IS THERE NO END TO UKRAINE'S CRISIS?
1. The current situation
The crisis in Ukraine (a de facto armed conflict) started on November 21, 2013, and went through several truces, the last of which in December of 2014. This latest truce could be the prelude, hopefully, of a “cease fire”; all the while, in the Russian Federation (the main source of support and financing for the pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine) there is rising discontent among the common folk, small bourgeoisie, “intelligentsia” and even on the part of a few oligarchs who had previously acclaimed the operation to “salvage Crimea and the Ukraine republics” that had proclaimed their independence in view of the creation of the State of Donbass in Eastern Ukraine.
These feelings are partially sparked by the plunging of the ruble, since the summer of 2014, on the main international financial markets.
The reasons for the fall of the ruble are the consequence, for the Russian Federation, of the “sanctions” put into being by the European Union and by the United States, coupled with the steep decrease of the price of oil on the markets of the OPEC and non-OPEC countries.
Such circumstance sparked calls to a “Second Cold War” between the superpowers, whose strategic potential is no longer measured by the number of nuclear warheads and vectors (missiles and strategic bombers) they own, but rather by the countries' availability of energetic resources (gas, petrol) and their respective markets.
Before tackling the crisis which, as the article's title suggests, seems like a never ending one, we must refer to the following:
- the criteria adopted by the Russian president Vladimir Putin with regards to former soviet satellite countries that the Russian Federation still considers to be areas of interest;
- the events that have brought about the present situation in Ukraine.
The foreign policy of the Russian Federation with regards to the former soviet satellite countries is inspired by the line of president Putin, who fails to come to terms with the fact that the United States leapfrogged Russia on a global level after the end of the cold war and dreams of a rebirth of the former Soviet Union.
Putin has inherited a scarcely competitive economic system due to a technological gap which still needs to be filled (exception made for the military industry, which is still competitive, especially in the missile sector). As he waits, Putin bases his strategy on energy resources, which he maneuvers personally with shrewdness and promptness, especially the gas destined to the European countries: 140 billion cubic meters which, presently travel the length of the “North Stream” (55 billion cubic meters) and the “Yamal” (35 billion cubic meters) gasducts.
The remaining gas travels across Ukraine, thus impacting on the following aspects of the present crisis:
- the anticipated payment of the gas coming from Russia;
- the possibility for Ukraine to reroute the gas destined to Europe to its own network;
- Ukraine's ownership of the ducts that cross their territory and the payment of royalties by Russia to use such ducts;
Putin's strategy is that of antagonizing the United States, preventing Russian areas of influence and interest (pro-Russian and Russian-speaking, that is) from approaching the West. When this happens, Russia reacts on each and every point, as they have done in the past against the US “Strategic Defense Initiative” and against the European Union with the founding of the EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union), with the precise intent to count Ukraine among its members (Ukraine has a growing pro-Russian and Russian-speaking population going from West to East; especially in Crimea and in Donbass; the latter being called Novorossiya (new Russia), thus unveiling Russia's “imperial” aspirations). Also, Putin is determined to keep control over Russia's areas of interest “at all costs” - see Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia in Georgia; Transnistria in the Republic of Moldavia and Muslim Azerbaijan - to the detriment of the Christian-Orthodox Armenia.
The situation in Ukraine is very complex and its comprehension could be eased by understanding the following:
- the dimension of the crisis spreads through time, going from local to regional and, in some ways, global;
- the “bid up” game played by Putin is often based on the alternation of provocations/threats (especially military) with gestures of appeasement, with the intent to bring Ukraine back under Russia's sphere of influence and thus recover the status of “superpower” that was lost at the end of the cold war.
Why the current situation:
The Ukrainian crisis is commonly understood to have been sparked
by the decision of the then-pro-Russia-president Viktor Janukovich
who, on November 21, 2013, failed to sign the “Free Trade
Agreements” with the European Union. Instead, Janukovich decided
to sign an agreement with Russia, which offered a more profitable
deal to lure Ukraine into the Eurasian Economic Union wanted by
president Putin (the EAEU came into force in January 2015, its
members are the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Belarus and other
former soviet countries, if need be). The deal with Russia signed
by Janukovich in 2013 was met with disappointment by the
pro-European part of the population, who decided to occupy “Maidan
square” to express their dissent and, much like in the “Arab
Springs”, then moved on to the occupation of the presidential
palace, causing the ousting and subsequent flight of president
On February 2014 Janukovich left Kiev, finding refuge in the more hospitable and Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainian region, near the border with Russia.
b. The event that formalized the passage from a local juxtaposition (in Ukraine, that is) to a regional one is the decision by the Russian parliament (March 1, 2014) to authorize president Putin in the use of force to defend Russian national interests; the “justification” for granting the authorization was the protection of Russian-speaking minorities, especially in Crimea and in Donetsk and Lugansk, as was the case with Georgia in 2004 (Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia) and in Moldavia (Transnistria).
On March 16, 2014, after the occupation of the Crimean institutions and military bases by pro-Russia separatists supported by Russian soldiers in the guise of volunteers (lacking military insignia), Crimea ('donated' to Ukraine in 1954 by Krushov - First Secretary of the Soviet Central Committee) was made to vote annexation by the Russian Federation.
The now so-called “Crimean model” was then extended to the oriental Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk (also called Donbass), which:
- have declared their independence from Kiev;
- have changed their name and status to “self-proclaimed Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk” in view of the formation of the State of Donbass, also called “Novorossiya” in Putin's imperial lexicon;
- have asked for the assistance of Russia: an appeal which caused 40-50 thousand Russian soldiers to be amassed along the Russian-Ukrainian border in the guise of a drill.
The “Crimean model” is aimed at finally breaking up Ukraine, with Russia controlling the Crimea-Donbass area and, if the opportunity arises, western Ukraine as well, in an attempt to “federalize” the entire country.
Although at a late stage, the West (EU, USA) reacted against Putin's provocations in several ways:
- on the economical-financial level with 2nd phase sanctions (against the “oligarchs” with close ties to the Russian administration; the 1st phase, which has less specific targets, was enacted after the annexation of Crimea;
- on the military level, partly because of the pressing requests for support by Ukraine to the EU countries that are geographically close to the Russian Federation; such military reaction consisted in the reinforcement of the aerial control over Baltic countries and Poland (about 15 airplanes) and of their ground borders (troops on foot): all of this as a premise to the more specific dispositions to be adopted during a subsequent NATO summit.
c. At this point, the Ukrainian crisis had reached its “global configuration”, the start of which was marked by the “historical” China-Russia gas deal, signed in Beijing on May 21, 2014. The agreement bound Russia, starting in 2018 and for 30 years, to provide 38 billion cubic meters of gas per year to China: not an extraordinary amount, considering that a country such as Italy burns 80 billion cubic meters of gas every year. However, it is important to note that:
- this contract allows Russia to become the first “shareholder” of China, thus leapfrogging Europe;
- it could lead to negative side effects for western European countries, especially in terms of a reduction in gas procurement and a hike in gas prices.
The political elections in Ukraine on May 25, 2014, saw the victory, in the first round of voting, of Petro Poroshenko (55% of votes), an oligarch called the “king of chocolate” who was designated president of the Republic ad interim (the same post abandoned by Janukovich last February) and confirmed Prime Minister Arsenij Jatseniuk, who already held his post ad interim.
Poroshenko showed up at the ceremony of assignment carrying the “scepter of the Cossack” (a symbol of power for more than 500 years) and, during his speech, stated the following:
- “Crimea belongs to us and will be returned to Ukraine”;
- “There will be no federal-style solution to the crisis”;
- “Ukraine will speed up integration with the European Union”;
- “The pro-Russia rebels will have to accept an unconditional surrender”.
Poroshenko's declaration of intent was not only appreciated by the pro-Europeans, but by nationalists and right-wing extremists of the western regions as well; on November 21, 2013, the latter groups presided Maidan square and chanted their slogan: “neither with the EU, nor with Moscow”.
Another significant circumstance occurred on June 28 of the same year, when Ukraine, Georgia and Moldavia signed the Free Trade Agreement with the European Union; the very same agreement that had triggered the crisis and caused the ousting of Yanukovich.
This latest circumstance, as one can imagine, enraged Putin. Then, on July 17, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down with 298 passengers on board (no survivors); the airplane crashed over eastern Ukraine, next to the border with Russia.
According to official sources, whose version was staunchly supported by the new government in Kiev, the plane would have been shot down by a ground-to-air “Buk” missile of Russian make (NATO code SA-11), launched by pro-Russia militiamen in the hope of blocking supplies destined to the troops in Kiev.
Thus began the “hunt” for those responsible!
Washington accused the pro-Russia separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine for the accident and Russia for their logistical and operative support to the rebels;
according to Moscow, on the other hand, the accident was the work of a Ukrainian jet-fighter, who mistook the Malaysian airliner for a military 'refueling' flight for the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the West considered applying the third phase of sanctions against Russia. Putin countered on August 21 with a halt to food imports from European countries as part of the self-sufficiency-based offensive against the sanctions imposed by the USA and EU (with the production, on Russian territory, of the products that were previously imported from Europe).
