Ukraine: Powerful Actors In A Prolonged Crisis
The events in Ukraine switched from the Euromaidan protests of 2013 to an unprecedented event since the Cold War: the annexation of a part of a sovereign state by another country. The crisis raised complicated issues, both diplomatic and geopolitical. By focusing both on the context (social, political, economic), the root causes and the actors one can achieve a better understanding of the situation and can assess windows of opportunity and potential outcomes. 1,2 million registered IDPs, at least 6,116 people killed and 15,491 wounded in the conflict zone of eastern Ukraine since mid April 2014 represent the conflict in official numbers, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Afffairs (OCHA).
The current events in Ukraine are vague and hard to follow therefore it is easy to interpret as chaos and lack of control and hard to distinguish all the actors involved, however, it is safe to say that the principal actors involved are the following: Ukraine (politicians, civilians, oligarchs, rebel groups), Russia, the European Union (further discussed as one actor, without distinguishing and interpreting the national interests of any country) and the USA. Of course, each of these actors can be split into many smaller groups (for example the Maidan protesters could be divided in many subdivisions, Samoobrona Maidan, representatives of several political parties, Spilna Sprava, Pravyi sector, etc. ).
What are the goals of each of the main parties and why is there an incompatibility between these goals?
The starting point of the current Ukrainian crisis was the 21st of November, when Mykola Azarov, pro-Russian prime minister of Ukraine announced the suspension of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. Why? According to Azarov,
“Following several days of loud applause on the event of signing, cruel reality would have engulfed Ukraine“ , referring to the IMF requirements, among other factors. However, there are several other factors influencing this decision, historical, geopolitical among economic. Putin declared that the Agreement would have been a great threat to Russian economy: among other actions, Russia imposed a ban of Ukraine chocolates (Roshen), owned by Poroshenko, with the motive of the chocolate not meeting quality standards. Belarus and Kazakhstan were also asked to ban the chocolates; and this is just one of the warning signs sent from Russia to Ukraine, among several others, such as protective trade measures and some declarations with the implication of cutting the gas deliveries. Therefore the impulses from Russia made it harder for Ukraine to turn their heads towards Western Europe.
In order to discuss Ukraine, as an actor in this conflict, we need to separate the Ukrainian actors and their role, since the country is very fragmented regarding Westernization. The easiest kind of division is this: Pro-West or Pro-Russia. But it is not enough: why pro-West or pro-Russia? What are the reasons behind it? Therefore in this article I would like to divide the Ukrainian parties involved as follows: the oligarchs, the Maidan activists, the citizens who support strengthening ties with Russia and the separatist militia. Each of them have different positions, which hide different interests.
Ukraine is currently fighting on two fronts: of course the first one is territorial and political in the Eastern region, against separatists and Russian backed militia, but there is another perspective: Ukraine is trying to save itself from the total collapse of the economy in the same time and the oligarchs, controlling more than 70% of the economy are important actors on this front.
There is a whole other fight for control when speaking about the Ukrainian oligarchs. Who are they? In general terms, an oligarchy is a system where the power is concentrated in the hands of a very small circle of people. The Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs gained their wealth after the breakup of the Soviet Union; and not just wealth, but power. The current Ukrainian political system is financially backed by them, who are not always mentioned in terms of the Ukrainian conflict, but have the political influence to change course of actions. One of the Maidan requirements was to end the oligarchic system in Ukraine and under this flag was Yanukovic accused of abuse of power. However, the current president of the country, Petro Poroshenko is also an oligarch (owner of the chocolate company mentioned above). Currently, Poroshenko is taking steps to weaken the power of other oligarchs by law.
