The Ukrainian Crisis (Q&A)

Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem

Answers to Questions on the Ukrainian Crisis

1 - The current Ukrainian crisis is similar to the former Georgian Crisis; it has revealed the extent of the differences between America and Russia over the sphere of influence of the latter. The crisis has also revealed the measures that Russia is prepared to undertake to defend herself by utilising all of her possible means when the issue is related to her vital interests in her geostrategic area within the sphere of the former Soviet republics.

Hence, the struggle over Ukraine stems from America's threat to Russia's lebensraum and Russia's response to this threat. It is not an international struggle between Russia and America in relation to the rivalry over the international situation since Russia currently lacks the means to end America's singlehanded dominance over the international situation or even to jostle with her over it.

2 - The most to which Russia can resort from a regional perspective is fight tooth and nail to remain in the Crimean peninsula and, if necessary, make some incursions eastwards into Ukraine if her demands are not met. As for the international perspective, Russia will work towards deepening the European differences over the Ukrainian crisis if the American media onslaught continued; she will also work towards inciting the European public opinion, especially in Germany and Britain, by highlighting the serious negative impact a European decision to impose a partial or a full economic boycott on the Russian economy would have on the economies of both countries. Russia might also resort to exposing America's schemes by underscoring the repugnance of her crimes against the peoples of the world and focusing on unveiling her ghastly colonialist face. In fact, the Russia Today television channel aired on 11 March 2014 a programme entitled "The Black Book of Washington's Belligerent War". As for Putin's mentioning of America's military interventions in Iraq, Libya and other places, it is designed to nullify the weak American argument against the Russian military intervention in Ukraine which forms part of Russia's lebensraum. 

3 - Preparations for the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (CPA) between Ukraine and the European Union (EU) started in 2007 during the tenure of the pro-Western rulers who had come to power after the success of the "Orange Revolution". The agreement was supposed to open up the European markets to Ukrainian goods and relax restrictions on Ukrainians wishing to travel to Europe. However, when President Viktor Yanukovych announced his decision to suspend the drafting of the Ukraine-EU partnership agreement in mid-November 2013, the Ukrainian capital Kiev witnessed, on 24 November of the same year, the largest protest since the "Orange Revolution" of 2004.

Since then, the Ukrainian opposition has triggered what it dubbed as the "Euromaidan" revolution. The protests at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in the capital, Kiev, had been calling for the signing of the partnership agreement with the EU. It was evident from the onset that the protests and the sit-ins had erupted in Kiev with both financial and media support of the West; the protesters were emboldened by this direct and overt American and European support. Barack Obama said in his annual State of the Union Address that the Ukrainian people should be able to decide their future: "In Ukraine we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully," he said.

As for the European leaders, they expressed their thoughts in a provocative manner when they met Vladimir Putin in Brussels on 28 January 2014 by stating that the train of the Eastern Partnership would reach Moldova and Georgia. It is clear that the European leaders want to thwart the expansion of the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia that Moscow is working towards turning into an economic framework which will include the former Soviet republics, the Baltic and the Black Sea countries and Central Asia, including Ukraine.

4 - America and Europe exhorted the opposition to topple Yanukovych from power and to renege on the agreement to share power through a government of national unity for two reasons:

First: They dreaded the Ukrainian army's intervention in favour of Yanukovych; this had been deduced from the statements issued by the defence ministry stipulating that the ministry would work within the boundaries of the law, and that the army could be drafted in to deal with the crisis should a state of emergency by declared. Had the army sided with Yanukovych, the choices of the opposition and their Western sponsors would have been very limited; those participating in the sit-ins and the demonstrations would have been deprived of the barriers behind which they bulwarked themselves and would have been forced to evacuate the government buildings they had been occupying, thus losing a key asset in their bid to exert pressure on the ground on president Yanukovych.

Second: To present Russia with the fait accompli and anticipate her moves: Russia had started to incite Yanukovych to abort the "coup attempt" led by the opposition with the backing of a "long hand", as the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov described it.

5 - The Russian military activities on the ground and the statements of Vladimir Putin reflect conspicuously Russia's stance and the willingness of her political leadership to defend what it deems Russian vital interests. She is prepared to go to war if necessary since the issue is related to her geopolitical existence in that region and to resist the "plot aimed at besieging Russia" that America is pursuing and executing with the help of Europe. Nevertheless, Russia will not rush into a direct war with Ukraine unless the latter is implicated into measures that Russia deems as the point of no return, i.e. saturation point, such as joining NATO for instance; and until the political and military situation reach that point, the Russian military presence in the Crimean peninsula and the threat to make an incursion into the Ukrainian east will act as psychological warfare on the new Ukrainian leaders and the Western powers.

