So you’ve been hearing about this crisis in Ukraine for the last several weeks but you don’t really know what’s happening. You don’t know what’s involved, who’s doing what and you’re not sure you should even care. Well allow me to break down the situation for you step by step. By the time you finish reading this article you will know what happened, why, the players involved, and how this potentially affects you. The first thing you need to know is that if you want the real story you need find sources of news outside the mainstream American media. CNN, Fox, MSNBC, CBS and all the rest don’t know what is really happening. All they know is what our government, and our State Department is saying and what they are saying isn’t the whole story. If you want the real story you need to find alternative news sources. I would recommend BBC, Al Jazeera (Al Jazeera America), and media outlets from that region such as Russia Today (RT) and Ukraine Pravda. Be careful with the Russian media outlets, RT is more or less a state run media outlet as is Pravda (not Ukraine Pravda) which is a Russian Communist Party media outlet. That being said you can get a pretty good picture of what’s happening from the Russian media outlets if you know ahead of time that there will be some propaganda mixed in with the truth.
So what kicked all this off? The origins of the unrest can be traced back to 2004 when it was alleged that former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was involved in vote rigging during the 2004 presidential election. Yanukovych eventually lost that election but the stigma of corruption has been with him ever since. Yanukovych was elected (fairly) President of Ukraine in 2010 and held that position until last month when he was deposed. Yanukovych was originally seen as a West leaning candidate who would move Ukraine away from dependence and subservience to Russia and toward self-sufficiency and closer ties to the EU. He made himself out to be a champion of civil liberty and free speech and an advocate for democracy. Things began to turn the other way quickly following his election. Despite his advocacy for free speech and free press his administration began cracking down on those who spoke against his policies almost immediately. In 2011 his longtime political rival Yulia Tymoschenko was imprisoned on charges of corruption which many said were trumped up. Many believed she was arrested and imprisoned at the behest of Yanukovych in retaliation for her opposition to his presidency.
Another sticky point occurred in 2010 when, after much talk of distancing Ukraine from Russia including possibly removing the Russian Black Sea Fleet from Crimea, Yanukovych agreed to an extension of Russia’s lease on their bases in Crimea in exchange for discounts on natural gas imports. Over the next few years Yanukovych continued to talk about closer relations with the EU and seemed to be moving Ukraine in that direction. Also during this time Ukraine began experiencing an economic downturn and began exploring the possibility of asking the EU for bailout money. And then suddenly in November of 2013 Yanukovych vetoed an arrangement with the EU that had already been agreed to in principle in favor of a new financial bailout deal with Russia. This move was wildly unpopular with many Ukrainians, particularly those living in the Western region of the country. Many Ukrainians suspected this sudden reversal was tied to deep rooted political corruption and protests began to spring up immediately. More than 100,000 protesters flocked to the central square outside the capital building in Kiev. By December the protest had increased in size to more than 800,000 and protesters were now occupying government buildings including Kiev’s city hall. In mid-December Yanukovych signed an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin wherein Russia would buy up about $15 billion worth of Ukraine’s expanding debt in an effort to stem the widening economic crisis there. This deal only added fuel to the fire. Yanukovych was now seen as being in Putin’s pocket and calls for his ouster from office began. In response to this Yanukovych ordered police to try and break up the protests by force.
In late January in an effort to illegitimize the protest movement Yanukovych rammed a bill through parliament banning protests and limiting free speech. The bill did not have the desired effect. By the end of January Prime Minister Mykola Azarov (a Yanukovych ally) had resigned and parliament repealed the anti-protest law, but by then it was too late. Nothing but Yanukovych’s removal from office would end the protests. By February downtown Kiev had devolved into a war zone. Police fired water cannons and rubber bullets into crowds. Protesters hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at police and into government buildings. Massive fires raged all around the city. More than two dozen people had been killed by mid-month. On the 20th of February things got a whole lot worse. A truce agreement put in place a day earlier broke down and an all-out fight erupted. More than 80 people were killed over a 48 hour period. Government police snipers were filmed firing live rounds into crowds, and the country was on the brink of civil war. On February 21st Yanukovych signed an agreement with opposition leaders calling for changes to the Constitution which would scale back the power of the President and also included measures for early elections. This agreement was not enough for the angry mob. On February 22nd Yanukovych fled Kiev only to surface in Russia several days later. Protesters stormed the capital and assumed control over all government buildings. In an effort to save themselves the parliament took up an emergency vote to remove Yanukovych from office which passed easily. In the days immediately following Yanukovych’s flight protesters took control of a $75 million dollar mansion Yanukovych had built for himself; this further reinforced the notion that he had been receiving payouts from the Russians.
