Russia and Ukraine

Tensions between the Ukraine and Russia – particularly regarding Crimea – remain unresolved and may even increase as Sunday’s referendum approaches.

12th Mar 2014


 Russia and Ukraine –

Kym Bergmann / Singapore

Introduction

Tensions between the Ukraine and Russia – particularly regarding Crimea – remain unresolved and may even increase as Sunday’s referendum approaches. There seems little doubt that the peninsula’s majority Russian-speaking population will vote for a return to rule by Moscow instead of Kiev, but it seems unlikely that the result will be accepted by the Ukraine or much of the world community.

Status of Crimea.

It is extraordinary that such a huge amount of nonsense has been written and spoken about Crimea and then parroted by no lesser figures than the US President, the US Secretary of State and the British Prime Minister – amongst others. The historical reality is that the Crimean peninsula became part of the Russian Empire late in the 18th century.

As far as can be determined, Crimea has never historically been part of the Ukraine except for a few decades during the 10th century when Kievan Rus first emerged – from that time on it has been the territory of various conquerors, including the Mongols and the Ottomans.

Students of history might recall that France, Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire actually fought a war with Russia in the Crimea between 1853 and 1856. This involved events including the Charge of the Light Brigade, the siege of Sevastopol and the emergence of personalities such as Florence Nightingale.

In 1954 in an unexplained and slightly bizarre development, the new First Secretary of the USSR communist party – Nikita Khrushchev – decided to transfer Crimea to the Ukraine, which of course was also part of the Soviet Union. Prior to that, during the period 1921 until 1954 Crimea had been a separate autonomous region within the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. During the civil war that broke out in the aftermath of the 1917 October Revolution, the peninsula was progressively occupied by more than half a dozen different warring factions.

So, to say to Russia “hands off the Ukraine” is one thing. To say “hands off Crimea” is another matter entirely. By some readings of the situation it was illegal under Soviet law for Khrushchev to have made the unilateral 1954 transfer in the first place. It is impossible to determine why he took this decision because then the USSR was behind the Iron Curtain and only just coming out of the complete paranoia and secrecy of the final years of Josef Stalin’s dictatorship. Suggestions that he did so simply because he liked the Ukraine for personal reasons and had spent a lot of his professional life there seems odd – but no less strange than comments by his relatives that he took the decision because it was to do with the administration of hydroelectric projects in the region, or that it was connected with a Cossack 300th year anniversary.

While the USSR existed, this probably did not matter so much because even though Crimea was administered by the Ukraine rather than Russia, it was still under the effective control of Moscow. That situation changed in 1991 with the complete collapse of the old Soviet Union and so at that point it became part of the newly independent Ukraine, though even in these changed circumstances Russia continued to lease the major naval base of Sevastopol. Or to put it another way, only in 1991 was Crimea removed from Moscow’s historical political grasp.

At least no one seriously disputes that the majority of present day inhabitants of the Crimea Peninsula consider themselves to be Russian, not Ukrainian. Since 1991 the status of Crimea has been the subject of ongoing squabbles connected to matters such as the future of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and the rights of the minority Tartar population. However, until quite recently Moscow had accepted the legitimacy of the 1954 deal – though that was not necessarily the view of a majority of the people living there. The situation has now become even more complicated with the parliament of the Crimean region appealing to Moscow for assistance.


This background probably explains why European leaders – generally intelligent and well read – are much more circumspect about what is going on than those further removed from reality. And more cynically, it is European countries that will suffer the most economically if the situation goes from bad to worse. After all, if sanctions against Russia are met by that country turning off the energy tap then there is going to be widespread suffering.


Status of the Ukraine.

The Ukraine has every right to preserve its independence. The history of all of the smaller countries of Eastern Europe is complex and not often understood in an age when many people, including some politicians, derive their views of the world from reality television and 140 character messages on Twitter. While there have been very lengthy periods when the Ukraine has been completely occupied by a larger power – most notably Russia – there have also been small patches of Ukrainian independence. Even after the Second World War had finished – with many of its bloodiest battles fought for cities such as Kiev and Kharkov – an armed Ukrainian independence movement continued to struggle on for several years.

The Ukrainian language, while Slavic, is substantially different from Russian. In a frequently underestimated or sometimes completely ignored difference, the Ukrainian Uniate Church, which is important in the Western half of the county, is part of the Eastern Rite Catholic Church. This is quite separate from the Russian Orthodox faith that is far more common in the eastern areas of the region. Two separate Ukrainian Orthodox Churches – one linked to Moscow and the other to Kiev – are also part of a complex mix.

However, the histories of the Ukraine and Russia have been intertwined for more than one thousand years. The Russian empire had its origins in Novgorod, which in the 9th century shifted its capital to Kiev – but after a period lasting about 300 years then progressively moved its centre of gravity back north and west to Moscow and St Petersburg. The Ukraine and Russia are so closely historically connected that it is difficult to describe one without the other, especially since for so much of its history Kiev has been within the Russian empire.