6 - Vladimir Putin has shrugged off the American and Western threats against Russia and upped the ante against Ukraine to the point where the statements of the American and European rulers, especially at the beginning of the crisis, seemed hysterical rather than political; this is because Russia has several trump cards with which she has been exerting pressure on Ukraine and the Western powers. The most important of these cards are:

a - Gas, Ukraine's debts to Russia and the deep ties between the Ukrainian and Russian economies:

Russia's economic clout, thanks to her heavy industry and huge oil and gas reserves, has made Ukraine dependent on her for her energy needs and industry. In fact, most of the strategic heavy industry in Ukraine is linked to its Russian counterpart such as the aircraft, arms and steel industries. Hence, it would be difficult for Ukraine to sever her ties with Russia for the sake of a partnership with the EU that would warrant stringent conditions that would lead to destroying the domestic economy. Russia can also exert considerable pressure on Ukraine through the debts accumulated from the gas imports. The Ukrainian debts are now close to $2 billion, in addition to $3 billion Russia handed over to Ukraine in December 2013 in the shape of a first instalment of a $15 billion loan. Moreover, Ukraine needs Russia to market her goods and agricultural produce, especially wheat, not to mention the 3 million Ukrainian workforce hosted by the Russian job market.

b - Merging the Crimean peninsula with Russia:

Crimea was taken away from the Ottoman state in 1783 and merged with tsarist Russia. In 1954, Khrushchev, who was of Ukrainian descent, affiliated the peninsula to Ukraine after large numbers of Russians were encouraged to settle there, thus turning the local Tatar Muslim population into a minority.

The 27,000 km² peninsula is strategically important to Russia who in 1991 leased the naval base from Ukraine for 50 years, renewable for a further 5 years, in order to maintain a passage to the warm waters. Crimea also has  considerable natural resources.

The Crimean local government had announced that it would hold a referendum on joining Russia on 30 March in response to the US-European backtracking from the 21 February agreement. However, on 15 March America and Europe upped the tempo of their pressure on Russia by ordering the new Ukrainian leaders to submit a formal application for Ukraine to join NATO; consequently Russia instructed the local government to bring forward the referendum date to 16 March. This was a pre-emptive move aimed at legitimising the Russian presence in Crimea and then mobilising further Russian troops and equipping them to undertake any potential combat operations in the eastern areas.

c - Europe's need for Russian gas and intra-industry trade:

Despite the threats brandished by Europe's leaders to impose economic sanctions on Russia, the chiefs of the European business community remained reluctant to proceed with the politicians due to the negative impact such sanctions are likely to have on their companies. They also warned of the serious consequences this may have on the European economy. Europe depends on Russia for 30% of its gas requirements. Moreover, Russia is Europe's largest trade partner by far with the EU accounting for about 50% of all foreign trade. Germany has 6,000 companies operating in Russia and 300,000 jobs in Germany are linked to the trade ties with Russia. Russia is also an important market of major German companies such as Siemens, Metro, Adidas and E.ON among others. As for Britain, the sanctions would significantly damage her economy just like Germany. Oil giants such as Gazprom, Rosneft, Lukoil, the phone company Megafon, the banking giant Sberbank and more than 70 other Russian companies are listed on the London Stock Exchange. And if they were to suddenly withdraw and cease trading, the UK shares and bonds market would collapse quicker than dominos. Moreover, the British property market depends on wealthy Russians for its success and stability. Hence, Russia is unruffled with the Western economic threats because the damage would affect both sides.

d - The European states divided over the sanctions on Russia:

The state of division between America and Europe on the one hand and the European states among themselves on the other hand, especially in respect of economic sanctions and Ukraine's NATO membership, is one of the telling signs  that has been giving Russia room for manoeuvre during the Ukrainian crisis. Russia succeeded from the onset in driving a wedge between Europe and the US after she had uploaded to YouTube, on 6 February, a leaked telephone conversation between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador to Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt. As they discussed the Ukrainian crisis the US Assistant Secretary of State can be heard stating, to paraphrase: the EU can go to hell. This exasperated some European states, embarrassed the US administration and corroborated the accusations indicating that the Ukrainian opposition was nothing but a tool executing the American plans aimed at besieging Russia within the former Soviet republics. Despite the increasing dose of European threats, especially those brandished by France, the meeting of the EU foreign ministers in Brussels on 3 March did not exceed the considering of visa restrictions on Russian nationals. This reflects the state of division that Europe is experiencing in terms of the stances to be taken towards Russia and the sanctions that need be imposed on her; at a time when the French and north European stance seem to be close to America, Germany and Britain are calling for calm, since they dread the repercussions of the economic sanctions on Russia.

