In January 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who was born on Russia’s borders with Ukraine and married to a Ukrainian, transferred Russia’s Crimean region to the then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. This was ostensibly to mark the occasion of the 300th anniversary of its unification with Russia. Khrushchev obviously did not foresee the collapse of the “indestructible” Soviet Union which had only two major southern ports — Sevastopol and Odessa. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the supreme council of the Russian republic decided in 1992 that the Crimean region would be renamed as the autonomous Republic of Crimea. Sevastopol and Odessa became part of Ukraine.
Not content with the break-up of the Soviet Union, the US and its NATO allies decided that Russian power had to be contained. The expectation was that Russia’s far-flung Muslim-dominated Caucasian republics would wear out the Russians with armed struggle, and that its western, southern and Baltic neighbours would be gradually weaned away and integrated into the European Union and the NATO military alliance. The ultimate aim was clearly to “contain” a resource rich and militarily capable Russia.
This plan seemed to be proceeding successfully during the rule of the occasionally sober Boris Yeltsin. The Muslim separatist armed rebellion was liberally funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, its leaders such as Shamil Basayev and Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev were considered “kosher” in Western capitals and operated periodically from bases as far away as Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
The hardnosed Vladimir Putin soon emerged as the greatest obstacle to these grandiose Western plans. He ruthlessly crushed the uprising in Chechnya though sporadic unrest continues in the Caucasian region triggered by Islamist insurgents and suicide bombings. This was evident from the bomb blasts in Volgograd on the eve of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Saudi Intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan is reported to have offered Saudi support to quell the uprisings in the Caucasian region in return for Russia ending support for the Assad regime in Syria — a proposal reportedly rejected by Putin.
No lessons learnt Moreover, the West appears to have learnt no lessons from the swift Russian military intervention in South Ossetia and Georgia in 2008, following ill-advised efforts to persuade an ever-willing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to join NATO, thereby making Russia’s southern frontiers vulnerable.
The present crisis has also arisen from efforts by the US and EU to undermine a constitutionally elected government: Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych had been offered a partnership agreement with the EU to precede full membership. Support for a closer association was strong in the western parts of Ukraine. Those in eastern Ukraine, which has a huge Russian-speaking population, have had a much closer relationship with Russia and benefited from extensive trade, energy and commercial ties across the eastern borders of the country.
More importantly, Yanukovych signed an agreement with Russia extending the lease of the Sevastopol port for use by Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from 2017 to 2042, with the option of further extension till 2047. This could not have pleased those in Washington keen on the “strategic containment” of Russia.
When Yanukovych preferred Russian economic support to an association with the EU, a virtual siege was mounted on the capital, Kiev, by crowds largely drawn from western Ukraine, with muscle power provided by extreme rightwing elements. The demand was for immediate resignation of the president. Eastern Ukraine, from where Yanukovych drew his political support, was largely quiet. But the president’s ostentatious lifestyle and maladministration did not exactly endear him to his countrymen.
Ouster and after While European representatives were endeavouring to negotiate the establishment of a wider coalition in the government, it appears the hawks in the US state department would settle for nothing less than Yanukovych’s ouster. The recorded telephone conversation between the assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland and the US Ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, clearly indicated that the state department was not interested in constitutional niceties.
Moreover, the violence escalated despite an agreement being reached on February 21 for establishing a transitional set-up and early presidential elections. Sensing that his life was in danger, Yanukovych fled to Russia.
The Russian reaction was immediate and predictable. The Russian population in eastern Ukraine was motivated to seize control of the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The entire Crimean region came under the control of Russian-speaking demonstrators resident there, backed by armed personnel quite evidently from across the border. The elected regional assembly voted 78 to 1 for a referendum on the future of the Crimean Autonomous Region on April 16. The people will vote overwhelmingly for merger with Russia.
Sanctions, predictably While the Americans, the British and smaller EU countries call for sanctions against Moscow, mature leaders such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel believe that given the need for Moscow’s cooperation in energy supplies and its position as a permanent member of the Security Council, the only way forward is through realistic dialogue. Not surprisingly, China has signalled that its interests lie in backing Russia on these developments, averring: “Russian resistance to the West has global significance. Supporting Russia consolidates China’s major strategy.”
Russian scholar Sergey Karaganov from the National Research University in Moscow recently noted: “The outlines of a compromise (on Ukraine) are clear. A federal structure for Ukrainian institutions — and a switch to a parliamentary system in place of a presidential one — would enable the people of each region to make their own choices over language and cultural allegiance. Ownership and control of the gas transportation system should be shared between Ukraine and its neighbours. The country should be allowed to participate both in Russia’s Customs Union and the EU association deal.”
As a federal parliamentary democracy, India will find this proposal reasonable and realistic.
(The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan)