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Russia Invades Ukraine
Ukraine has accused Russia of declaring war.
Less than a week after the close of the Sochi Olympics, a multi-billion dollar showcase for the “new face of Russia,” Russia turned that face to its former Soviet ward and sank its teeth into Sevastopol.
Sochi, an event preceded and studded with human rights violations, is less than 300 nautical miles from Ukraine’s second-largest port, which is currently held by the Russian military. Meanwhile, an estimated 6,000 soldiers have occupied strategic locations throughout Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
Russia’s rationale for the invasion is a thin one, a claim of maintaining peace and security in the peninsula while the “radical forces and the self-imposed government in Kiev...endanger the lives of Ukranians and Russians” and threaten to destabilize the country.
It is true that Crimea, an autonomous region of eastern Ukraine, aligns more closely with Russia than its new government in Kiev. Ethnically, less than 25 percent of the region identifies as Ukrainian. The majority identify as Russian. However, that Russia’s first response to Ukraine’s transitional government was outright invasion has been unanimously denounced by the West.
Though for all its denunciations, the West can do little to impede Russia’s march. This leaves Ukraine in a stalemate with the much larger nation, prepared for a battle or economic sanctions, neither of which the country can withstand alone. Nevertheless, it is mobilizing its forces and calling up all men under the age of forty to prepare themselves for the worst.
How Did We Get Here: Ukraine from Past to Present
As sudden as this incursion seems, the conflict between Ukraine and Russia has been prominent and prolonged since the mid-2000s.
Ukraine joined the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the 1920s and remained a part of the Eastern Bloc until it declared its sovereignty in 1990 (discounting a brief period of German domination during World War II). In 2004, its presidential race came down to two men, Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych, the latter with favorable ties to Russia and the former somehow suffering dioxin poisoning.
Despite a 9% lead in November’s exit polls, Yushchenko lost the presidential race to Yanukovych, a decision that independent election monitors challenged. Protesters took to the streets wearing Yushchenko’s trademark orange and a new run-off election was ordered by Ukraine’s Supreme Court. This time, Yushchenko was declared the winner and served as President until 2010.
In 2010 Yanukovych successfully ran for the office against Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The next year, Tymoshenko was arrested for criminal abuse of her office while negotiating a deal with Russian natural gas provider, Gazprom. The trial was derided as a political farce but, in the end, the former Prime Minister was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Gazprom factors heavily into the current state of affairs in Ukraine. In 2006, the energy monopoly cut off gas to the country for three days following a dispute over pricing. Gazprom demanded Ukraine pay nearly five times its current rate (hiking the tariff from $50 per 1,000 cubic meters to $230). It also alleged that Ukraine had been siphoning gas from its EU pipeline. Ukraine contested these allegations and countered that this was all a power play by Russia, a punishment for the “Orange Revolution” and the election of Yushchenko, symbols of Ukraine’s growing alignment with the West. In 2009, a new payment dispute arose that triggered another gas shut-off. This was the negotiation that Tymoshenko would later be indicted for.
In November 2013, President Yanukovych was pressured by Russia to back out of a trade deal with the European Union. This spurred over 800,000 protesters to occupy Ukraine’s capitol Kiev. As a sweetener, Russian President Vladimir Putin bought $15 million of Ukraine’s debt and discounted the price of natural gas, but this only made the protesters multiply.
In January 2014, Yanukovych signed laws that restricted the right to protest. This (and it is difficult to imagine how this could have ended any other way) only brought further conflict into the streets. Even after the law was repealed at the end of the month, the enmity between protesters and police had reached a dangerous head. Violence erupted in mid-February, with approximately 100 dead on both sides.
Events have moved quickly since then. On February 21, negotiations with the government led to the President being stripped of power. He was removed from office on the 22nd, with Tymoshenko freed from prison the same day. On the 24th, a warrant was issued for Yanukovych’s arrest and he fled to Russia. On the 28th, the Ukrainian government reported that they had stopped Russian military from seizing airports in the Crimea. Today, Crimea is in Russian hands.