7 - It has been observed that Vladimir Putin has been working towards achieving four strategic goals for Russia since he assumed power:

a - immunising Russia domestically against pro-Western agents, be it individuals or organisations operating in the media, finance and politics.

b - Tightening the grip on the energy resources and their pipelines inside Russia and within the former Soviet sphere to prevent America and Europe from having access to the energy reserves in the Caspian Sea and Central Asia.

c - Consolidating Russia's sovereignty and influence over the former Soviet republics to prevent the expansion of NATO eastwards.

d - Working towards regaining Russia's status on the international arena even if it meant working within the American framework of tackling  international issues.

Hence, Russia's manoeuvres in Ukraine were in response to the threats to her lebensraum and designed to consolidate her dominion over the former Soviet republic with the aim of aborting the eastward  expansion of NATO. This was noted from her ruthless response each time the affairs of a state within her lebensraum were tampered with. This is also noted from her persistence to send an uncompromising message to America and Europe, urging them to acknowledge her guardianship and influence over the  Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in their quality as part of her exclusive lebensraum.

Therefore, Russia's comportment towards Ukraine is deemed as a guaranteed-delivery letter to the rest of the former states of the Soviet bloc, stipulating that they would be subjected to occupation and fragmentation if they attempted to tamper with the vital interests of Russia by playing along with the political and military initiatives of the Americans whilst the Georgian episode is fresh in their minds.

It is, however, clear that America and Europe have refused to acknowledge Russia's influence over the former Soviet sphere and preferred to refer to the Security Council and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to intervene and settle the crisis in Ukraine through the so-called international observers. Nevertheless, there are no signs suggesting that the world is about to witness a cold war between Russia and America. And the suggestion that America is targeting the former Soviet sphere of influence in order to exact Russia's cooperation in some international or regional issue such as the Middle East is farfetched. Hence, linking the events of Ukraine to those of the Middle East, especially Syria, is but a figment of political fantasy that lacks evidence; notwithstanding the fact that it also lacks the basic principles of sound political perception in respect of the international situation, international relations and the standards of research in international and regional issues.

8 - Russia is not expected to make a U-turn on her military presence in the Crimean peninsula. She is likely to adopt a soft approach in respect of economic relations and to pursue the open and secret diplomatic talks with America and the European states without recognising, for the time being, the new rulers in Kiev as America is demanding. In this context, some newspapers reported that secret negotiations had been taking place between Russia and America, through a German mediation, to end the crisis in Ukraine. According to the same sources, Moscow was still unwavering about maintaining her presence in the Crimean peninsula, but she was prepared to discuss the halting of her troops' advance towards east Ukraine, where a sizable Russian-speaking community resides. Reports on the negotiations confirmed that the Russian president had made several demands, namely, that any forthcoming Ukrainian government should refrain from signing a cooperation treaty with NATO, that the US should refrain from deploying X-Band (SBX-1) radar stations in Ukraine, whether on land, sea or air, which would give Russia an international guarantee that no anti-ballistic missile shield will be deployed within reach of Russian territory, and finally, that Russia should control the armament of the Ukrainian army.

Negotiations between America and Russia are not expected to go beyond the diplomatic framework; this diplomatic approach in the Russo-American talks on Ukraine was corroborated during the telephone conversation between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama on 6 March. The Kremlin press office reported that despite the differences between America and Russia in terms of their stances and assessment of the causes behind the crisis and the current developments, president Putin had stressed during the phone call that: "…it would not be fitting to sacrifice their relationship because of some specific international issues, even if they were important." As for the White House, it announced in a statement that Obama had confirmed to Putin the existence of an opportunity to settle the situation in Ukraine through diplomatic means. To quote from the statement: "President Obama indicated that there is a way to resolve the situation diplomatically, which addresses the interests of Russia, the people of Ukraine, and the international community."

11 Jumada al-Oulah 1435h

12 March 2014

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