Things are unfolding very rapidly in Ukraine. But most accounts aren’t giving the long view. For the third time in a century, Eastern Europe has heralded a worldwide shift in power. It is the most significant development of a century.
First a quick catch-up. The Ukrainian SSR was given Crimea in 1954 by Khrushchev, who expected this to cement Ukrainian loyalty. When the USSR broke up in 1991, Ukraine became an independent state, though Putin does not recognise this. In Crimea and the East of Ukraine, people wanted to be closer to Russia; the majority in the west of Ukraine wanted to be closer to Europe. In 2004, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, a supporter of Russia (but only weakly supported by Russia), became President in elections that were widely seen as rigged and later verified as fraudulent by the Ukraine Supreme Court. Since then, Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko have replaced each other in power regularly, with the former using rigged elections but the latter not really able to consolidate a definitive majority. On 11 October 2011, Tymoshenko was convicted of embezzlement and abuse of power, and sentenced to seven years in prison and ordered to pay the state $188 million. Though this was a political case, there’s little doubt that there was some truth in the allegations – Tymoshenko’s husband has a near-monopoly of beef trade in the region. Tymoshenko acquired a spinal injury while in prison that put her at least temporarily in a wheelchair. Although the injury seems to have been accidental, Tymoshenko’s daughter has alleged that she was mistreated by denial of painkillers and also denied proper medical assistance.
Most recently, demonstrations in which members of both the protest and security forces were killed led to Yanukovych being fired and fleeing (it seems likely for the last time) to South Russia, leaving behind an array of corruptly-acquired possessions.
This should not be seen as a battle between Left and Right. Yanukovych is a right-wing Communist-sympathising hardliner. Tymoshenko is a conservative, Christian-supported pro-Western liberaliser. She was supported by hardline right-wingers, who supplied paramilitary muscle and whom she is now going to have to accommodate and control, if she can win the forthcoming elections.
Meanwhile Russia has moved military forces into Crimea, with Putin vowing that he will ‘protect’ Russian citizens wherever they are.
It isn’t clear whether the violence in Kiev on 19–20 February was initiated by the Yanukovych government or by the Coalition protestors. Tymoshenko was supported in the protests by paramilitary from the Social-National Party of Ukraine, a party characterised as fascist. The government claims that more than 1200 weapons and 18,000 bullets were stolen from police departments in the Lviv region before the violence started. There are unconfirmed reports that, about two thirds of the initial casualties were on the government side, including police. After this, the police were issued combat weapons. The death toll mounted as police returned fire, with probably between 90 and 100 killed.
It seems certain that both sides used lethal force.
On Thursday 6 March, the parliament of the Crimea voted in favour of Crimea becoming part of Russia. Of the hundred representatives, only 67 were present – and 64 of them voted in favour. All communications devices were confiscated and the vote was held under armed guard.
After the vote, Ukrainian troops were declared ‘enemy combatants’ and asked to leave the country; most have done so peacefully. On 16 March, Crimea will hold a referendum. The two options in the referendum are: 1) Reintegration into the Russian Federation or 2) Implementation of the 1992 constitutional clauses concerning Crimea’s status within Ukraine.
Notably, the option of state independence has not been included.
In polls conducted by the Kiev Institute of Sociology in February 2014, 41 percent of the people of Crimea wanted integration with Russia, whereas polls conducted by the Russians show 75 percent. So far international observers have been turned away. The referendum will be decided on a simple majority. It’s pretty clear what the result will be, whatever the vote. We are looking at a precisely-conducted operation planned long in advance (Putin is a former KGB Lieutenant-Colonel).
The Russian intervention is a continuation of Russian policy since at least the Crimean war in 1853-56. It is all about the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. Russia has had a naval base there for 230 years. It is Russia’s only warm-water port and although only the fourth biggest naval installation in Russia, it is essential to military influence in the Mediterranean. Under a treaty signed at the time of the 1954 handover, Russia can maintain a naval base in Crimea until 2042.
