What started off as anti-government protests against ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych several months ago has escalated to a Russian takeover of the Crimean Peninsula in Southern Ukraine. Both anti-government and pro-government protests began to take place in major cities on the Crimean peninsula and resulted in a hostile takeover of government buildings and the parliament of the Crimean peninsula by pro-Russian forces. This lead to the unconstitutional forming of a new Crimean Parliament and the appointment of Sergey Aksyonov as Prime Minister of Crimea on February 27th, whose party only held three of the one hundred seats in the Crimean Parliament.
In the early days of the pro-Russian takeover, unidentified uniformed soldiers took control over airports on the Crimean Peninsula. By the 27th, Russian soldiers seized control over most of the Crimean Peninsula. They are currently surrounding Ukrainian military bases around the peninsula. The claimed purpose behind Putin’s invasion of Crimea is the protection of ethnic Russians in the region who are being suppressed and threatened by the new government in Kiev. Currently, there have been no fatalities in Russia’s military invasion and both sides are showing restraint. There were rumors of an ultimatum given to the Ukrainian soldiers in the region to lay down their arms by 5 a.m. Kiev time on March 4th but that date has passed and no action has yet been taken. Although Moscow denies any such ultimatum, the Ukrainian government has claimed that it was a Russian scare tactic to frighten the largely outnumbered Ukrainian army.
Brief history of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea
The history of Crimea dates back to the Crimean Khanate which was conquered by the Russian empire in 1783. Crimea remained under Russian control during the rise of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union starved to death and deported around 50% of the ethnic people of the region known as Crimean Tartars. In 1944 Joseph Stalin deported the rest of the Crimean Tartars off the peninsula and many Russians moved in to take their place. In 1954, under Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union gave Crimea to Ukraine, which was still under Soviet control. Not until Ukraine’s independence in 1991 did many of the exiled ethnic Tartars return to the region. Since then, Crimea has agreed to remain a part of Ukraine with an autonomous status. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is currently stationed in Sevastopol, Ukraine, which was supposed to be vacated but under ex-President Yanukoych, the Russian lease of the base was extended. The most recent Ukrainian census in 2001 puts the ethnic demographics of Crimea at 58% Russian, 24% Ukrainian and 12% Crimean Tartar.
The Ukrainian government states that the new Parliament and the Prime Minister of Crimea is an unconstitutional one that was formed by force and not democratically. They criticize the Russian government for interfering and provoking conflict and there has been talk about sealing the Ukraine-Russia border. On March 1st, the Ukrainian government put their army on full alert and they have called up the reserve army. With tensions high, the Ukrainian army has shown restraint against Russian forces that surround their bases and have stated that they will fight till the end. Recruitment offices all around Ukraine have seen massive amounts of people of all ages showing up to enlist into the army to fight for their country. Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, age 80, vowed to take up arms to defend his homeland. The government is warning of a Russian army build up near the border of Eastern Ukraine and do not rule out the possibility of another invasion into the eastern regions. The Ukrainian government is appealing to the international community to help against Russian aggression. Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said, “Nobody will give Crimea away.” Supporters of both sides are currently protesting on the Crimean Peninsula.
When Russia dispersed their army into the Crimean Peninsula, they claimed that they were protecting ethnic Russians and Russians citizens in the region, calling the new government neo-Nazi and fascist extremist. President Putin still considers Yanukovych as the President of Ukraine and claims the new government to be illegitimate. Russia claims that Yanukovych, who in their eyes is still the president, asked Russia to send troops into Ukraine to help protect the citizens and stabilize the country. They claimed that ethnic Russians were being persecuted and suppressed. Many journalists on the ground in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine have stated that this was not true that there was or is any threat to ethnic Russians. Many, but not all, ethnic Russians welcome the Russian invasion. Many of the ethnic Russians in Crimea enjoy more freedoms under Ukrainian government then Russians currently living in Russia. Ongoing peaceful anti-war and anti-government protests in Russia have been taking place with dozens of people being arrested. Many Russians from Russia are traveling to Ukraine to join anti-government protests in the East and the New York Times has labelled these individuals as “protest tourists.” Russian state-owned media has been caught spreading propaganda to the people of Russia and the world. A recent poll by the Kremlin released a survey on Monday that showed 73% of Russians reject Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine acquired the nuclear weapons that Russia had placed in the region which made Ukraine the third largest nuclear power at the time. In 1994, Ukraine, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States signed the Budapest Memorandum under which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons. In return, the nations agreed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and to refrain from threatening or using force against Ukraine. Russia’s decision to send troops into Crimea was a clear violation of this treaty.