At that point, the invasion of eastern Ukraine was nearing.
On August 22, a line of vehicles carrying “humanitarian aid” from the Russian Federation destined to the populations of the self-proclaimed eastern Ukrainian Republics – the convoy had been stopped for days on the border to undergo controls by the Red Cross – entered Ukraine without receiving the go ahead; this caused outrage among the international community: it was a violation of the Ukrainian territory and the convoy seemed to carry arms and ammunition for the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Later that month there arose once again the hope of bringing peace to Ukraine with the Minsk summit organized by the “Trilateral contact group on Ukraine”. The group's aim was to reach a truce in the rebel provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk as a prelude to a more wide-spread cease fire: the conflict had already caused 3000 victims!
During one of the group's meeting, there was a long meeting and a handshake between Putin and Poroshenko, which raised hopes of a pacification. On August 25, however, in a dramatic turn of events, Putin confirmed his strategy of alternating appeasement with military threats.
Suddenly, members of the 31st Russian airborne division were captured by the armed forces of Kiev just a few kilometers from Donetsk. Meanwhile, further south, a large convoy (Russian military vehicles without insignia – as usual) of invading troops were spotted. At that point, it was clear that Russia wanted to open a new front along the coast of the Azov sea, on the border between Crimea and Russia: The Minsk summit and the trilateral group had proved to be an utter failure.
Seeing its eastern regions encircled by pro-Russia militias with the evident support of the Russians, the Ukrainian government had no choice but to ask for the “help and support” of the Atlantic Alliance, NATO, in view of the group's November 4-5 summit in Whales.
The NATO summit brought about the constitution of a “Rapid Reaction Force”; the force was comprised of 4000-5000 troops (terrestrial, maritime and aerial units) to be deployed in a 2-5 day time-span. The troops were stationed in Poland and five bases/deposits were created; one in each of the three Baltic countries and the remaining two in Poland and Romania. NATO Surveillance of the Baltic sea was also reinforced.
To complete the picture:
On the internal level, the political elections of October 26, 2014, participated by the Ukrainian population with the exception of Donbass (where the war was still raging), resulted in a modest victory for the two parties led by President Poroshenko (“Solidarity Block”) and by Prime Minister Jatseniuk (“Popular Front”); each party won roughly 20%
Even when added up, the result did not reach an absolute majority, forcing the two to use a third party, that of the mayor of Kiev - that had obtained 13% of the preferences - in order to stay in office.
Meanwhile, the pro-Russia separatists held their own elections on November 2, which resulted in the victory of the pro-Russia parties. The Donbass elections were, of course, met favorably by Russia, while the Russian foreign minister Lavrov refused to recognize the October 26 result, stating that Kiev's elections were rigged.
Meanwhile, in eastern Ukraine the war kept killing as Putin's strategy was further implemented in the aim of bringing Ukraine under Russian influence once again. Putin even attempted to divide the European countries, as demonstrated by the nine million euro grant given to the Front National of Marie Le Pen (“operation ATM for the European nationalists) and the financial support granted to other right-wing formations in Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Netherlands, etc. All of these political parties opposed globalization, the United States, immigration and the European currency Euro.
On a separate note are the events of December 2014 and January 2015:
After the negative result of the US mid-term elections, Obama closed the year 2014 by opening new diplomatic talks with Cuba and hoping to do the same with Iran and Russia before the end of his mandate.
As for Putin, during a message to the nation on occasion of the new year, he expressed his hope that relations with Washington could now be carried out on a equal basis: the message was interpreted as a request to lighten sanctions (by the USA and EU) against Moscow in exchange for an end to Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Although the US Secretary of State John Kerry was already on the job, Obama did not ruled out the possibility of using the old Henry Kissinger (91 years of age) in negotiations.
In this context one should keep in mind the difficult economic situation of the Russian Federation.
Russia's economy is centered on energy resources (petrol and gas); it is thus greatly influenced by the sanctions imposed by the West and by the decrease in the price of petrol, which went last summer from 110 US dollars per barrel to just 50 dollars (since January the cost has dropped further) because of the introduction into the market of US petrol obtained through 'fracking' (oil extracted from schist rock with a new, US devised, technological procedure not exempt from critique by environmentalists).