What Does Russia Want?
Crimea has been a part of the Russian Empire since 1783. It was formally transferred to Ukraine in 1954, explaining not only its largely Russian makeup but also its tenuous relationship to Ukraine proper. Its main port, Sevastopol, is still a major naval base, the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Much like America’s enduring air base in Okinawa, Japan, the Sevastopol base has caused native Ukranians no small amount of unrest.
When he was President, Yushchenko demanded that the fleet not be used during Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. The countries agreed that the fleet would vacate Sevastopol by 2017. By contrast, after Yanukovych was elected, he extended the fleet’s lease to 2042 in exchange for a 30 percent discount on natural gas. (Now, with Yanukovych out, Gazprom has announced that Ukraine owes the company $1.5 billion and will have its discount revoked if it is not paid soon.)
What Russia wants, ostensibly, is to protect Crimea. Sergei Aksenov, the Prime Minister of Crimea, has called for a referendum at the end of March that will decide who the region will ultimately belong to: Ukraine, Russia or itself. Kiev, however, has deemed Aksenov’s referendum illegal. And Russia has deemed Kiev’s leadership questionable.
On February 26th, Putin put his armed forces on alert and ordered 150,000 troops to report to the Ukrainian border for impromptu war games. Then, with the stated goal of protecting Russian citizens from “tyranny and violence,” the Lower House Speaker for Russian Parliament asked Vladimir Putin to “stabilize” Crimea.
Armed men in camouflaged uniforms but without military insignias then appeared across the peninsula. They arrived to stop other armed men, allegedly on orders from Kiev, who attempted to seize regional government buildings on Saturday night. (Forbes has suggested that the attempted overthrow of Crimea’s government was in fact a false flag operation intended to justify Russia’s invasion. At the moment, details are scarce and contradictory.)
Ukraine’s Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has deemed Russia’s invasion “actually a declaration of war.” He has begun mobilizing Ukraine’s military forces and has already had to suspend and replace Rear Admiral Denis Berezovsky, who declared himself for Russia and denounced Ukraine’s leadership as illegitimate.
Is This a Declaration of War?
Technically, not yet. As with the invasion of Georgia six years ago, Russia is merely proving to its neighbors and the West that it will do as it pleases with those countries that displease it. Though Obama has pledged to protect Poland, a recent NATO member, from Russian aggression, he is under no obligation to do so for Ukraine. And Putin well knows that the West will not risk a war over Ukrainian sovereignty.
Still, the condemnations fly at the country from Western corners.
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Cameron “told Moscow there is ‘no excuse’ for military intervention in Ukraine.”
U.S. President Barack Obama made what has been widely quoted as the “toughest phone call of his administration” to Vladimir Putin. Obama “made clear that Russia’s continued violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would negatively impact Russia’s standing in the international community.” According to the President, there “will be costs for military intervention in Ukraine.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared on Face the Nation to say, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in the 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text.” He went on to say, “If this cannot be resolved in a reasonable, modern 21st century manner there will be repercussions.”
On the same program, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said, “This could be a very dangerous situation if this continues in a very provocative way.”
But if all of these warnings of “repercussions” and “costs” sound overtly vague, that’s because they are. They are promises of nothing couched in ephemeral threats. Stephen B. Long, at the University of Richmond, said as much to MSN.
“Regardless of historical claims and ethnicity, the status quo recognizes Crimea as part of Ukraine, and Putin's intervention is unwarranted and illegal. [Putin] knows this, but he also knows that the European Union and the United States do not have the stomach for a serious conflict with Russia.”
The 1994 Budapest Memorandum promised that in exchange for Ukraine giving up nuclear weapons, Russia would respect its territorial integrity. As Forbes put it, “By violating the treaty, Putin is signaling that all agreements signed during Russia’s period of weakness in the 90s are null and void.”
And so it goes, as Ukraine enters full combat alert. In Moscow, thousands are marching in support of the invasion. Those against it have been detained.