I’ve been following the crisis in Ukraine for the last month or so. The reasons are selfish: one of my goals has been to travel to Ukraine and visit the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and in order for me to do that, Ukraine has to be in a somewhat stable state. At the end of February, the Ukrainian people deposed their president, Victor Yanukovich, and started the process of putting together a new government. At the time it had seemed like an astonishingly easy revolution, with very little bloodshed. It’s what has followed that has caused consternation from nations all over the world.
At the time, Yanukovich had changed direction, abandoning closer ties with western Europe in favor of strengthening Ukraine’s connection to Russia. This sparked popular and largely peaceful protests in Kiev as well as in other parts of the former Soviet nation. A large number of people in western Ukraine supported ties with the EU, and this was not the first time that Russia had prevented those ties from being strengthened and not the first time that Yanukovich had bowed to pressure from Putin.
In February, those peaceful protests turned bloody as Yanukovich gave his special police permission to fire on his own people.
Soon after, he fled, and the opposition took over the presidential palace and began creating an interim government and making plans for new elections. The presidential palace, which Yanukovich had recently privatized, was stormed. It was discovered that in addition to authorizing armed violence against his own people, he had robbed the Ukrainian people of thirty-seven billion dollars, revealed in unexplained transfers to off shore accounts. He has since taken shelter outside of Moscow, and Putin has insisted that he be re-installed as a part of a coalition government.
In the meantime, armed and uniformed men without identifying insignia have occupied government buildings in the Crimean peninsula an area of Ukraine bordering Russia, and put a new provincial leader in place. This new leadership has called for a referendum, initially to establish greater autonomy from Ukraine and later, to secede and become a part of Russia. Official Russian troops have gone in to secure not just Russian military bases, but also to disarm and imprison the garrisons at Ukrainian military bases. It appears as though Putin may also be inciting unrest in other parts of Eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s empty coffers and small military are of no use in preventing Russia from annexing portions of the country. There have been instances of destruction to communication networks, and the new interim government is turning its face to greet a new, independent Ukraine in chaos.
Non-interventionists will tell you that the United States and other NATO powers need to leave the situation alone and let the Ukraine and Russia figure it out. They will tell you that the american people are tired of war; of sending soldiers to fight and die on behalf of a different nation, and that our still-struggling economy can’t weather another engagement. The EU is hesitant to pursue economic sanctions against Russia due to the fact that most of Europe purchases their heating fuel from Russia. And while the powers of the world hesitate, Putin’s grip on the Crimea grows stronger.
No referendum on Crimean secession can be considered valid as long as the peninsula is under armed occupation. The leadership in Crimea cannot be considered legal, as it was put in place in the presence of armed Russian soldiers. The one true deterrent that Ukraine had against invasion by it’s largest and closest neighbor was taken away after the fall of the Soviet Union by the Budapest Memorandum.
You see, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was a nuclear power. It was not an inconsiderable nuclear power, either… it would have been the third largest nuclear power in the world, having inherited possession of 1,800 nuclear warheads. But the end of World War II had changed the way the international community functioned. The formation of an international law making body and the signing of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty limited possession of nuclear weapons to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council; the US, Russia, the UK, France, and China. There was a perceived need to prevent the spread of these weapons around the world, and so Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear arms. But there was a price.
The Budapest Memorandum was signed in 1994 by the US, the UK and Russia. It assured Ukraine that its sovereignty and the integrity of its borders would be respected. It was losing its greatest means of self-defense… the threat of nuclear attack.
And now Russia is in breach of that agreement, despite the fact that Putin is attempting to disguise it as a democratic referendum from the people of Crimea.
Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t strong pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea. There probably is. The Crimea is a complicated place, and it only became part of Ukraine as a result of a decree issued by Khrushchev in 1954, that was considered a symbolic gesture, since he was not anticipating the collapse of the Soviet Union. So there is a large Russian population. But the ethnic Russians may not have been a majority had Josef Stalin not forcibly deported en masse the Tatars native to the region. So if it comes to light that Crimea would prefer to be either autonomous or a part of the Russian Federation, that’s something that the Ukraine will need to figure out and deal with in whatever way becomes necessary. What I am saying is that a referendum under armed occupation is just military annexation with a little more paperwork. And the fact that Putin is agitating in other Eastern provinces of Ukraine may mean that he won’t stop at Crimea. Allowing him to gain possession of the peninsula without facing steep consequences could embolden him and lead to the slow erosion of eastern Ukraine. We have already learned that appeasement doesn’t work.
And that’s what concerns me.
If Putin, who is already working toward establishing a Eurasian Union, which despite the benign sounding name would build upon the “best values of the Soviet Union,” according to Vladimir Putin, will end up being a dictator’s club with Moscow at the head of the table, continues to claim territory, it’s possible he could creep into former soviet states such as Latvia and Lithuania, who as NATO members qualify for Article 5 protections. If this were to happen, it would demand a military response.
You see, I don’t want two nuclear powers going to war. Nobody wants that. My concern is that if the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum don’t intervene now, diplomatically or economically, then we may be forced into a position in which a military response is required later on. I would rather we make our choices now, while there are still choices to be made. And I’m terrified that as we hang back waiting to see what happens next, that we may lose that chance.