By: Connor Mabon – Opinions Editor
Cold War era tensions have resurfaced over the past several months as diplomats from the United States and European Union engage with their equally capable Russian counterparts to determine the fate of Ukraine’s future and the autonomy of its southern-most region in Crimea.
“It’s an imperial power play by [Vladimir] Putin to build his Eurasian Union without losing Ukraine,” said Jaro Bilocerkowycz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton and a specialist on Russia and Ukraine. “Putin invaded on the pretext that there’s a threat to ethnic Russians and Russian speakers living in Ukraine, but there isn’t one.
“He may think he’s gaining popularity and raising the nationalistic flag, but the Russian economy will take a deep hit for who knows how long. He may win Crimea, but he could lose Ukraine overall and further strengthen the opposition,” Bilocerkowycz said.
Ukraine, which is a vital artery of trade between Russia and the rest of Europe, has contended with government venality since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. What opened the floodgates for the 2013 popular uprising was when former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich officially rescinded an alignment and free trade agreement with Europe in favor of strengthening ties with Russia.
“Russia offered [Yanukovich] a $15 billion loan package and cut the costs of natural gas prices by a third,” Bilocerkowycz said. “On one hand, it was a generous offer. On the other, it looked more like a bribe.”
Years of rampant corruption and gross mismanagement of public funds by government officials forcefully veered Ukraine off course and is now a country marked by civil unrest, devastating debt and political uncertainty. The previous regime is accused of stealing $70 billion from Ukraine’s coffers to fund their lavish lifestyles, according to reports by the New York Times.
“Ukrainians learned a lot from the Orange Revolution of 2004,” Bilocerkowycz said. “This uprising was much more transformational because they are eager to build the right political culture. Young, even old Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars overwhelmingly support an alignment with Europe because they see a brighter future taking that route.”
The desire to hold their politicians accountable is an attestment to the greater Ukrainian voice calling for economic reform, stability and growth. But the Russian invasion in Crimea, a region with deep historical and cultural significance, has become a formidable obstacle for the new interim government to hurdle over.
As Ukrainian officials are trying to avoid a disastrous conflict, Russia is attempting to arrange a seismic geopolitical shift between Crimea and mainland Ukraine by way of annexation. Last Sunday Crimeans went to the polls in what appeared to be a lopsided election to vote on secession from Ukraine under the watchful eye of heavily armed Russian troops. According to Russian media outlets, Crimeans overwhelmingly voted in favor of seceding.
Russia has likened this referendum for Crimea’s annexation to Kosovo’s independence from Serbia during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, one which the U.S. considered legitimate. In 2014, the U.S. is taking a different stance by echoing the international community’s disapproval of the referendum calling it unconstitutional, illegal and an affront to Ukraine’s sovereignty.
“Putin is a calculating kind of guy,” Bilocerkowycz said. “He’s looked at cost and benefits, but he miscalculates too. The miscalculation may be that he wins the land grab from Crimea, but has to deal with more problems down the road like civil unrest from the Tatar people who are strongly pro-Ukraine.”
According to Bilocerkowycz, Josef Stalin of Russia deported, imprisoned and killed nearly half of Crimean Tatars in 1944 – an event still hotly brewing in Tatar blood and the reason for their support of a Western-backed Ukraine.
“When a military campaign is waged on another country on the basis of nationalistic or ethnic lines, you have to be aware of minorities and whether or not they’re being targeted,” said Joel Pruce, a human rights and international studies professor at UD. “The reporting on the situation seemed at the time to be very obvious that it had been a specific and deliberate campaign to put down the protestors with violence, which from a human rights perspective is problematic.”
It’s quite clear Putin is confusing a 21st century reality with an antiquated dream of a post-Soviet Union utopia. No longer are the days where leaders of nations can openly carve up territory to get a bigger piece of the geopolitical pie without repercussions.
“It’s the biggest crisis since the ‘end’ of the Cold War, period,” Bilocerkowycz said. “The way to penalize Putin and Russia is through economic sanctions and political isolation, but it has to be collective, it has to be strong, and then they’ll feel the pain. It’s a challenge for not only Ukrainians, but for Europe and the United States as well.”