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On the precipice – a reaction to Russian foreign policy in Ukraine

Kiev UkraineBy Adam Lieberman

The events transpiring in Eastern Europe represent a serious concern for the global community. The internal struggle for power in Ukraine has flooded into the international stage. With it have come many economic and political ramifications for the rest of the world. The entire scenario presents us with a question; should Russia’s reaction to the situation in Ukraine be considered acceptable foreign policy towards its neighbors, or could the Kremlin be stoking old embers to re-forge an Iron Curtain that divided all of Europe in the 20th century?  

Tackling the initial question, one must try to define what would be considered acceptable foreign policy for Russia under the circumstances. In international politics there are governing forces that make concerted efforts to guide the actions of countries during humanitarian crises, such as the United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Shanghai Cooperation Organization. However, history shows that frequently the assertions of such organizations are not abided by universally, and are often defied outright.  In December, 2012, Israel openly defied the United Nations vote prohibiting them from extending residences into the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Three thousand residences were scheduled to be constructed in the prohibited area, which the United Nations had voted to be declared a Palestinian statehood.[1] The United States famously opposed the United Nations by declaring war in Iraq in March, 2003.

In September of 2004, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, stated that “I have indicated it [the Iraq War] was not in conformity with the UN Charter. From our point of view, from the charter point, it was illegal”.[2] Many other examples exist of defiance towards resolutions passed by international bodies created to maintain foreign relations during what would be considered a crisis. Russia is not the first country to become engaged in the inner workings of a completely separate nation due to national interests, and it certainly will not be the last. It could easily be argued that Russia has more reason to become involved in Ukraine as it represents more than just a neighbor, importantly it was a former member of the USSR; a unified front that once stood the chance of dominating the political scope of the international community. In addition, Russia has particularly close military ties with Ukraine which account for a serious national security issue. In April, 2010, Russian and Ukraine signed the Kharkiv Accords, solidifying Russia’s use of Crimea for the operation of the Black Sea Fleet, until the year 2042. Ukraine also represents a focal point of atomic energy for the region, which would lead any neighboring country to consider serious economic, energy, and national defense related ramifications. To date, fifteen nuclear reactors are active in Ukraine, accounting for roughly 50% of the electrical energy for the entire country, the majority of which is serviced and fueled by Russia. This fundamental element of Ukraine infrastructure doesn’t even account for future plans to improve and advance nuclear power in the region by 2030 at an estimated cost of $25 billion.[3]   

The cultural relations between the satellite nations of the Former Soviet Union represent a people divided, yet still connected.  The sudden fall of the Soviet Union came as a catastrophic shock to many citizens who were not accustomed to national independence, and who had deep seated loyalties to the concept of the socialist state. Serhii Plokhii, Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University, argues that the people of Ukraine didn’t seek out the independence that they received when the Soviet Union was willingly dissolved. Only select satellite countries had intentions of moving towards a degree of independence, while the other nations were left reeling in the wake of economic hardships, political reorganizations, and a new unexpected cultural identity.[4] The incapability of many citizens in Ukraine to internalize such a cultural shift clearly resounds today, as Ukraine itself has risen up to declare that many Ukrainians feel themselves closer to Russian citizenship than that of Ukrainian citizenship. Although Ukraine itself has changed since 1991, but it is clear that not all of its residents have.

The reactions of the Russian people, and President Putin, support the theory of a connection that supersedes the changes in national identity that have been fostered since 1991. The following statement clearly defines Russia’s political view on this point:

                “Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones [after the USSR’s collapse], overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”

-President Vladimir V. Putin, Victory Day Speech to Crimea, May 2014.[5]

Paying close attention to the excerpt from President Putin’s speech, one can see that the fall of the Soviet Union is conveyed in negative connotation. Putin depicts the collapse of the USSR as if the Russia’s national identity collapsed as well, splintering into fragmented cultures without a clear foundation on how to handle independence. Historically this is a relatively accurate depiction of the fallout in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union; a single massive infrastructure comprised of the fifteen soviet republics which “disappeared overnight”. It would be illogical to assume that citizens of the USSR, each residing in newly appointed independent states, raised during the mid-20th century, could so easily sever ties to what would be considered their national identity.

This is the situation that Russia has responded to in Ukraine. A large portion of Ukraine’s population has called for a return to similar governing authority that was customary in the late 20th century. Both sides of the conflict in Ukraine have international support. The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America has urged action to be taken by the United States, and openly condemns Russia’s military actions as an invasion of sovereign Ukrainian territory.[6] However, setting aside the rumors of intrigue and ulterior motives, clearly there is a significant voice calling for change in Ukraine, which resounds within Ukraine and among portions of the international community as well. The Daily Beast recently reported that the majority of genuine voters in the contested Eastern Ukrainian territories of Donetsk and Luhansk do want to return to Moscow-rule.[7] To say that the rapid response of Moscow is not acceptable is to disassociate oneself from the historical connection inherently present in the hearts and minds of many citizens of both Ukraine and Russia.