The Maidan activists
Euromaidan was a three months protest in the main square of Kyiv, supported by more or less 50% of the Ukrainians which led to Yanukovic and other officials flood the country. The purpose of the protest was to end corruption, loosen ties with Russia and form a new way of politics closer to the West, form an European identity. Were the protesters ordinary citizens and Ukrainian intellectuals? Were they right-wing extremists who were fed up with the system? Was/is it a revolution? Again, the Russian and the EU opinion on it is totally different; Russia condemned the protests saying that the protesters are fascist ” Banderovtsy”- after the name of Stefan Bandera, infamous political activist, with anti-Soviet ideology and who was murdered by a Soviet agent in 1959; the EU denies any presence of any groups embracing the Nazi ideology and using it to argue against Russian influence: two extremes, completely denying and exaggerating. However the presence of right-wing citizens and extremists is important to consider, since, as always, right-wing ideology is easy to embrace when hard times arrive. Therefore, the more Russians enter Ukraine and protect the separatist regions’ “independence”, the more civilians turn to extremism and this means a new type of propaganda for Russia: troops entering the region in order to protect the ethnic Russians from these extremists.
Ukrainian supporters of Russia
Then there are those citizens of Ukraine who genuinely reject the conditions imposed by the European Union and the IMF and rely on the support Russia has given to Ukraine for decades. These civilians see that some conditions are imposed for the EU help, whereas the Russian help is already there but can disappear in the minute the country turns their head to EU. Also, most of them are Russian-speakers, therefore the decision of the new government to abolish the law allowing the Ukrainian regions to impose Russian as their second official language found lack of support between these people.
By discussing the separatists as actors in the conflict we switch to the current events. The timeline of the conflict is vague and hard to interpret (however, a timeline will be given under the process subtitle), but the status and position of these fighters is clear: distance from Ukraine. There are different attitudes and plans on how to achieve this: some of them want even closer ties with Russia, annexation to Russia, others, the federalists want a hardly visible central government. According to Igor Strelkov, one of the leaders of the separatists there are two types of fighters: ones with military experience, the veterans, and others, newly formed militia with lack of experience who are mostly trying to keep “order” in the occupied cities. As he said, two thirds of the separatists are not Ukrainian citizens, the rest are ethnic Russians from Ukraine.
By discussing the Ukrainian discrepancies both the Eastern and Western influences and interests were mentioned. Russia is mainly interested in keeping things as they were before and blocking Ukraine from changing the system and facing modernization and EU influence. In geopolitical terms therefore it is easy to identify Russia’s interests, while also taking into consideration that circa 1/5 of Ukrainians is ethnically Russian. Ukraine, as previously mentioned is economically subordinate to Russia.
Again, Russia’s position is that there is a need to protect the ethnic Russians in Ukraine, while Russia’s interest is to keep its influence in the country, to create sort of a buffer zone between the East and the West. In January, foreign minister of Russia declared that Ukraine needs to keep its neutrality in order to prevent further secessions. He also mentioned that the promises of the NATO towards Russia regarding the lack of expansion towards East remained a lie and that the strategy “be with us or without us” that the EU has been imposing to the Eastern countries practically forces them to interrupt their historical relations with Russia.
In 2014 Russia annexed the Crimea, and started supporting the dissidents of Ukraine.
The European Union and the USA, aka the West
“You keep reforming, we keep supporting”- could be the motto of the relations between Ukraine and the West. Russia’s support was already present in Ukraine, while the EU promised changes in return for decentralization of governance, modernization policies, breaking up monopolization of goods and services and instead enforce competition and of course, as previously mention end the regime of the Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs.
Similarly to the Russians, the West also considers Ukraine geopolitically important and besides altruism (helping Ukraine achieve its goals, etc.) The US is involved because it is a NATO ally but has a lot at stake: preserve the superpower status (best case scenario, the ONLY real superpower status) as long as it is possible; avoid Russian expansion militarily or geopolitically.
The European Union noticed Ukraine after their Orange Revolution in 2004, resulting a more West-friendly government. This resulted a new wave of cooperation between the parties and could represent somehow an example to the other ex-Soviet states, currently called states of the Eastern Partnership. Since currently the relation between the EU and Ukraine is in decline, this can mean a precedent. Of course, besides the ideological reasons, there are economic reasons as well; a new partnership is always important and Ukraine having quality arable land ready for investment and 45 million consumers.