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Rising Tensions In and Outside an Uncertain Ukraine

Protesters throwing pieces of paving during and metal tubes at riot police during clashes at Bankova str, Kiev, Ukraine. December 1, 2013. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov

Protesters throwing pieces of paving during and metal tubes at riot police during clashes at Bankova str, Kiev, Ukraine. December 1, 2013.
Photo by Mstyslav Chernov

At first it seemed like a swift victory for the Ukrainian people. After months of intense protests and violent clashes, Yukanovich abandoned his presidency, along with his tasteless decadent home, leaving the way open for a newly elected government. The acting president, Oleksander Turchynov even expressed his desire to keep warm relations with Russia as well as closer ties with Europe. Indeed the ousting of Yukanovych would also be a grave warning against any future politician tempted to give into the lure of insidious corruption. An example of this being that when ex-president’s bank account was examined, single transactions worth millions of dollars were revealed despite his $100k-a-year salary. He now has an arrest warrant for the “mass-murder of peaceful civilians.”

But of course, as the arrest warrant may suggest, this crude justice came at a very heavy price. Nearly one hundred people lost their lives. Some protesters were even allegedly shot dead by police snipers located on rooftops. Though this accused elite riot police unit, the Berkut – ‘Golden Eagle’ – has now been disbanded. But the struggle is far from over, even with the flight of Yukonovich.

Internal Tensions - Russia or the West?

During the protests, it seemed the main sentiment of the Ukrainian people favoured Europe. After all, the scuppering of the trade deal with the EU by Yukanovych in favour for closer ties with Russia sparked the protests. However there are now emerging concerns among the Russian speaking population who look toward Moscow, not Europe. At its most intense, this has culminated in the independence movement in Crimea – where Yukanovych  is suspected to be in hiding, though he lacks allies – whose potential independence is a concern for many. But even there, many Ukrainians do not want the region to break off from the central government.

This will inevitably manifest itself in a degree of political turmoil as clearly a consensus will be difficult to reach, though not impossible. The alignment of potential governments towards Russia or the West will be one of the most divisive issues in the election. Instability and economic strife, however, could seriously undermine the legitimacy of the election process so a broad consensus, as UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon implored, must be reached lest all the progress made over the past few months could be undone. This includes preventing the possibility of the public’s desire for retribution becoming too feverish as this could result in overly harsh punishments for those implicated in the previous government and possibly even a cementing of certain despotic powers.

Progress also desperately needs to be made with foreign bailout packages from the IMF or the EU in order to prevent the currency, the hryvnia, loosing more value – it has already lost a fifth of its value since christmas – and stabilising the economy. This is all the more imperative considering Russia isn’t likely to deliver the $15bn aid package promised to Yukonovich for the obvious reason that their key ally in the region is now in hiding. Though Russia isn’t going to give up on Ukraine that easily. Indeed, they have already, with just a touch of hyperbole, spoken out against any tyrannical behavior toward the Russian speaking majority in the Crimea region but also condemned the rest of Ukraine for a rise in “nationalist and neo-fascist sentiment.” Clearly there is still a raw feeling over Yukanovych’s somewhat rushed departure.

External Dilemma

Tensions over Ukraine now extend far beyond the borders of Europe’s largest country, in yet another diminishing of Russia-Western relations. Because of Russia’s ‘Black Sea Fleet,’ which is stationed in Crimea, Vladamir Putin has issued orders to place their troops on ‘high alert,’ in a dangerously provocative move. Though this is supposedly just “measures to guarantee the safety of facilities, infrastructure and arsenals of the Black Sea Fleet,” according to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. But any military maneuvers, however slight, in the sensitive Crimean area are understandably not easy to ignore. Russia does have a track record of invading territory with a Russian speaking majority to ensure their self-declared independence, much like in Georgia in 2008. Here, the rest of the world did very little.

However, any action in the Crimea could present a much more volatile situation with a potential backlash from the EU, the UN and the Ukrainian population itself. Though it is highly unlikely Russia would try to claim the Crimea by force, a diplomatic and political approach may be more likely but equally troublesome. At least the Cold War is over so there isn’t much of a threat of nuclear Armageddon –  a curious silver lining.

What is more curious, however, is the reversal in the international discourse. Because of this potential of Russian meddling in Crimea, the British Minister of Defence, Philip Hammond, released a statement saying, “We would urge all parties to allow the Ukrainian people to settle their internal differences and then to determine their own future without external interference.” This sounds familiar. Normally, it is the other way around. Russia is usually resisting the West’s supposed infringement of other nations sovereignty, but this time it is Russia’s interest at stake so they are trying to dictate events in a much more overt way. It isn’t so pleasant when you want to intervene is it Mr. Putin? Maybe the West will reassert its dominant use of the veto, which Putin probably won’t to listen to anyway. Will the UN or the West really do anything if Russia takes action? It really doesn’t seem likely, except a strongly worded letter of condemnation would probably be written.

Fortunately military action is only a far-flung possibility, despite tensions being strained so greatly. The same applies for the internal dilemma within Ukraine. Again, it seems unlikely that after displaying their impressive resolve to have a functioning, corrupt-free government, the Ukrainian people will not squander this opportunity for progress in the nation of 46 million people.


About Dean Forrester

Dean Forrester is the Editor-in-Chief of The International Citizen. An International Politics graduate from King's College London, with an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism, he is interested in international affairs and development.
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