In this article I will look at how the world’s main power blocs are handling the upheaval in Ukraine. I’ll argue that viewing the issue in terms of spheres of influence is not such a great idea. In this complex world of ours, relationships between entities are ever important. Ludwig Von Bertalanffy coined the term “whole systems thinking”. It refers to a method of decision making that looks at the interrelationships of the constituent parts of a world political system rather than focusing on the parts themselves.
This crisis is not about Ukraine. Neither is it about Europe. Current events in Crimea are not about Russia. These catastrophic events are about perspectives, connections, relationships and conditions between these gargantuan actors on the world stage.
So I’ll focus on the perspectives, connections, and relationships in this Balkan watershed. Relationships hold the key to a solution. Hegemonic perspectives caused the problem the region now faces. As Einstein once said; “You can’t solve problems with the same thinking that created those problems.”
Let’s take a little look at the recent history to understand what’s going on today. During the Cold War between the Western Block and the eastern Block in 1948-1991, the Premier of USSR Nikita Khrushchev who was a Ukrainian, On 19 February 1954, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR issued a decree on the transfer of the Crimean oblast region to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). Following the collapse of the Soviet empire, Crimea supported being part of the newly independent Ukraine.
The port of Sevastopol is a major naval base and has been home to the Black Sea Fleet since the soviet times and dates to 1783 when Russian Prince Grigory Potemkin founded the port city ofSevastopol. Following the collapse of the USSR, the fleet was divided up between Russia and Ukraine. In 2008, Ukraine - then under the pro-Western President Viktor Yuschenko - demanded that Moscow not use the Black Sea Fleet during its conflict with Georgia. Based on an agreement signed by both countries in 1997, Ukraine had agreed to allow the Russian fleet to stay until 2017, but after the election of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych as president in 2010, Ukraine agreed to extend the lease by 25 years beyond 2017, in return for cheaper Russian gas. Furthermore Crimea was granted the status as an autonomous republic within Ukraine, with a government to maintain its own internal economy and infrastructure development, while defence and foreign policy maintained by the government in Kiev.
By the time of the 2010 presidential elections, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko —allies during the Orange Revolution — had become bitter enemies. Tymoshenko ran for president against both Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych, creating a three-way race. Yushchenko, whose popularity had plummeted, refused to close ranks and support Tymoshenko, thus dividing the anti-Yanukovych vote. Many pro-Orange voters stayed at home. Yanukovych received 48% of the vote and Yushchenko less than 6%, an amount which, if thrown to Tymoshenko, who received 45%, would have prevented Yanukovych from gaining the presidency; since no candidate obtained an absolute
majority in the first round of voting the two highest polling candidates contested in a run-off second ballot which Yanukovych won. During Yanukovych's term he has been accused of tightening restrictions on the press and a renewed effort in the parliament to limit freedom of assembly.
In 2011, Tymoshenko was arrested for abusing office when she brokered the gas deal with Russia and was sentenced to prison for seven years. In November 2013, Ukraine was close to signing a trade agreement with the European Union, but President Yanukovich backed out at the last minute, bowing to pressure from Russian president Vladimir Putin, who threatened financial penalties if Ukraine edged closer to Europe. In addition, Yanukovich refused to comply with a EU demand that
Yanukovich release former Prime Minister Tymoshenko from prison. Tens of thousands of people who favour integrating with Europe, who see such a move as a vital step toward a more promising economic and democratic future, took to the streets of Kiev to protest against Yanukovich's decision, this even become known as the Euromaidan Protest. Police responded violently to the protests, using tear gas and truncheons to disperse the crowds in Independence Square. The protests continued for days, increasing in scope and intensity after the violent response by police.
Map showing the energy interdependence of Russia and Europe. Germany continues with business investment in Russia, and seems to favour solution through negotiation, despite the current crisis.
Yanukovich offered to install opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minster. He heads the Fatherland Party, which is also the party of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Yanukovich offered the post of vice prime minister to another opposition leader, Vitaly Klitschko, a popular former boxer. Both refused the offer, saying the moves only further entrenched Yankovich. On Jan. 28, the president reversed the ban on protests. Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov and his cabinet resigned the same day. Yanukovich named Serhiy Arbuzov as interim prime minister. Amid the turmoil, Putin announced that Russia would suspend the financial aid package until "we know what economic policies the new government will implement, who will be working there, and what rules they will follow." The news was a serious blow to Yanukovich—and the country.