Peace seemed to be taking hold in Kiev. Protesters began relinquishing control of government buildings so workers could restore operations and a new government began taking shape. Things looked to be turning around, but this did not last long. By the end of February pro-Russian protests began springing up in Eastern Ukraine and in the semi-autonomous Crimean peninsula and armed military forces began arriving in Crimea and seizing control of government facilities there. The military forces would not identify themselves and wore no insignia but many suspected they were Russian Army forces deliberately deployed into Crimea by Putin. On March 1st Putin asked the Russian Parliament for permission to use military force in Ukraine to defend Russian speakers (ethnic Russians) living in Ukraine. Putin claimed that radical and fascist elements within the protest movement had seized power and represented a threat to ethnic Russians in Ukraine. More armed troops began appearing in Crimea all the while Putin denied they were Russian. A tense standoff began between Ukrainian military forces in Crimea and the armed invaders. Four days ago Ukrainian military men claimed they had detained one of the armed invaders and discovered that he was in fact a Russian Army Soldier. The Russian government declared its support for the proposed secession of Crimea from Ukraine citing the large number of ethnic Russians living there. On March 6th the Crimean government approved a referendum set for March 16th allowing a public vote on secession while at the same time passing their own secession measure and formally asked the Russian government to annex them. As of today, March 8th there are as many as 30,000 Russian troops now deployed to Crimea.
So why is Russia invading Crimea? Why isn’t anyone stopping them? Why does all this matter to you? First a bit of history on the region. Crimea, as it is today, came to be after the fall of the former Soviet Union. It initially attempted to become its own country but eventually settled for a generous amount of self-rule in exchange for remaining a part of the newly independent Ukraine in 1992. The majority of the population are ethnic Russians (58%) and they speak Russian as their primary language. Russia has maintained Army and Naval forces in Crimea for several years through agreements with the Ukrainian government. So why does Russian want to annex Crimea? In truth there is not much tangible gain in it for Russia. There is nothing economically important in Crimea aside from the tourism industry (Crimea is a popular vacation destination) and the economy in Crimea has been hard hit by the struggles felt all across Europe. There is no strategic gain to be made as Russia already had agreements in place to maintain their military facilities in Crimea for the next couple decades. The only real gain for Russia is a political one. Putin can use this as an example of victory over the West. Once Crimea joins Russia (which seems inevitable at this point) Putin can tell the people of Russia that he has facilitated the reintegration of a long lost Russian territory over the objections of Europe and the evil Americans, and that the citizens there chose to become a part of Russia rather than joining the Western world. This is a major political win for Putin and will help increase his popularity and cement his position of power.
But there is another more hidden motive involved here that most are overlooking. The parliamentary approval Putin received for use of military forces in Ukraine is not restricted to Crimea. Putin has government approval to deploy troops into Ukraine as he sees fit. His current justification for deploying troops into Crimea is to protect ethnic Russians living there from possible persecution by the new government which Putin has called fascist and nationalist. There are very large populations of ethnic Russians living in Eastern Ukraine towards the Russian border. The deployment of troops into Crimea is quite possibly a test to gauge international response before he deploys them into Ukraine proper. But why would Putin want to deploy troops into the rest of Ukraine? As it stands today Russia is the largest exporter of oil and gas to Europe via several pipelines traveling East to West. The bulk of those pipelines run right through the middle of Ukraine. This make Ukraine valuable territory to Putin and the Russian government. When Yanukovych was in power Putin had a man he could influence and control which was evident by Yanukovych’s propensity toward Russia. Now that there is a new government in power with strong anti-Russian sentiment things are not looking so good. Though Ukraine receives the majority of its gas and oil from Russia as well, it maintains physical control of Russia’s pipelines which gives them a fair amount of leverage. It is quite possible that Putin is preparing for a full scale invasion of Ukraine in order to protect Russian assets. They have already massed military forces along the border and are conducting military drills there as well. Oil and gas exports to Europe are a major part of Russia’s national economy and it’s not a stretch to think they would go to war to protect their livelihood. Besides Putin wouldn’t have to conquer all of Ukraine, just enough of it to ensure the safety of his pipelines.
