Russia, Crimea, Ukraine and Beyond

VOA-Crimea-Simferopol-airport
by David Stewart

David Stewart_edited-1In a sermon I gave in Kiev in late 1991, I warned that the Israelites, upon escaping slavery in Egypt, still had to endure 40 years of suffering in the desert. So it has been for the Ukraine since the break-up of the Soviet Union. I had arrived there as a missionary a few months before and would stay in Kiev until the end of 1994, when my family moved to Moscow.

Warning of a potentially troubled future, I was reminded of the words of Leon Trotsky: “The Ukrainian question, which many…have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history…is destined in the immediate future to play an enormous role in the life of Europe.” Despite its own desires, Ukraine remains caught between two powers far greater than itself – Europe and Russia.

In December 1991, I witnessed Lenin’s massive head finally separated from his shoulders, hanging motionless from a crane above us at October Square (now Independence Square) in Kiev. The wildly cheering crowd was bursting with hope this would be the beginning of the end of Lenin’s communist legacy and the start of real freedom and a brighter future.

Ukraine had suffered the horrors of Stalin’s “dekulakization,” forced famine, the Holodomor (1932-33 extermination by hunger, with up to 10 million dead), “Russification,” the horrors of World War II (up to seven million Ukrainian dead), and life after the war under the heel of Moscow. It just wanted to be free and decide its own future.

This dismantling of Lenin’s giant statue followed the referendum on the Act of Declaration of Independence, supported by over 92% of the Ukrainian population with a voter turnout of almost 85%. Ominously for today, the lowest figures came from the Crimea – 54% of a 60% turnout – and throughout Ukraine only 55% of ethnic Russians voted “yes.” Ukraine’s decision effectively ended the Soviet Union, which was formally dissolved a week later with the signing of the Belavezha Accords by Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia (now Belarus), two of whose leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev and Stanislav Shushkevich, became friends of Reverend Moon.

In the recent ousting of President Yanukovych’s pro-Russian regime by the seemingly pro-European opposition, the choice of December 8, 2013 for the destruction of one of Kiev’s remaining Lenin statues was not haphazard. It symbolized the continuing desire of many Ukrainians to shake off the long shadow from the north. But how to accomplish this with a Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who declared in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet empire “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the (20th) century,” and that Russia’s “place in the modern world will be defined only by how successful and strong we are”?

In 2008, Russia annexed 20% of Georgia, with significant casualties, but with few diplomatic repercussions. The pro-European president, Mikheil Saakashvili, was ousted, and Georgia returned to Russia’s sphere of influence. Vice President Dick Cheney threatened that Russian aggression must not go unanswered, and that its continuation would have serious consequences for its relations with the United States, as well as the broader international community.” President George W. Bush told Russia that “bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century,” but it was soon business as usual. There was no talk of the 2014 Winter Olympics being withdrawn from Sochi and Russia was later awarded the World Cup for 2018! Putin learned that such actions would produce little more than a blizzard of words from the West. This background is critical to comprehend the seeming audacity of the Russian military in the Crimea.

Putin knew there would be sanctions (so far only against certain individuals), and the planned G-8 meeting in Sochi canceled. But beyond that, he knew the U.S., EU, and NATO would only bluster, as in Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement about this “incredible act of aggression.”  Where was the follow-up to his prior remark that it would be a “grave mistake” if any military intervention occurred? What else was to be expected? Europe gets 40% of its natural gas from Russia. Germany would be particularly reluctant to get into a sanctions war since it imports more than a third of its oil and gas from Russia.

Moscow knew there would be many questions and it could add to the confusion about what actually occurred in Kiev and what were the forces behind the regime change – a former boxing champion, neo-Nazis, etc. Particularly worrying was the leaked phone call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pratt, bantering about whom they’d like to see lead the Ukrainian opposition and her now infamous F-bomb directed at the EU.

The first question is: “Why the Crimea?”

The territory is an important agricultural region with vineyards and rich tobacco plantations, and is a popular tourist region because of its subtropical climate and numerous seaside resorts. Sevastopol has also been the continuous home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet since 1783, except during the German World War II occupation. It is the issue of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet that has been a thorn in the side of relations between Ukraine and Russia since the Soviet Union collapsed.