The protests in Kiev turned violent. On Feb. 20, 2014, riot police and protesters clashed as the demonstrators attempted to reclaim portions of Independence Square, a central plaza in Kiev that police had taken over two days before. More than 100 people were killed and hundreds were wounded. The clash ended with a truce. In a deal between the opposition and Yanukovich brokered by European Union officials on Feb. 21, the president agreed to hold elections by the end of the year and accept a weakening of the presidency. The opposition wanted him to step down immediately, but signed the agreement nevertheless. Russia, however, refused to endorse the deal. After the agreement, Parliament passed a series of measures that illustrated Yanukovich's weakened position. It voted to free former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison and exonerate her, which will allow her to run for election, grant amnesty to anti-government protesters, and annul constitutional amendments passed in 2008 that expanded the power of the presidency.
The opposition didn't accept the deal and escalated their protests. Yanukovich fled Kiev on Feb. 22, and an interim government was put in place. The next day, Parliament voted to give speaker Oleksandr Turchynov the authority to fulfil the responsibilities of the president. Yanukovich, however, insisted he remained in office. On Feb. 24, Avakov issued an arrest warrant for Yanukovich, citing the deaths of civilians during the protests. Both the military and the Party of Regions, Yanukovich's party, released statements condemning the deadly crackdown on protesters. The statements indicated that the country may avert a civil war and edge toward stability.
Demonstrations against the turn of events in Ukraine broke out in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, a pro-Russian region in eastern Ukraine. Masked gunmen, believed to be ethnic Russian extremists, took over several government buildings and raised the Russian flag. The gunmen refused to answer questions about their allegiance or who was commanding them. The next day, on Feb. 28, similarly clad gunmen appeared at two airports in Simferopol. There were no reports of violence by the
gunmen, but officials feared a separatist revolt might break out. The Black Sea Fleet, a Russian military base, is located in Crimea, and acting president Turchynov warned Russian troops not to intervene. Russia denied any involvement by its military. On March 1, 2014, Russian president Vladimir Putin dispatched troops to Crimea after the Council of the Federation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation (the Council of the Federation) unanimously supported the appeal of the President of the Russian Federation, Mr. Vladimir Putin, on sending a “limited contingent of military troops” of the armed forces of the Russian Federation into the territory of Ukraine, citing the need to protect ethnic Russians and Russian citizens fromextremist ultranationalists, referring to the anti-government protesters in Kiev.The Russian troops surrounded Ukrainian military bases, and by March 3,Russia was reportedly in control of Crimea. The move sparked international outrage and condemnation. President Obama called the move a "breach of international law."
Western countries are asking themselves two key questions. First is the referendum in Crimea legitimate? Second is the interim government of Kiev legitimate? In my view both these questions are limited in scope and can lead to narrow answers.
With the collapse of Communism, rulers assumed the gates to the east had opened to the European Union’s hegemony. Power games came to the fore. A mighty Russian bear swaggers at the ready as Europe rears her head at the gates of the bear’s domain. They poke at it like a little boy with a stick. Hoping this will be enough to dissuade a full scale conflict, and drive the giant beast back beyond its own borders is not enough. By the same token Kiev surely deserves the government it wants. Russian claims that Kiev has been overrun with neo-nazis is almost certainly a distortion of the reality. During World War II an organisation named the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was formed to combat foreign powers on Ukrainian territory. It engaged in guerrilla activity with the aim of establishing a Ukrainian state. Much of its time was spent fighting the Soviet Army after German withdrawal. The UPA flag has recently appeared in Kiev demonstrations. This may be a target of Russian anti- fascist rhetoric.
I’d contend however that the flag demonstrates a sentiment in Kiev by the people to be masters of their own destiny. Nothing more and nothing less. Once again the presence of UPA symbols invites my question, about that which Ukrainian’s really want for themselves. If the population in Kiev wish a future outside of foreign influence that must be respected. If those in Crimea with to secede to Russia that must also be respected. Unwelcome foreign influence, labelling people as NAZIS, or labelling Crimean democracy as unacceptable will solve nothing. This issue is about including the Slavic people in a network of relationships, ideas and perspectives whilst respecting their democratic choices - whatever they may be. It is most certainly not about Russia, E.U. or NATO spheres of influence.