So why is no one stepping up to stop Russia from doing this? Well as I just stated Europe receives the majority of its oil and gas from Russia. In addition Russia is Europe’s largest trade partner representing about 40% of all European trade. The US has proposed the use of economic sanctions to try and dissuade Russia from its efforts in Crimea but it’s plain to see why Europe is not on board with this idea. Furthermore sanctions levied against Russia by the US alone would serve almost no purpose since Russia and the US are not economically important to one another. Military intervention is almost entirely out of the question. Most European countries maintain only small self-defense forces not capable of fighting full scale wars on foreign land; in addition economic struggles being felt across the Eurozone would prohibit most countries from being able to afford a war. Here in the US 2014 is an election year and neither the President nor our politicians are eager to go to war over a foreign dispute especially with votes on the line. Furthermore a war with Russia would be no simple task. Over the last five years Russia has been involved in a massive military buildup. They have increased military spending dramatically and have been hard at work upgrading and modernizing their force. On top of that Russia still maintains a massive supply of nuclear weapons and a policy reserving the right to use them in retaliation of a conventional military strike; meaning that if we declare war on Russia they reserve the right to use nuclear weapons even if we don’t.
So how does all this affect you personally as a citizen of the United States? Well on the face of it, it really doesn’t or at least it shouldn’t. A conflict going on between Ukraine and Russia doesn’t really affect us here in America any more than the conflict in Syria has affected us. That being said this conflict has the potential to affect us here at home significantly. Just as we did with the rebels in Syria so too have we rushed out and pledged our support and now our money for the rebels in Ukraine (they are rebels). And just like in Syria we have done so without actually examining who the rebels are and what they stand for and how our support for them may affect global stability. As it turns out Putin is partly correct in his assertions that the new government in Ukraine is filled with fascists and hatemongers. The Svoboda political party, which has gained a fair amount of power in the new government, has a history or racism, anti-Semitism, and Nazism. Several members of the influential party have openly expressed support for the Nazi regime. In 2004 the leader of the party Oleh Tyahnybok called on Ukrainians to fight against the “Jewish mafia.” In 2005 influential party member Yuriy Mykhalchyshyn established the Joseph Goebbles Political Research Center (Goebbles was one of Hitler’s top aides). Today hanging up inside Kiev city hall are an American Confederate flag and giant picture of former Ukrainian partisan leader and Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. Three Svoboda members are currently occupying top positions within the new government: acting chief prosecutor Oleh Makhnitskyy, Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Sych, and chairman of the National Security Council Andriy Parubiy. It’s important to remember that this party does not represent the entire movement but they have gained much power for themselves in the new regime.
So our declared support and possible monetary contributions to the new government in Ukraine are already placing us heavily at odds with Russia. Look at it like this, America is supporting a group containing large elements of known racists and Nazi sympathizers that has illegally overthrown a legally established government. We need a positive relationship with Russia right now. Not only do they have possession of the world’s largest stock pile of nuclear weapons but we need their influence to help maintain stability in places like Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Our blind support for the new Ukrainian government is seriously damaging our relationship with Russia. Where this gets really bad is how it affects relationships between Europe and Russia and the US and Europe. The US depends heavily on European support for all manner of things, from trade to political support for our global policies and initiatives. If we place Europe at odds with Russia over our support for Ukraine given Europe’s economic dependence on Russia it could cause a major breakdown in US/European relations that could have serious consequences for global stability.
So in a nut shell the threat of a world war is not very likely at this point; however, the threat to global economic and political relations is extremely high. Putin has played this situation perfectly, and what’s more is he knows it. He understands completely what is at stake and he feels confident that he will be able to make his moves without consequence. In all likelihood he is right. There is no doubt that the rest of the world’s powers have seen exactly what I have just described, and rather than risk seriously damaging international relations Russia will be allowed to quietly annex Crimea without incident. Even if Russia launches a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian government will most likely be left to fight that war on their own unless it spills over the border somewhere. Russia, even in its depleted state, is simply too strong for the rest of the world to go to war with over something that, so far, has not affected anyone outside the Northern Black Sea region.