The Ukrainian crisis : understanding the causes, proposing solutions

by Fabiano Mielniczuk

 The situation in Ukraine is somber. There is a clear risk of civil war leading to the division of the country between the Western and the Eastern part, inhabited by Russians. This risk is now more imminent, after paramilitary groups supporting Russia occupied the Crimean peninsula and the local Parliament called for a referendum for the people to vote whether the region want to become part of Russia or not.


Fabiano Mielniczuk is Director of Audiplo and Professor of International Relations at Uniritter (Porto Alegre). He is also a member of the Middle Powers Research Group (Grupo de Pesquisas sobre Potências Médias – GPPM).

The Ukrainian crisis : understanding the causes, proposing solutions

The Ukranian crisis

The situation in Ukraine is somber. There is a clear risk of civil war leading to the division of the country between the Western and the Eastern part, inhabited by Russians. This risk is now more imminent, after paramilitary groups supporting Russia occupied the Crimean peninsula and the local Parliament called for a referendum for the people to vote whether the region want to become part of Russia or not.
Analysts who support closer ties between Ukraine and the EU claim that the country’s economic situation is the cause behind the protests that led to the Coup that overthrew Yanokovich. Reproducing a mindset of the 1990s, they emphasize that the only alternative to Ukraine is to deepen economic ties with the EU, liberalizing (or rather, modernizing , in official discourse) its economy in order to promote greater interdependence with Europe as a way to escape the Russian economic blackmail. However, after the economic collapse of 2009, when the economy fell 19 % due to the global crisis of the previous year, Ukraine has had levels of growth consistent with those of other European countries. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that after the shameful election results in 2010, in which the leader of the Orange Revolution and then President of Ukraine, pro-Western Victor Yushchenko, got approximately  5 % of votes in the first round, the population of Ukraine would opt for a violent institutional breakdown that brought to power leaders who see the IMF as the ultimate salvation for the country’s economy (the same IMF that discontinued a loan agreement of 15 billion dollars with Ukraine , in 2010, after Yushchenko increased the salary and pensions of Ukrainians) .
It seems that the causes for the Ukrainian crisis are more complex. We must consider at least three factors . The first one relates to Yanukovich’s inability to solve the problems of transition to a capitalist economy that the country is facing since its independence in 1991, and that were compounded by the promises of economic gains unfulfilled in the period of the post-Orange Revolution. The lack of transparency in the country’s administration and a corrupt business environment also aggravated this scenario. The second factor concerns a dangerous trend that is spreading across Europe, i.e., the rise of nationalist movements identified with national socialism. In Ukraine this trend materialized in the Svoboda party, which reached around 10 % of support in the last parliamentary elections. With a discourse based on xenophobia and national purity against Russians and Jews, the supporters of this party were part of a faction called  “The right sector”, which was in the forefront of the violent movements in Euromaiden square. Finally, we must highlight the role of the EU , which stimulated Ukrainians to take over the streets after the failure of negotiations on the country’s accession to a free trade agreement with Europe. There are various public declarations of Mr. Barroso that are clear examples of EU interference in Ukrainian affairs.

U.S. and EU x Russia

After pulling the trigger, the EU was naïve (or cynical ) when dealt with leaders of the opposition to Yanukovich that had no authority over the extremists that were in control of the protests on streets. As is well known, by that time the extreme right had taken control over the situation and expelled peaceful protesters from the movement. The faction called “The right sector ” was key for the achievement of these results. These extremists have links with Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary groups who fought against the Russians in Chechnya, that being an indication that many “protesters ” were trained paramilitaries. These groups had no other aim than to overthrow the president.

Moreover, the European Union and the United States rashly recognized a government that overthrew a democratically elected president. The justification for this position was based on the claim that Yanukovich had been responsible for the deaths of protesters in Kiev. On 05 March, however, the release of a telephone call between the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, Mr. Urmas Paet, and the Head of EU External Relations, Ms. Catherine Ashton, makes clear that the Europeans knew that the early shots made by snippers departed from the extremists, which sought to target both police forces and protesters. These same groups are part of the provisional government in Ukraine . This reinforces the Russian claim that the bloddy events in Kiev were perpetrated by groups that threaten the safety of Russians in the country and therefore justify the occupation of Crimea. In other Ukrainian regions with Russian majority, as Donetsk and Kharkiv, popular pro-Russian demonstrations are already  taking place and, depending on Ukrainian reactions, the possibility of a Russian intervention in other parts of the country is very real .

Europeans and Americans accuse the Russians of inconsistency, because the country has defended the principle of non-intervention in other cases and is disregarding it in the case of Ukraine. However, these comparisons are qualitatively unreasonable.