To attempt to salvage the price of oil, OPEC countries met in November 2014 to ask Saudi Arabia to cut down production, but were met with a refusal. The investment bank “Goldman Sachs” esteemed that 2015 will see oil selling for 50,4 US dollars per barrel which, when coupled with the price for transportation, means roughly 55 US dollars per barrel.
On the European front, the Russian Federation has suspended the “South Stream” project on December 1, 2014, because of Bulgaria's refusal to let the pipeline across its territory (one can imagine the dire consequences of such suspension for SAIPEM, the company controlled by Italian state energy giant ENI and for those working on the project – which was supposed to raise 2,4 billion US dollars). Regarding the countries on the path of the “South Stream” pipeline, the CEO of Gazprom Alexei Miller announced the construction of a new pipeline which will go from Russia (in the same compression station of the “South Stream” in Russkaya), through Turkey to the Greek city of Kipoi; from there, it will cross the Adriatic sea (Otranto channel) and reach the city of Santa Foca di Lecce, Italy.
The new pipeline – which is meant to carry 63 billion cubic meters of gas, 14 of which for Italy – will tap the “Shah Denitz” oil fields in Azerbaijan. Italy burns roughly 73,2 billion cubic meters of gas per year and produces only 8,4 billion cubic meters; it therefore imports roughly 64,8 billion cubic meters which are currently provided by the following nations:
Algeria (Transmed): 20,6;
Russia (Trans Austria Gas): 19;
Netherlands and Norway (Transitgas): 9;
Libya (Greenstream): 6,5;
Others (including Qatar): 10.
The suspension of the “South Stream” project was not met with particular worries on the part of Italian authorities because of the announcement by Gazprom that an alternative is at hand and because Algeria has expressed its availability to increase their share of Italy's gas imports.
The Ukrainian crisis seems to have slipped out of the hands of its main actors:
Obama wants to put Putin back in his place, since Russia has taken up too much room in the US international files as of late (Egypt, Syria, even the Snowden affair);
Putin, who was taken by surprise when 'his' man Janukovich fled Kiev, has tried to put a patch by closing Russia's grip on Crimea and fueling the conflict in eastern Ukraine. As we mentioned earlier, Putin is enraged by Russia's secondary role in global politics and would like to regain the role of superpower, even through military aggression.
In addition to the Ukrainian situation, talks should soon be underway for the status of Transnistria, the separatist region of Moldavia which Russia wants to annex: Russia has deployed a contingent of 1200-1500 troops in Transnistria (the “Operative Group of Russian Forces in Moldavia”); a small contingent that could be just the spearhead for a larger deployment to put pressure on the western border of Ukraine.
Finally, the internal situation in Ukraine is quickly worsening. The political forces of the ultra-nationalist right-wing (Svoboda party and Pravij Sektor) tend to keep away from the two fighting factions (neither with the EU nor with Russia). They do not forget the role that they played in Maidan square and in the ousting of Yanukovich.
Regarding possible developments of the Ukrainian crisis which “hides” within it the confrontation between Brussels and Washington on one side and Moscow on the other, we must also consider the following:
a. the agreement between Ukraine and the EU, which Kiev had refused on November 21, 2013, only to sign it with a new government on June 27, 2014, is aimed at allowing Kiev to break free from Moscow's grip and spearheads European interests right into the heart of Russia's sphere of influence.
Strategically speaking the agreement for the inclusion of Ukraine in the Atlantic Alliance is political hypocrisy, since their adhesion was originally stopped by Germany (and France and Italy) during the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008.
Kiev has turned into the “battlefield” of someone else's war, where the interests of other nations meet and clash; just like what happened during the cold war, with its “proxy” wars. This has induced observers to speak of a “new” cold war. True, some of the elements of the Ukrainian crisis are similar, but the international political landscape has mutated radically since then; the world is no longer bi-polar and weighed on the nuclear terror's balance.
Meanwhile another player has emerged with its usual low profile: China, which has acquired much land in the Ukrainian Republic and has the means and ambition to acquire more.
The fact that the Ukrainian conflict has become chronic is bad for
everyone, even for the third parties involved. Ukraine is in the
wrong place at the wrong time: it is condemned by its geography to
be within Russia's gravity pull. The West has done little, apart
from placing sanctions, while Putin continues in his game of
threatening then appeasing. His goal remains that of making
Ukraine into a federation under Russian control.
c. Finally, to answer the question posed in the title (Ukraine… is there no end to the crisis?). The crisis is destined to last, unless the following concessions are made:
- the end of the sanctions that are detrimental to Russia and others;
- an end to the West's policy of approaching the areas where Russia holds strategic interests.