Many of the world’s leaders, especially from North America and from countries that are part of the European Union, have voiced their opinion against Putin’s invasion of Crimea and back the new government in Ukraine. They demand that Russia immediately withdraw its troops out of Ukraine and back to their naval base in Sevastopol. Members of the G7, which includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States, have condemned Russia for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and have suspended preparations for the G8 summit which was to take place in Sochi, Russia in June. On March 3rd the United Nations held a meeting to discuss the situation in Ukraine at which the United States Ambassador to the UN stated:
It is a fact that Russian military forces have taken over Ukrainian border posts. It is a fact that Russia has taken over the ferry terminal in Kerch. It is a fact that Russian ships are moving in and around Sevastapol. It is a fact that Russian forces are blocking mobile telephone services in some areas. It is a fact that Russia has surrounded or taken over practically all Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea. It is a fact that today Russian jets entered Ukrainian airspace. It is also a fact that independent journalists continue to report that there is no evidence of violence against Russian or pro-Russian communities. (Read more: http://tinyurl.com/ogq3bue)
The United States has been urging both the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to send international peacekeeping missions to Crimea to help resolve the issue politically. Furthermore, the United States is threatening sanctions against Russia and has currently suspended both trade talks and military relationships with Russia. The European Union has also threatened sanctions against Russia, but without unanimous agreement the extent of the sanctions vary. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while on a phone call with President Obama, questioned whether Putin, “was still in touch with reality.”
Poland, a strong supporter of both Ukraine’s Euromaidan and the current crisis in Ukraine, called on NATO’s North Atlantic Council to hold a meeting after stating it feels threatened by Russia’s movement into the region. This meeting is scheduled for March 4th.
Kazakhstan, one of Russia’s closest allies turned its back on Russia for the first time on such a major international issue. Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister, Erlan Idrisov, expressed his concerns regarding the situation in Ukraine and commitment to not use force to resolve this situation.
Worldwide Economic Impact
As the showdown continues, the crisis in Ukraine looms over both the domestic Ukrainian and international economy. Since the beginning of the protests, Ukraine’s government has slowly started to tumble economically. Russia had planned to give Ukraine $15 billion in aid but once the new government took over, Russia took back this offer. Ukraine’s hryvnia has been falling against the dollar in recent weeks, but since the conflict in Crimea began, the hryvnia fell to a record low of 11.65 against the U.S dollar. The Ukrainian economy may also suffer raises in prices of the natural gas from Russia that flows through Ukraine to the rest of Europe. Ukraine’s economy is on the brink of default and if it does not receive aid soon, it can completely collapse. The IMF is currently working on raising the $35 million that Ukraine needs.
It is not only Ukraine’s economy that is taking a big hit. The Russian ruble has also hit a record low 36.4 against the dollar. On Monday March 3rd,the Moscow Interbank Currency Exchange (MICEX) fell around 11% losing around 58 billion since the market closed on Friday. The RTS Index dropped 12%. Gazprom, a state-controlled natural-gas monopoly that is a key export of Russia, dropped 14%, roughly 15 billion in market value in one day.
Stock markets around the world also took a hit from the current crisis in Ukraine with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling 153.68 points, or 0.94%. At the same time, investors turned to safer investments during time of crisis, such as gold, which rose as high as $1,355 an ounce on Monday. With Ukraine being one of the world top exporters of corn and wheat, agricultural commodities are beginning to see raises in price, and have potential of rising even higher if exports halt.
The growing concern in Europe is a steady supply of natural gas that comes from Russia through Ukraine, supplying 30% of Europe’s natural gas. This is one of the main causes why the many countries of the European Union, especially Germany, which gets 40% of its natural gas from Russia, have been trying to keep economic sanctions on Russia off the table.
What Happens Next?
It is practically impossible to predict how events will unfold in coming days. Tensions are high in Ukraine as both sides remain at a standoff. Will Putin take full control over Crimea? Will he move his soldiers in eastern Ukraine? How far is Putin willing to go in his standoff against the world? There are many questions up for debate in recent days but the only one who could answer these questions is Putin himself, and many are saying that he still does not even know what his end game is.
The next question is this: whether this stunt is the beginning of the end of Vladimir Putin’s fourteen year reign over Russia. Ukrainian-Russian relations have been damaged. Many say it is bringing Ukrainians closer together, especially as long as Putin is president. More importantly, Russia’s relationship with much of Europe is in tatters and the relationship between President Putin and President Obama has reached its lowest point. Putin has practically politically isolated himself from the west.
Another question that needs to be addressed is how badly Presidents Putin’s image was damaged within Russia itself. This was arguably one of the worst decisions Putin has made while in office. Mass riots such as those during the Euromaidan have widely inspired the people of Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia and Belarus. Further protests as the ones we are seeing now in Russia should be expect in the coming days, but with Russia’s tough government crackdown on protesters make that fight nearly impossible. Finally, the threatened Russian economy could lead to angry faces on the Russian oligarchs who are backers of Putin’s Russia and that is more troubling to him. In any case the situation on the ground in Ukraine changes on a day to day, hour to hour basis and the exact outcome is unknown.
One thing that is certain: the Ukrainian government has so far proven that it is not afraid of Russia. They do not deny the fact that military confrontation with Russia would be an outright slaughter but as for now they have dug in their feet and stand firm. The Ukrainian people are comprised of strong willed patriotic citizens that would give everything for their freedom. In the words of Voltaire, “Ukraine has always aspired to liberty.” Will Ukraine finally break Russia’s sphere of influence and finally get out of the shadows that have been daunting them since the fall of the Soviet Union?