Consider the last three interventions (or attemps to intervene) condemned by the Russians and led by the West. The first was based on lies – Saddam’s alleged links to Al-Qaeda and the existence of weapons of mass destruction were demonstrably manufactured by sectors of the U.S. government to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The second , in Libya , was due to a divergence in the interpretation of a resolution of the Security Council of the United Nations that, according to the Russians, did not authorize a full-scale intervention. In this sense, the fact that there was a resolution with the support of Russia implies a certain degree of cooperation between the powers to resolve the crisis in Libya. Acording to the Russians, their goodwill was repaid with betrayal by the West, because the West intervenedd anyway. Finally, the intervention in Syria has not occurred because of the strong Russian opposition and the proposal of a plan for the removal of chemical weapons from Syria (later, the justification used by President Obama that the government Bashar Al Assad had used chemical weapons against the rebels was proven false in a study published by experts from the MIT). In these three cases, there was not a significant number of citizens, whether Europeans or Americans, that were at risk and could justify a warlike attitude against a sovereign state. Behind the defense of universal values used to legitimize these humanitarian interventions, there were also very tangible economic and political interests related to energy sources (oil and gas) and to an attempt to topple the only Iranian ally in the middle east (Assad).

In the Ukrainian crisis,  Russia has also economic (gas) and geopolitical interests (base of Sevastopol) at play, but the terms in which these issues had been resolved in recent years have been highly favorable for Russia , and do not serve as a motivation for military action. Here , it seems that the justification for a humanitarian intervention is not vague: there are nearly 9 million Russians in the Ukrainian territory , whose language lost its official status by a resolution approved by the post-Coup parliament, and who fear the presence of anti-Russian nationalists in the provisional government. The Russian attitude is the fulfillment of the promise that no Russian outside the territory of their country after the end of the USSR would be treated as second class citizens. In fact , there were around 25 million Russians outside Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union , and most of them were deprived of their basic rights (property, language, employment , voting , etc … ) during the 1990’s. At the time , the weakness of Yeltsin’s government and his unconditional alignment with the West in the beginning of the decade prevented any proactive attitude from Moscow to secure these rights. Although it has been rather slow, the incorporation of Eastern countries in the European Union helped alleviate this discrimination, but did not end it. Rather, the EU accepted the legal aberration created by Latvia and Estonia to confer to the Russians who lived in these countries since the World War II the status of “non – citizens”, granting them all the rights of citizens, least the right of voting or holding public offices (“non-citizen” is the legal status of these people in their passport). Because of this precedent, the EU has no legitimacy to ensure the rights of the Russian minority in Ukraine, in Russia’s view. For these reasons , a possible Russian intervention in Ukraine cannot be compared to Western interventions in other countries .

What’s next ?

In fact, Kissinger is right: the demonization of Putin by the United States works as an excuse for the lack of an American foreign policy towards Russia. Russia’s interests were not taken into account by the West. For those who follow the political life of the country, its reaction was predictable. Paradoxically, those who tend to look at Russia and see “the expansionism of the former Soviet Union” failed to envision that Russia’s “expansion” over Ukraine was real. In this sense, a necessary first step in resolving the crisis would be to put in dialogue with Russian authorities western officials that acknoledge that Russia’s interests are legitimate.
A second step would be to start negotiations to form a new  transitional government in Ukraine, without the iclusion of those parties associated to acts of violence committed by paramilitaries that triggered the armed response by the Ukrainian police. To this end, the EU should recognize the error of having promoted the version that Yanukovych’s toppling was legitimate because he authorized the use of deadly weapons against the protesters. This would involve the removal of Svoboda (which, incidentally , is in charge of the Defense Ministry) and the entrance of former governors of Russian regions in the provisional government. Obviously, this measure should be followed by the annulment of the law that strips the Russian language of its official status in the country.

The third step is more delicate, and would consist of an agreement to postpone both the referendum in the autonomous region of Crimea , scheduled for March 16, and the elections for the presidency of Ukraine, planned for May 25. If the Russians living in Crimea opt for its annexation by Russia, it will be virtually impossible to avoid the formal establisment of Russian control over the area. However , this event will lead to the electoral growth of Svoboda’s in the presidential campaign. In this scenario, the subsequent military annexation by Russia of other regions inhabited by Russians will be achieved , and the reaction of the nationalist government will lead the country to a war with Russia. In order to avoid this, there must be time for tempers to calm down and for the U.S., the EU and Russia to take joint measures to prevent the economic collapse of the country. Of course, the imposition of conditions on loans offered to Ukraine, such as the acceptance of economic policies advocated by the IMF, would not apply. The money to fund Ukraine during this crisis could come from Russia , the U.S.  and the EU, and would be managed in agreement with Ukranian authorities until the situation in the country becomes more stable.

Meanwhile, a fourth step would be to authorize, through a Security Council resolution, the creation of a Peacekeeping Operation composed mostly of Russian troops , but with a minor but important participation of NATO, to ensure the safety of the Russian population in the country. This Peacekeeping Operation could be similar to the KFOR, that initially counted on Russian participation on Kosovo. The NATO-Russia Council (NRC) would be in charge of the political and operational decisions concerning this force. This measure would reactivate the role of the NRC and prevent the risk of abandoning years of cooperation between the parties in case there is rupture in their relationship.

Although none of these steps are of easy implementation, they can offer a peaceful alternative to solve the crisis safegarding both the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the rights of Russian minorities living in the Ukranian territory. Moreover , the dialogue between Russia and its Western partners would be maintained, and there would be time for the situation to return to its normalcy. Under normal-like conditions, the most extreme elements of this crisis will undoubtly loose the prestige they’ve acquired from their supporters. If no measure is taken in this direction, problems will soon become much more complicated and dialogue will not be enough to solve them in the near future.

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