Western nations rallied in support of protestors who ousted the democratic leader of the Ukraine. I accept the right of central and western areas of Ukraine to have a government which represents them. Freedom from restrictions on personal choice is vital. Yet when the majority of Crimean’s opted for loyalty with the ousted President and Russia, accusations ran wild of foul play and Soviet style coercion. The question of Crimean referendum legitimacy dominates western headlines. Fears are voiced that the referendum did not give a choice for Crimea to stay in the status quo, and thus is invalidated. Freedom must not come at the expense of the liberty of others.
Crimea is under the control of Russian authorities. The majority of the population expressed a concern to return to Russia. It is by best estimates fair to say an overly due focus on Crimea will achieve nothing. What will Europe opt to do? Launch a full scale assault on the bear? Invade a peninsula hostile to western military presence? I doubt it. Attempts to ignore a referendum and pester Russia with sanctions & travel bans do not change the will of Crimean s.
Nations are striving for an answer with old attitudes and attempts to consolidate established power blocs. The second question that the west concerns itself with is whether the interim President and government of Ukraine are legitimate.
I’d contend the people of Kiev do deserve the interim government for which they have fought so hard. I’d reason that this could be strengthened by a vote on the matter soon.
The entire globe will never concede to European style democracy. Neither will it ever adopt an American Republicanism, Russian oligarchy, Chinese Communism or Islamic theocracy. Each of these perspectives has geographical and physical limits on this planet. The E.U. will never expand into China and Africa. Iceland is unlikely to become an Islamic Republic, and America improbably going to vote for a Communist senate. Where borders, perspectives and interests overlap, sensitivity is needed. Connections are important. An emphasis on relationships and perspectives becomes more useful than analysing several parts (or power blocs) as separate parts which make up a global system. The organisation of countries is after all dynamic. I’d propose that the main questions in western media miss the point about Crimea. The point is not about Russia, Europe and America. The single most important question which may generate an answer is this; what do the Ukrainian people want? Can the international community ease this process?
We in the west ought to be asking ourselves is this; Do Ukraine’s deserve to decide their future? What is the best way to achieve this?
At the centre of Europe’s power struggles, conquests, emperors, kings, clerics and Mongol hordes trampled people of Ukraine in a game of endless chess. Ottomans crushed all underfoot like little ants, to establish a loyal tartar satellite state in the Crimea. Hitler and Stalin turned the fertile lands of the Slavs into an apocalyptic hell. Tank tracks and shells churned the land with blood of innocent millions. We thought those days had gone. But alas it seems not. What is now needed, are not goals of the E.U., NATO, nor the goals of Russia.
My analogy of the bear and a little boy with a stick may be crude, but it does allow me to illustrate a point. It is a simple one. If pocking a giant bear with a stick doesn’t work, then why not leave a little picnic food instead and step back a respectful distance. Russia’s biggest fear is unlimited E.U. & NATO expansion to its borders. Cold War memories linger. European Union humility, perhaps even a promise to halt eastern expansion may eliminate Russian fears. Such a deal may contain a Russian agreement. Perhaps Moscow would lift financial penalties on the Ukraine if Kiev chooses to trade a little with Europe (as a non-member). Limiting power bloc expansion may have the unintended consequence of allowing Brussels to foster advancement with what it already has. Based on my visit to Sofia rivers of gold have by no means flowed into every ex-soviet east European household yet. With problems too in Greece the E.U. would do well to put the European house in order before looking further afield.
Russia cannot beat east and west Europe with its might. Europe cannot scare off Russia with a stick. To finish with the same quote I started with; “You can’t solve problems with the same thinking that created those problems.” The world must think in terms of whole systems, a vibrant network of relationships and interdependences. Not in terms of static power blocs and spheres of influence.
Given the weakness of the United Nations[i] there is concern over how the human race might manage complex geopolitical relationships and interactions. Of course, the issue of loyal Ukrainian troops and civilians still wedged in Crimea still lingers.
Is it not possible the little boy and the giant bear could live together in peace? A cultural understanding of boundaries must be matched with economic and political flexibility. If both sides learn humility, Ukrainian and Russian speakers are then able to step up and let the world know what they would like. Is it not also possible for the populace of Kiev to live with security? Battling for dominance will once again turn the fields and cities of Ukraine to blood. As I write, it is perfectly reasonable for democracy to be achieved in peace.
[i] The weakness of the U.N. which I refer to was caused by its inability to prevent the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003.