Even with this ridiculously short summary, it is possible to see how the Ukraine is unlikely to ever become a completely “western” nation, while at the same time how it can still carve out an existence separate from that of Russia. The perspective from Moscow is likely to be similar – and so the idea of such a comparatively large and intertwined neighbor switching political direction and realigning itself away from Russia has become a step too far. The small Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – similarly all Republics in the old USSR – would consider themselves lucky that they not only established their independence but also their NATO membership at a time when Russia was relatively weak and internally focused.

In all of the current mess, it is worth remembering that Viktor Yanukovych, deposed by the Parliament in February, still claims to be the legitimate President of the Ukraine – a position supported by Russia.

View from Moscow.

The Kremlin takes a very dim view of the current regime in the Ukraine, believing that they are controlled by anti-Russian nationalist extremists found in political parties such as Svoboda, five of whose members are in the current administration. Founded in 1991, Svoboda adopted some neo-Nazi symbology and restricted membership to ethnic Ukrainians. While the party has tried to soften its image somewhat in recent years, it still contains a number of genuinely extreme racist elements.

There are a number of other Ukrainian right wing groupings and paramilitary organisations such as the Right Sector - which emerged late in 2013. This group trace their origins back to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA), referred to earlier, who continued to fight for Ukrainian independence well beyond the end of the Second World War. The UIA also earlier fought against German invaders, but only after it became clear that that Berlin had no intention of granting them the role in politics they believed they deserved – and despite the fact that they also preached an extreme right wing ideology. Midway through the war they temporarily switched their allegiance back to German forces as a resurgent Red Army approached Ukrainian soil. In addition they engaged in a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing directed against people of Polish background commonly found at that time in the western areas of the region.

While there may be a degree of paranoia about this, there is little doubt that Ukrainian politics does contain some very unpleasant anti-Russian extreme elements. It is hardly surprising that Moscow is alarmed about the role they are able to play and regards their role as illegitimate.

The military balance.

This is overwhelmingly in Russia’s favour. History shows that the Ukraine is not an easy place to defend, lacking major natural obstacles, with the exception of some large rivers and swamps. The land border with Russia is 2,000km in length and in the unlikely event of an invasion would be quickly breached. The Ukraine has some modern Main Battle Tanks as the backbone of a modest Army and a relatively modern airforce – but the numbers and capabilities are very small compared with those of Russia.

With a population of about 45 million people, the Ukraine is about one third the size of Russia’s. However, its economy has been a basket case for years and its defence spending has been less than one 20th of its larger neighbor. While tiny numbers of Ukrainian troops have participated in peacekeeping missions, the Russian military is far more experienced, having been involved in heavy fighting in Chechnya (1994-96; 1999-2009; and with ongoing issues) as well as the war with Georgia in 2008 that saw five days of very high intensity conflict.

The one area where the Ukraine is likely to be competitive is in the cyber domain. This is mainly because of the asymmetric nature of cyber warfare, where a small group of well-educated hackers has the potential to cause serious harm to an adversary’s military and civil IT infrastructure. Russia is no slouch in the cyber domain either and is believed to have used their capabilities aggressively against countries including Estonia and Georgia. Despite all its other weaknesses, the Ukraine is known to produce high quality engineers and mathematicians, whose skills are readily translated into cyber warfare activities.

The future.

Given the complex histories referred to above, some sort of neat solution that satisfies everyone looks to be impossible. It seems likely that Crimea will be returned to Russia, which could prompt some mild economic responses from the EU and United States. The Ukraine will retain its independence – but with the clear message that Moscow has limits to what it will allow.

The clumsy response of many Western leaders to current circumstances – demonstrating once again an almost total lack of understanding of Eastern European history and politics – can only strengthen President Putin’s popularity in Russia.


 

 Russia and Ukraine –

Kym Bergmann / Singapore

Introduction

Tensions between the Ukraine and Russia – particularly regarding Crimea – remain unresolved and may even increase as Sunday’s referendum approaches. There seems little doubt that the peninsula’s majority Russian-speaking population will vote for a return to rule by Moscow instead of Kiev, but it seems unlikely that the result will be accepted by the Ukraine or much of the world community.

Status of Crimea.

It is extraordinary that such a huge amount of nonsense has been written and spoken about Crimea and then parroted by no lesser figures than the US President, the US Secretary of State and the British Prime Minister – amongst others. The historical reality is that the Crimean peninsula became part of the Russian Empire late in the 18th century.

As far as can be determined, Crimea has not historically been part of the Ukraine except for a few decades during the 10th century when Kievan Rus first emerged – from that time on it has been the territory of various conquerors, including the Mongols and the Ottomans.

Students of history might recall that France, Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire actually fought a war with Russia in the Crimea between 1853 and 1856. This involved events including the Charge of the Light Brigade, the siege of Sevastopol and the emergence of personalities such as Florence Nightingale.

In 1954 in an unexplained and slightly bizarre development, the new First Secretary of the USSR communist party – Nikita Khrushchev – decided to transfer Crimea to the Ukraine, which of course was also part of the Soviet Union. Prior to that, during the period 1921 until 1954 Crimea had been a separate autonomous region within the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. During the civil war that broke out in the aftermath of the 1917 October Revolution, the peninsula was progressively occupied by more than half a dozen different warring factions.