In 2010, after years of negotiations, Ukraine agreed to extend Moscow’s lease on Sevastopol until 2042 in exchange for a 30% reduction in the price of Russian gas on which Ukraine depends. But Russia remained wary about its reliance on Ukraine, and disliked some of the conditions imposed by the deal — including the need for Ukrainian consent each time it wanted to upgrade or replace ships at Sevastopol. It also feared the new government in Kiev might cancel the lease deal.

Since 2008, Russia has been pumping money into building a new base on its own territory further east on the Black Sea at the much less suitable Novorossiysk. The long-term plan was to move the region’s new and flagship vessels there. But, with Sevastopol again under Moscow’s jurisdiction, this very costly endeavor, which the Russian economy can ill-afford, will be mothballed. Many noted that immediately following the Crimean vote this past March 16 to realign itself with Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said it may revoke its deal with Ukraine which would oblige Kiev to return $11 billion which Russia paid to lease the bases.

The second, more important question is: “What’s next on Putin’s agenda?” Will Russia move further into eastern Ukraine to support others, such as those bloodied in ongoing pro-Russian demonstrations in Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk? There are 10-15,000 Russian troops in the Transnistra, a tiny, unrecognized, still-communist country on Ukraine’s border with Moldova.

Given that Ukraine’s regular army has only 65,000 soldiers, compared with 300,000 deployed in Russia’s western and southern military districts bordering Ukraine, anything might seem possible. However, the Russian military is for the most part ill-trained and ill-equipped, and Kiev has had a cooperation pact with NATO. It is hard to envision further escalation of the conflict. The direct result of the Crimean aggression on the Russian stock market has also highlighted the current fragility of its economy, which would suffer greatly in the event of a war. But we can be sure that the 19,000 Russian soldiers in the Crimea will remain and there will be a return to the status quo prior to Nikita Khrushchev’s “gifting” the Crimea to Kiev in 1954.

More worrying is if Putin will be emboldened to act in other sovereign nations to “protect the rights of ethnic Russians,” having seemingly gotten away with it in Georgia and the Crimea? Where’s next for Moscow to intercede? Estonia, a NATO and EU member? No. But, like Estonia, Kazakhstan also has a sizeable, unhappy Russian population.

Vladimir_Putin_answered_journalists’_questions_on_the_situation_in_Ukraine_(2014-03-04)

Ukraine_census_2001_Russian

(Above) Russian President Vladimir Putin answered journalists’ questions on the situation in Ukraine on March 4, 2014. (Below) Map denoting the subdivisions of Ukraine and percentage of people who indicated Russian as their native language in the latest local census. Sevastopol identifies itself as the highest at 90.6% followed immediately by Crimea at 77.0%.

In 1999, Russians made up 30% of Kazakhstan’s population, after almost two million left the country that decade. The oil-rich nation has been developing closer ties with China to Russia’s annoyance, though the EU remains its largest trading partner. Last July, Kazakhstan sold a $5 billion stake in one of the world’s largest oil fields to China’s CNPC. Would Putin be tempted to “save” his fellow Kazakh Russians? Unlikely.

Is there a solution to the tension, violence and threat of a divided Ukraine and further Russian expansion? Will Russia withdraw its agents provocateurs from within the Ukraine, and troops from its borders if the international community accepts its annexation of the Crimea (where on April 18 all residents will automatically become Russian citizens) as a “fait accompli?” Probably, but not if the policy of the West is that “Putin wins in the short-term, but Russia pays in the long.”

The proposed talks between Russia, Ukraine, the U.S., and the EU must take place and through very careful, respectful diplomacy, produce a solution acceptable to all. Russia has significant domestic problems, which its Crimean annexation aimed to ease, not exacerbate. If Russia feels punished or threatened, the “bear” may lash out with potentially disastrous consequences. The Dalai Lama wrote, “[W]hereas the twentieth century has been a century of war and untold suffering, the twenty-first century should be one of peace and dialogue.” As Reverend Moon said during his 2005 world tour, when proposing the establishment of a “peace kingdom corps,” first mentioned in Kiev, we have to enter “a new dimension of dialogue.”♦

David Stewart (UTS Class of 1985) studied modern history at Oxford. He worked as a state leader in the U.S. after UTS graduation, then moved to the USSR in April 1991. He left in 1996 to move with his family to Venezuela as a national messiah. He now lives in Canada and visits Caracas as often as possible.