The second question stems from the global community’s reaction via media articles, reports, and political discussions regarding Russia’s actions in Ukraine. A substantial amount of reports have been published skirting the notion that the current situation is reminiscent to the Cold War era, and that there is evidence of Russia’s desire to return to a polarized international stage, based upon their military and political actions in the Ukraine. Although there is a plethora of text that speaks to this point, the facts support that it is an extraordinarily unlikely scenario. Karl Qualls, Associate Professor of History at Dickinson College and author of “From Ruins to Reconstruction: Urban Identity in Soviet Sevastopol after World War II”, states that there is no chance for a return to Cold War era conflict over the current crisis. Qualls lists his reasons being Russia’s military standing, nuclear arsenal, and lack of interest in a conquered Ukraine. He affirms that Russia has keen interests in the region, but that Putin himself would rather have a weakened neighbor, ready to comply with political muscle from Moscow, than to overwhelm and take control of a country with a crippled economy and intense conflict. Such an action would do nothing to assist president Putin in evading an escalated situation in the region or help him save face with the international community. [8]

Russia’s support of the Crimean referendum in March, 2014 to become a formal member of the Russian Federation, became the match that lit the powder keg for the international community. Many European countries denounced the actions of president Putin, claiming that the military influence he extended into Crimea played a large role in affecting the outcome of a vote that was deemed illegitimate by Kiev.

Many in the international community believe that Putin has been slowly reorganizing power with the previous Soviet states against the West, in an effort to restore a similar governing structure present during the time of the USSR. Although the cloak and dagger connotations of this effort may be slightly exaggerated, it is indeed accurate that Putin has scuttled several attempts by previous members of the USSR to reach out to Europe. It was only in September of 2013 that Russia placed similar pressure on Armenia to rebuke an offer from the EU to sign the Associate Agreement for free trade. It was also only six years ago that Russia was steaming into South Ossetia in the summer of 2008, making headlines for what was lauded as The Five-Day War. In December, 2008, the Council on Foreign Relations published an article referencing the events of August 2008, stating the following:

The five-day war killed hundreds, left thousands of refugees in temporary shelters, and brought relations between Russia and the United States to their lowest point since the dark days of the Cold War”.[9]

The above rhetoric sounds very reminiscent to the current media reports that have circulated regarding Crimea and the Ukraine for the past several months. However, there is an important perspective offered in this article which cannot be ignored when considering Russia’s role in foreign relations:

“Over the past two centuries, this pattern of hopeful cooperation followed by disenchanted withdrawal has repeated itself without fail after every major confrontation between Russia and the West, including the Cold War. The difference today, is that there are plenty of other countries…that share Russia’s view of the global order. Russia is not alone in questioning the consistency of the United States’ responses to territorial conflicts around the world…”[10]

It is important to take into account the larger picture. Several extenuating circumstances led to the previous examples, including internal land disputes in Armenia which the EU would not recognize, as well as Russian military casualties in Southern Ossetia. If analyzed properly, there are always additional facts that can be uncovered which can alter one’s perspective on similar situations. From a logical standpoint, it would seem narrow-minded to assume that major foreign relations policies of president Putin have geared themselves towards creating an empire of isolation, especially in a global economy based so heavily on mutual interactions. President Obama’s Russian: Reset attempt may have failed to breach the gap of Russian-US relations in the form or fashion that the United States had hoped for, but that should not lead analysts to believe that Russia has reverted to one of most dangerous rival the West has ever known.

When placed in perspective, any nation would be hard-pressed to claim that it would not intervene were it to be placed in a similar situation. Taking into consideration the deep cultural, linguistic, and historical ties between the nations of Eastern Europe, it is no surprise that so many citizens of the former Soviet Republics still harbor strong relations with Russia, and yearn for additional support from Moscow. Ukraine is in a state of civil war. Whether the international community wants to formally state that or not is of no concern to any rational observer. There is no doubt that Eastern Europe is standing on the precipice of change, but the change that the media is hinting at, a return of the Soviet Union, is unfounded. Russia has stated that they certainly don’t feel they need the West for economic survival.[11] However, to make the leap of logic that Russia would be willing to return to the time of the Iron Curtain and a divided world, would be an ill-fated leap indeed.

Sources

1). The Independent News: Israel Defies the UN over Palestinian Statehood -http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israel-defies-un-after-vote-on-palestine-with-plans-for-3000-new-homes-in-the-west-bank-8372494.html

2). BBC – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3661134.stm

3). World Nuclear Association: Nuclear Power in Ukraine – http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-T-Z/Ukraine/

4). Why Did Russia Let the Republics Go? Revisiting the Fall of the USSR – http://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/why-did-russia-let-the-republics-go-revisiting-the-fall-the-ussr

5). Victory Day speech by President Putin, Crimea,  May 9th, 2014

6). UCCA Press Release, May 1st, 2014 -http://www.ucca.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=399%3Aucca-urges-further-us-actions-to-alleviate-the-crisis-in-ukraine&catid=8%3Aucca-statements&Itemid=23&lang=en

7). The Daily Beast: Inside Putin’s Rigged Ukraine Election – http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/12/russia-rakes-in-the-votes-in-eastern-ukraine-referendum.html

8). An interview with Karl Qualls – http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2014/03/ukraine_russia_obama_qualls_pu.html

9). Council on Foreign Relations –

http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/64602/charles-king/the-five-day-war

10) ‘’

11). National Interest: An Interview with Sergey Glazyev –

http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/interview-sergey-glazyev-10106

A graduate in Russian language studies from the Middlebury College Kathryn Davis School of Russian (2013), Adam Lieberman is the Coordinator of the U.S./Russia Branch of the World Life Institute. He has traveled and worked in the Russian Federation and the Caucasus (Ingushetia, Chechnya) on numerous occasions over the last 10 years. He recently acted as translator and facilitator for the American Caucasus Conference (ACC), in Nazran, Ingushetia (2013), which hosted academics and analysts from Russian, Germany, Canada, and the United States to discuss cultural and regional issues between Russia, America, and the North Caucasus. 

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