great powers did not exist, but nevertheless the world stood by and clung to the belief that it could maintain ‘peace in our time’ in the face of Hitler’s boot stamping across Europe, rather than go to war for a couple of small countries on Europe’s periphery. Today, the prospect of mutually assured destruction makes it even more unlikely that the world will budge beyond some shuffling of feet and wringing of hands in protest.

While we may bemoan the fact that Russia is not respecting the Budapest Memorandum, neither is the UK, nor the US. In the tripartite relationship between what can broadly be called the West (incarnated either as NATO or the EU), Ukraine and Russia, two parties have more or less been internally divided from the outset. Under these circumstances, it became inevitable that the third party that always knew what it wanted would at some point step in and stake its claim. The haste with which the referendum was organised (just ten days) and the speed with which Putin signed the treaty annexing Crimea to Russia—just 48 hours after the referendum—raises the question of how long this had been in the works.

By acting in such a manner, Putin has opened a new chapter of history in which all pretense of cooperation and common values between Russia and the West will have to be cast aside. Nothing will ever be the same again.

Samantha de Bendern has worked for the European Commission and NATO, specialising in relations with Russia and Ukraine. After leaving NATO, she worked as a banker in Russia. She quit in 2011 and came to India to set up a consultancy