Photo at top: Russian soldiers (without insignia) on patrol at Simferopol International Airport, February 28, 2014 (source: Voice of America).

10 thoughts on “Russia, Crimea, Ukraine and Beyond

  1. I do not know much about Russia and Ukraine, but my impression is that many dynamics have changed a lot since the 1990`s. In Russia there is private ownership and basic freedom of religion now, and there is a certain approach to dealing with sexual corruption in society, where the West perhaps could learn from. Was the recent Ukrainian revolution a righteous one? You probably know much more about that, but my impression is that it was not.

  2. Zdravstvooetye tavarish, David.

    Nice article. I was surprised you overlooked the two significant facts in this story – that the whole of Crimea and not just Sevastapol had been Russian since Catherine the Great conquered it in 1783. It only came under the jurisdiction of the Ukraine due to Khrushchev’s arbitrary gesture politics. To me it seems that the return of the Crimea to Russia is one of the many things that are a legacy of the Soviet period that need to be restored. Of course the manner in which it happened was wrong but I think the timing was a result of what happened in Kiev. A better way would have been for Russia to have put its case to the US and Europe and had the transfer of the Crimea go through the UN. As a quid pro quo Russia could have pledged to recognize the sovereignty of the rest of the Ukraine. As it was, the West drew “red lines” in the wrong place which it couldn’t enforce, huffed and puffed with lots of bluster, and made a fool of itself. The West is now left weaker and less credible because of the ridiculous posturing of the US and EU and has shown itself to be a paper tiger. That the West was caught on the back foot shows it completely misread what is going on.

  3. The author said that Putin called the breakup of the USSR a “geopolitical catastrophe”. And Mikhail Gorbachev, a good friend of Rev. Moon, agreed with these words. Instead of reformation of the USSR, we’ve got oligarchic countries. Once, the USA earned a great reputation, but after 20 years it became the symbol of betrayal, moral degradation and support of oligarchs. Instead of using the country’s potential for right purposes, it was used for making boundaries, provoking conflicts, and revival of ultra-nationalist movements. These are not the things that Rev. Moon called for, aren’t they? In foreign policy, the USA often behaves as greedy, dishonest, and applying its strength as a big brother. You really don’t want to live with such a brother.

    I’m shocked that educated people speak about Saakashvili as a democratic president. He was just a pro-American leader. He is not popular and loved in Georgia. In this situation, the author said that Georgia is a pro-Russian country. However, Georgia voted against Russia in the Ukrainian resolution. An OSCE committee concluded that the Georgian army had attacked the civilian population. And it was Russian peacemakers who protected them.

    Regarding the conflict in Ukraine we have to answer the following questions: “Why did the people who live in Crimea not want after 20 years of independence to be a part of Ukraine?” “Why was there not even one meeting of representatives of the Kiev government with protesting people in eastern Ukraine?” “Why, among the people who recently came into power in Ukraine, were five from one ultra-nationalist pro-fascist party?” “Why do the USA and EU selectively follow the Ukrainian constitution, in some cases ignoring it?” “Why does Ukraine have to conclude an agreement with the EU that will completely destroy Ukrainian agriculture?”

    Does the author know the proposals that Russia has made to Ukraine to help surmount the crisis? Russia doesn’t support Yanukovich, Russia calls to follow the law. That is why in order to hold a free election in Ukraine, Russia suggests getting rid of all illegal armed units including units that were formed by the illegal Kiev government. It is also necessary to open information space for presidential candidates and to hold legitimate elections. Now we see tough pressure on presidential candidates up to physical coercion on those who doesn’t support Kiev government.