So, to say to Russia “hands off the Ukraine” is one thing. To say “hands off Crimea” is another matter entirely. By some readings of the situation it was illegal under Soviet law for Khrushchev to have made the unilateral 1954 transfer in the first place. It is impossible to determine why he took this decision because then the USSR was behind the Iron Curtain and only just coming out of the complete paranoia and secrecy of the final years of Josef Stalin’s dictatorship. Suggestions that he did so simply because he liked the Ukraine for personal reasons and had spent a lot of his professional life there seems odd – but no less strange than comments by his relatives that he took the decision because it was to do with the administration of hydroelectric projects in the region, or that it was connected with a Cossack 300th year anniversary.

While the USSR existed, this probably did not matter so much because even though Crimea was administered by the Ukraine rather than Russia, it was still under the effective control of Moscow. That situation changed in 1991 with the complete collapse of the old Soviet Union and so at that point it became part of the newly independent Ukraine, though even in these changed circumstances Russia continued to lease the major naval base of Sevastopol. Or to put it another way, only in 1991 was Crimea removed from Moscow’s historical political grasp.

At least no one seriously disputes that the majority of present day inhabitants of the Crimea Peninsula consider themselves to be Russian, not Ukrainian. Since 1991 the status of Crimea has been the subject of ongoing squabbles connected to matters such as the future of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and the rights of the minority Tartar population. However, until quite recently Moscow had accepted the legitimacy of the 1954 deal – though that was not necessarily the view of a majority of the people living there. The situation has now become even more complicated with the parliament of the Crimean region appealing to Moscow for assistance.


This background probably explains why European leaders – generally intelligent and well read – are much more circumspect about what is going on than those further removed from reality. And more cynically, it is European countries that will suffer the most economically if the situation goes from bad to worse. After all, if sanctions against Russia are met by that country turning off the energy tap then there is going to be widespread suffering.


Status of the Ukraine.

The Ukraine has every right to preserve its independence. The history of all of the smaller countries of Eastern Europe is complex and not often understood in an age when many people, including some politicians, derive their views of the world from reality television and 140 character messages on Twitter. While there have been very lengthy periods when the Ukraine has been completely occupied by a larger power – most notably Russia – there have also been small patches of Ukrainian independence. Even after the Second World War had finished – with many of its bloodiest battles fought for cities such as Kiev and Kharkov – an armed Ukrainian independence movement continued to struggle on for several years.

The Ukrainian language, while Slavic, is substantially different from Russian. In a frequently underestimated or sometimes completely ignored difference, the Ukrainian Uniate Church, which is important in the Western half of the county, is part of the Eastern Rite Catholic Church. This is quite separate from the Russian Orthodox faith that is far more common in the eastern areas of the region. Two separate Ukrainian Orthodox Churches – one linked to Moscow and the other to Kiev – are also part of a complex mix.

However, the histories of the Ukraine and Russia have been intertwined for more than one thousand years. The Russian empire had its origins in Novgorod, which in the 9th century shifted its capital to Kiev – but after a period lasting about 300 years then progressively moved its centre of gravity back north and west to Moscow and St Petersburg. The Ukraine and Russia are so closely historically connected that it is difficult to describe one without the other, especially since for so much of its history Kiev has been within the Russian empire.

Even with this ridiculously short summary, it is possible to see how the Ukraine is unlikely to ever become a completely “western” nation, while at the same time how it can still carve out an existence separate from that of Russia. The perspective from Moscow is likely to be similar – and so the idea of such a comparatively large and intertwined neighbor switching political direction and realigning itself away from Russia has become a step too far. The small Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – similarly all Republics in the old USSR – would consider themselves lucky that they not only established their independence but also their NATO membership at a time when Russia was relatively weak and internally focused.

In all of the current mess, it is worth remembering that Viktor Yanukovych, deposed by the Parliament in February, still claims to be the legitimate President of the Ukraine – a position supported by Russia.

The military balance.

This is overwhelmingly in Russia’s favour. History shows that the Ukraine is not an easy place to defend, lacking major natural obstacles, with the exception of some large rivers and swamps. The land border with Russia is 2,000km in length and in the unlikely event of an invasion would be quickly breached. The Ukraine has some modern Main Battle Tanks as the backbone of a modest Army and a relatively modern airforce – but the numbers and capabilities are very small compared with those of Russia.

With a population of about 45 million people, the Ukraine is about one third the size of Russia’s. However, its economy has been a basket case for years and its defence spending has been less than one 20th of its larger neighbor. While tiny numbers of Ukrainian troops have participated in peacekeeping missions, the Russian military is far more experienced, having been involved in heavy fighting in Chechnya (1994-96; 1999-2009; and with ongoing issues) as well as the war with Georgia in 2008 that saw five days of very high intensity conflict.

The future.

Given the complex histories referred to above, some sort of neat solution that satisfies everyone looks to be impossible. It seems likely that Crimea will be returned to Russia, which could prompt some mild economic responses from the EU and United States. The Ukraine will retain its independence – but with the clear message that Moscow has limits to what it will allow.


 

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