Russia is never going to give up that vital base.
There are some other factors we should consider. Russia is the world’s fourth largest petrochemical producer but only sixty-seventh in terms of refining capacity: it needs to ship out crude oil for refining. Vital gas and oil pipes run through Ukraine to Europe, and the water for the dry Crimean peninsula is supplied by Ukraine.
Russian uneasiness about dissident Muslims in its territory was multiplied by the recent Chechnyan conflict, even though this has quietened down. Historically, Crimea is Muslim Tatars territory. During the Soviet era, Russia essentially ethnically cleansed Crimea of Tatars (who are anti-Russian), by means of starvation, forced deportation into Russia other countries. The Tatars and Ukrainian languages were suppressed.
ABC journalist Ken Fraser says that the fix is already in: Russia will get Crimea, NATO will get Ukraine.
He’s right, but this is only a part of the picture. Russia, like China, wants buffer states at its borders. It is achieving this by destabilising parts of Moldova and Georgia and supporting secessionists, so as to prevent those states from wholeheartedly committing to the Western power sphere. Putin has said that he considers the demise of the Soviet Union a huge mistake; and he is committed to, at the very least, a new economic and trade federation to challenge the EU.
At the same time that Putin was reassuring the West, he was aware that there were already (at the minimum) 26,000 Russian troops in the naval base at Sevastopol – and have been, in fact, for fifteen years. This can be compared with a Ukrainian army of 90,000. As of Saturday, contacts within Ukraine said that the Russian military were in charge of all major bases and airports.
Fraser is wrong is in saying that NATO will ‘win’, insofar as he means by that Russia will become more isolated. The problem is the USA’s declining capacity to wage effective war and the increasing military capability and power of Russia, China and India. Although Russia’s military forces are undergoing retraining and reorganisation, Russia has at the moment about 2,500 tanks. That is about one third again as much as all the NATO forces put together (Britain, about 1100; France, about 300).
Russia and China together hold 25 percent of the United States’ foreign debt. On 7 March, China came out in support of Russia and implied that financial sanctions against Russia by the USA would be followed by financial sanctions against the USA. The effect of their calling back that debt – or of the USA defaulting – would be worldwide financial collapse. Though the USA has rattled its sabres and sent one small ship, the USS Truxtun, to the Black Sea, it can’t afford to do anything more. Nor will the powers of Europe be eager to see Russian tanks at their doors.
The elephant in the room is the USA’s $900 billion commitment to the F-35 fighter program, into which it has shanghaied its allies, including Australia. The F-22, the USA’s only effective fifth generation fighter, has been cancelled in the face of its $200 million unit cost but the F-35 is simply not working. In Europe there are greater numbers of the aircraft of the Russian air force, which are already capable of defeating the Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab. The SU-35S craft that the Russian air force is now taking delivery of (and constructing in India and selling to Malaysia, North Korea, Thailand and Indonesia) are already capable of defeating an F-35. The 34 SU-35S is soon to be replaced by the far superior PAK FA and Mikoyan LMFS, with similar aircraft in development by China, Japan, North Korea andIndonesia. SU-35s cost about $45 million; the F-35 is now at about $150 million and climbing. The problem is that China, India and Russia can build military equipment in China, India and Russia, whereas the USA has to build it in the USA, with total US military expenditures amounting to more than a quarter of all tax revenue.
The bottom line is that this conflict in Ukraine is the start of a repositioning of global power. This was always doing to happen: it’s just a surprise that it has happened so soon. In effect, the events of the last two weeks have meant that the USA is no longer the completely dominant superpower. The virulent nationalism in the USA (and in Australia) is not a signal of the gain of power: it is an effect of the loss of power. Just how expansionist Vladimir Putin is will be revealed in the future. These events have signalled the most significant change of our era, a new global reality for a new century.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!