    The USA can be wrong. For the last 20 years, the U.S. has done much less good for this world. We see in places that when the U.S. acts in an anti-Christian manner, militant Muslims become more active, and we see corruption of moral laws and values.

  4. Personally, I don’t regard the breakup of the Soviet Union as a disaster anymore than I will regard the breakup of the EU as a disaster. I don’t think such trans-national states or empires are stable in the long term and their break-up is usually associated with or preceded by the rise of nationalism. The same happened with the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Even the United Kingdom might break up as England and especially Scotland become more nationalistic. While I dislike nationalism intensely, I think most people want their country to be independent and self-governing and not ruled by foreigners.

    Had there not been a coup attempt against Gorbachev, it is possible the USSR might have tottered on for a bit longer. But I remember with the collapse of the centrally planned economy it became impossible for the ruble zone to be maintained without bankrupting Russia. Also not every state wanted to remain in the USSR, especially the non-Slavic ones such as the Baltics. So, I don’t think blame for the break-up of the USSR can be laid at the door of the USA. I know Rev. Moon thought it should stay together, but I thought at the time he was wrong and didn’t understand the economic and political processes and logic that would inevitably lead to its disintegration.

    That oligarchs came to power was the result of the political history and culture of the different countries. The U.S. may have tried to steer things, but generally, as normally happens, the existing ruling class stayed in power and just changed the name of their political party. One hopes in time more liberal and democratic processes will develop. But it takes time for such a culture to develop and there weren’t many traditions to support it in most of the former Soviet Union.

    I do believe it was wrong and mischievous for the expansionist EU to try to encourage the Ukraine to enter its orbit and to meddle in its politics. But that is what politicians generally do. Russian ones, too.

  5. Truth can be seen better at a distance. It is now obvious to me that the oligarchs appeared solely due to the influence of U.S. advisers. In Russia it does not require proof.

    The collapse of the USSR was a disaster. I was taught back in the USSR that England had colonies, France had colonies, etc. But the Russian Empire never did. This is a very important difference. Of course new territories could be called colonies. The Russian Empire looked on the symbiotic relationship where culture was developed (Asian countries) and where culture was not developed (the Urals, Siberia) and there was a very soft cultural assimilation. As a result, the native of Chukotka considers himself a Russian without losing his own language and culture.

    What happens when you break a symbiotic relationship? Catastrophe.

    I am very sad that we don’t see the opportunities that are open to people in “Putin’s Russia.” This is not a collection of countries in a new Soviet Union. It is the creation of a locomotive which has the power to pull the West and the East. Think about it: Rev. Moon said, “The Russian people are dear to me because they have always been a great people in history, called to be a bridge between European and Asian cultures.” Russia is forming an understanding of its own identity as a culture between East and West. This is the official position of the ideology of the state. The minister of culture said that Russia is not Europe or Asia.

    • I am not sure who you mean by the oligarchy here, Dmitry. Do you mean Putin and his associates or the billionaires? The latter certainly acquired their wealth through the rather chaotic policies of the Yeltsin era. I remember the ownership of many state enterprises and assets being basically transferred to the people who controlled them. But the rise to power of Putin is something I don’t understand. He was chosen by Yeltsin after he had tried out several other prime ministers. I guess he was able to draw on the support of the security network which people like Nemtsov couldn’t.

      The Russian and British empires were always different as Britain and Russia have very different self-understandings. The British empire wasn’t an extension of Britain in the way that the whole of Russia was an expansion of Muscovy. The French empire was more like the Russian one which is why its breakup in Algeria and elsewhere was so bitter and traumatic. Britain had some colonies such as Australia and Canada where a lot of British people settled. But in much of the empire where there were already substantial populations – like India and Africa – very few British people settled. Most of the countries that were formally part of the British Empire are now members of the Commonwealth because they see value in the links that were formed during the colonial period. In fact, Queen Elizabeth is still the head of state of 15 of these countries. So I guess the British Empire was based more on soft than hard power. When the various countries became independent, few people in the UK shed any tears and now the empire is just a fading memory. The Russian Empire though still exists although there are some people like those of Chechnya who wish they could be independent. I think the breakup of the Russian Empire would be a disaster although I think it would have been better to have allowed Chechnya to become independent. The legitimate concern many have is that Putin seems to aspire to expand the borders of Russia to those of the old Soviet Union. This I think would be a serious mistake.

