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Ukraine unrest reeks of Russian interventionism

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In the Feb. 2 issue of The Tartan, I wrote an article entitled “Ukraine must join EU to ease unrest” about the anti-government protests, popularly called Euromaidan, raging through the streets of Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev.

In the two weeks since that article was published, a lot has happened: the Sochi Olympics, the Kiev police’s use of live rounds, a truce after the deaths of scores of protesters, a subsequent uneasy truce between the government and the opposition parties, the breaking of that truce, President Obama’s unexpected personal condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, European Union sanctions in Ukraine, and — on Saturday — the pressure mounted by the opposition protesters was too much for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and he soon fled toward the Eastern part of Ukraine, labeling the Euromaidan's efforts a "coup." All of these events have left the nation’s future leadership in question.

According to Time magazine, fresh fighting broke out on Feb. 20 across the Maidan Square, where much of the ground has been blown to rubble. Any Google image search will yield a public square resembling a war zone. 70 protestors were reported dead as of Thursday. The protesters seemed to be adamant even in the face of death.

Former heavyweight champion boxer and current leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, Vitali Klitschko, has called for early presidential elections to force reform through a new executive leader. The Ukranian parliament seems to have listened to Klitschko, as they have declared Yanukovych constitutionally unfit for duty and have established a May 25 election for his replacement, according to kyivpost.com.

However, even if recent events signal that Yanukovych is out of the picture, the opposition parties — for which Klitschko appears to be a figurehead — are by no means unified. They contain nationalists and radical factionalists seeking total government reform, as well as more moderate politicians seeking unity.
There has been much confusion surrounding the upcoming elections, with Yanukovych fleeing the capital to the more pro-Russian eastern border of Ukraine. Yanukovych later appeared on television, stating “I do not intend to resign. I am the legitimately elected president,” according to Time magazine.

With this announcement, the streets once again descended into chaos, with protesters chanting “Ukraine is not Russia”. Finally, former Ukrainian prime minister and archrival of Yanukovych — Yulia Tymoshenko — was freed after years in prison following a controversial court case. Thus, another key power player has entered the fray. Especially concerning is that Tymoshenko is in a separate political party than Klitschko, which could place the leaders in opposite corners if a power vacuum arises. The very question of Ukraine’s unity — beyond regional preferences for the European Union (EU) over Russia or vice versa — has been thrown into the air.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama said, “Our approach in the United States is not to see these [issues] as some cold war chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia,” according to The Guardian. Despite President Obama’s statement, the events in Ukraine and subsequent actions by other nations are all skirmishes revolving around the chessboard of international politics. All around, intricate moves are being pushed into play.

Unlike the Cold War, this chess match isn’t a clash of democracy and communism; however, it is still a clash of ideology — power for the government versus power for the people.

Ukraine is a curious state, both in its demographics and geography. Ukraine, with 45.5 million citizens, is the seventh most populous country in Europe. Additionally, it is situated on the Black Sea and occupies a sizable coastline. It clearly has the potential, in manpower and natural resources, to be an economic powerhouse in Eastern Europe. Russia sees this potential, as does the EU, and so there exists a tug of war between the two for influence over the nation.

According to The Telegraph, it is no secret that much of the corruption that Ukraine is rife with, including Yanukovych’s unnaturally long reign, has been due to Russian meddling. Putin, as proud and aggressive as ever, is mounting one final push to make his EU counterparts lose hope of gaining Ukraine as an ally. Russia consumes the majority of Ukrainian trade and bailed Ukraine out of bankruptcy back in December. Ukraine’s survival during the past year has been dependent on its Eastern neighbor. Russia has taken advantage of a large — albeit unstable — state and maneuvered itself into being Ukraine’s biggest client and, at some points, ally.

Putin is not surprised at the violence of Euromaidan — especially since much of his foreign policy has contributed to it. Moreover, it is no coincidence that much of this Russian aggression has occurred with the Sochi Olympics. Russian lawmakers have been using media attention from the games as a screen for their conduct in Ukraine.

What does this accomplish for Putin and Russia? First, Putin’s capital inflows into Ukraine have effectively frozen any sort of Association Agreement, or trade deal, with the EU. Yanukovych’s rejection of such an agreement was what first incited the protests. Second, Putin has restored Ukraine back into its realm of influence, which imploded after the Soviet Union fragmented and started to diminish once again leading up to the failed Association Agreement.

Moreover, there is no better way for Russia to defend its interests against its foe, the United States. By exerting its influence over Ukraine, Russia staves off the creation of a pro-U.S. and Western region.

There have been calls for Western nations to impose sanctions and financial bans on Russia, effectively strangling Russian capital flows. Unfortunately, not only are assets hard to track on such a large scale, but such sanctions would lead to even greater tensions between Russia and the EU with the United States.

All in all, Russia has been tugging strings carefully throughout the Sochi Olympics to protect its interests and increase its power outside of Moscow. For now, Ukraine teeters back into stability. Perhaps after the elections — assuming they are conducted fairly — Ukraine will be able to stand by itself with less influence from Russia.