2nd April 2014
Why Ukraine matters and what happens next
Heavily armed Russian troops seize Crimea, part of the sovereign territory of Ukraine with a population similar to Latvia and an area larger than Israel. President Putin says Crimea “has always been an inalienable part” of Russian territory; and announces its permanent annexation.
How should we respond?
I’ve just returned to Istanbul from four weeks working in London on the Ukraine Crisis. I was posted in Ukraine from 2008-2012, and in Moscow from 1992-95. I have Ukrainian and Russian friends, and strong affection for both countries. Seeing up close what the Foreign Secretary has called the deepest political crisis of the 21st century has been fascinating and disturbing.
As Prime Minister Cameron has said, the attempt by Russia to annex Crimea using military force sends a chilling message across Europe. It strikes at the heart of the international rules-based system on which all our security depends.
Perversely, by its actions, Russia is causing precisely the instability it says it wants to combat.
The Assistant Secretary General of the UN recently visited Ukraine. He said he saw no evidence of any widespread or systemic violations against ethnic Russians. The OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities has said there is “no evidence of any violence or threats to the rights of Russian speakers” in Crimea.
That’s right. The pretext for Russia seizing Crimea – to “defend” Russian speakers somehow threatened by someone – is nonsense. They made it up.
So who is actually threatening people in Ukraine? Well, the deployment of Russian troops in Crimea, as seen in videos of professional soldiers entering the Crimean parliament, has led to injuries, and the death of at least one Ukrainian soldier. And now the UN have concerns about human rights in Russia-controlled Crimea, including arbitrary arrest and torture, and about the Tatar community there.
There was no “arbitrary arrest and torture” in Crimea before Russian troops went in.
Before Russia seized Crimea, the name of the Crimean parliament was spelt out in the Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar languages. Now, the name is only in Russian.
Since Russian troops went in, human rights in Crimea are going backwards.
So what do people in Crimea think?
We don’t know. On 16 March, Russia organised a “referendum” in Crimea, designed to show that Crimeans wanted to be part of Russia. But we have no idea how people actually voted. We don’t know what the results would have been if a free campaign and debate had been allowed; or if voters had had a choice between two meaningful questions.
But we do know that a reputable poll in February 2014 found that only 41% of Crimeans wanted reunification with Russia; and that in the last internationally observed election in Crimea, the “Russian Unity Party” received 4% of the vote.
A few years ago in Crimea I chatted in Russian to a taxi driver – a former Black Sea Fleet sailor who had chosen to retire to Crimea in the 1990s. He was perfectly happy with the status quo of Crimea as an autonomous republic within Ukraine: “it’s not an issue”, he said.
Andrei Zubov, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, wrote on 16 March that Russia wanted to limit Ukraine’s ability to decide its own future in the same way that the Soviet Union constrained the sovereignty of Warsaw pact “involuntary allies” such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland.
I have the greatest respect for the people of Ukraine. It is they, not outsiders, who should decide the future of their country.
And no country wants Russia or anyone else to gain the impression that military force is a cost-free way to gain influence or territory.
That’s why the UN Security Council voted on a resolution on 15 March condemning the referendum as “unconstitutional” and “illegitimate”, leaving Russia isolated. That’s why 100 countries in the UN General Assembly voted last week for a motion saying Russia’s Crimea referendum had no validity, while just ten voted with Russia.
That’s why the OSCE is putting impartial observers on the ground in Ukraine – to help establish the facts about human rights in Ukraine.
Ukrainian journalist Vitaliy Portnikov wrote on 7 March: “You [Russia] have won Crimea and you have lost Ukraine. You have lost Ukraine forever. Farewell.” On 19 March, Russian business daily Vedomosti wrote: “By joining Crimea, Russia is definitively losing Ukraine… Kazakhstan and Belarus, where there are also large Russian minorities, cannot feel secure.”
This is where the illegal annexation of Crimea has left Russia: isolated in an international community shocked by Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. Mistrusted by its closest neighbours. Facing partners determined to redefine their long-term relationship with Russia, including on long-term energy supplies.
This is a sad thing to see, after twenty years of the UK and others trying to help Russia develop its economy and integrate into the international system. Most Russians, like people anywhere, want nothing more than stability, peace and a decent standard of living.
Russia seizure of Ukraine’s sovereign territory has put all that at risk.
It’s time for Russia to return to the course of de-escalation, dialogue and co-operation. The UK and the international community are open to pursuing that channel with them.