      I love Russia and spent many years when I was young living in the world of Russian literature and history and then living there for 7 years. Russia’s roots in the West were largely formed through its adoption of orthodox Christianity. Since the Mongol invasion it has been a mixture of Asia and Europe. As you know, it has always had its Westerners and Slavophiles and from time to time would open itself to the West and then turn away from it. It is now in a more Slavophile phase.

      To compare Russia with Europe is to make a false comparison. Russia is a country. Europe is a collection of many very different countries. They are divided by nationality, language, religion, philosophy, political culture, law, family structure, cuisine, art, music, history, etc. So the European identity is very thin which is why Russia can be thought of and sometimes has thought of itself as a European country. Of course, Russia is geographically Asian and with its 18th and 19th century expansion came to include many non-European peoples. But as Asian countries are mostly either culturally Hindu, Muslim or Confucian, Russia doesn’t have as much in common with them as it does with Europe.

  6. The oligarchs should own large businesses and be part of state management structures. I do not regard Putin as an oligarch. There is no hard information about his property, rumors aside. Not all oligarchs are the same. Also, “power” for them is a mandatory public duty.

    It may seem that I just blame the US for all our problems – but not so. During the Yeltsin years, there were dozens of American consultants. I am sure nobody wanted to specifically destroy the Russian economy. But as they say: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

    The British and Russian Empires, of course, were very different. And I also noted that European colonization was different from Russian. Yet an important difference was that all residents of new lands in the Russian Empire, were granted the same rights as the indigenous people of new lands, without any conditions. The noblemen of the new lands received entirely the same title in the Russian Empire. They served in the army, and could work in state institutions, without any differences from the Russian nobility. This was not just merely about an education that one could get, but the ability to use the available social elevators. Was this so in the British Empire?

    On Chechnya: If Russia had let go of Chechnya, today we would see in the entire Caucasus what we have seen in Afghanistan. Russia would be naked and exposed before the Chechen bandit groups. Russia would have had to erect a new “Great Wall.” Also there were a lot of Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Belarusians who fought in Chechnya just for money. This is not a liberation movement.

    I do not agree that Russia had more in common with Europe than with the Central Asian and Far Eastern Nations. We did not create separate quarters for Chinese, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, etc. The various cultures in Russia are cooked in one pot, so even when Jews emigrate to Israel, I feel they are still Russian. This Russia in spirit is closest to the US… that was mutually felt before, when there was more trust. This is not multiculturalism. This is what we call “Russian culture.”

    The main thing that makes Russia feel closer to Europe is Christianity. But Western and Eastern Christianity are different not only in dogma, but in thinking. Due to this difference, Western Europe played a central role in God’s Providence. But thanks to Oriental philosophy, after all the years of atheism, the peoples in the Russian cultural sphere are more resistant to false tolerance, which opened the way for the legalization of propaganda for sin.

    On the other hand, Russia is very cautious about opening itself to outside influences, for example, with respect to “non-traditional religions.” But even with this, there is the possibility of discussing and gradually influencing change in the state ideology.

    • Dima, there is not much point of comparing the British and Russian empires as they were very different. Each had their strengths and weaknesses. Generally speaking, the expectation of the British was that the colonies and protectorates of the empire would one day become independent and a lot of resources were devoted to this long-term goal. In many ways the empire ended rather prematurely as after the first and second world wars Britain was bankrupt and could no longer sustain it.

      I am curious to know why you think Russia has more in common with Central Asian and the Far Eastern nations. Could you elaborate on this?

      The difference between Orthodoxy and Catholicism or Protestantism is significant, of course, but Russia too had a central role to play in God’s providence to create a foundation to receive the messiah. That it is not mentioned in the DP book is a pity but I did give a few lectures about it when I was in Russia.

  7. Thank you, William and Dimitri, for your comments, which allowed the discussion of issues well beyond the scope of my original article. Dimitri asked a series of important questions, but I am sure he can understand I could not even introduce them in an article of 1,500 words. He seems to be upset with the USA, as is now the norm in Russia, and takes me to task for being pro-American even though I was quite critical of the performance of the USA vis-à-vis Russian actions in the Crimea, Georgia and during the recent upheaval in Kiev. He also attributes responsibility for the rise of “oligarchic countries” to the USA, saying that: “In Russia it does not require proof,” which is more than a little perturbing, and hard for William (and myself) to understand. Is the US responsible for Nursultan Nazarbayev being President for life in Kazakhstan? He chastises the US, somewhat deservedly, that it “often behaves as greedy, dishonest, and applying its strength as a big brother.” However, despite asking us to “see the opportunities that are open to people in Putin’s Russia,” his depiction of the US is eerily similar to how many see Russia’s recent actions in the Crimea, even criticised by President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, as it “sets a bad precedent,” and ongoing in the eastern Ukraine.

    Even though Dimitri emphasized that, “Russia calls to follow the law”, he did not refer to the debate over the legality, or lack thereof, of the actions of the Russian military in the Crimea, at first (dishonestly) denied by Putin, but later acknowledged. As William correctly wrote, given the history of the Crimea having been part of Russia for almost 200 years, there was an issue to be solved, but it needed to be done in a different, diplomatic way. Dimitri was quite correct that even though a narrow majority of Crimeans had voted for independence in 1991, the recent referendum vote showed a significant shift in allegiance from Kiev to Moscow, which needed to be addressed.

    What of the eastern Ukraine? We are learning more about Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine, again repeatedly denied by Moscow. The leader of the pro-Russian faction in Slavyansk, Igor Strelkov, accused by the Ukraine and EU of being a Russian intelligence officer (presumably not an accusation lightly made by the EU), recently told journalists that he and his men entered Ukraine from the Crimea. Last Monday, Ukraine’s internal security service claimed they caught the self-appointed separatist deputy mayor of Slavyansk with cash and encryption equipment on a return trip from Moscow. Now the United States says it has proof that the Russian government in Moscow is running a network of spies inside eastern Ukraine because the US government has recordings of their conversations. According to Secretary of State John Kerry, “Intel is producing taped conversations of intelligence operatives taking their orders from Moscow and everybody can tell the difference in the accents, in the idioms, in the language. We know exactly who’s giving those orders, we know where they are coming from…. It’s not an accident that you have some of the same people identified who were in Crimea and in Georgia and who are now in east Ukraine.” Is this true? Would the US Secretary of State make such a statement without believing this intel to be 100% credible? Yes, it is possible. As to who is being dishonest here? Time will tell, but my money’s on the Kremlin.

    As Dimitri pointed out: “Truth can be seen better at a distance.” From my distance, I, sadly, do not see contemporary Russia as being “a locomotive which has the power to pull the West and the East,” fulfilling the vision of Rev. Moon at the time of the breakup of the USSR. Its economy is in recession and bleeding capital according to the latest IMF report. Transparency.org ranked it #127 out of 177 nations on its corruption index for 2013 (better than Ukraine under Yanukovich, #144, USA was #19). Who is looking for a Russian push or pull: Iran, Syria, Belarus, Venezuela? The Kremlin in the past few years has worryingly been reaching out to far-right parties in Europe – not friends I would want.

    Hopefully, committed moral, honest people, such as Dimitri, can help create change and Russia (and Ukraine) will fulfill Rev. Moon’s vision. But for now, the wonderful Russian-Ukrainian family living in my (spacious, airy) basement is delighted to have just immigrated to Canada. Maybe Pavel Durov, recently-ousted founder of the 100 million plus user network VK, feels the same, wherever he may be, after suddenly feeling the need to leave Russia in a rush!

  8. William, I never said that Asian culture is closer to Russian culture. Russian culture is neither “Western” nor “Eastern,” but “Russian.” Since Soviet times, Russia has been able to transcend national boundaries. As I see it, this view is now accepted at the level of state ideology. And it already has a practical value. Russia will strive for fairness both from Western culture and from the East.

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