The crisis in Ukraine: Is the Cold War back?

In recent weeks, the world’s attention has been fixed on Ukraine, where months of anti-government protests ousted the country’s pro-Russian president, followed by the arrival of Russian troops, who seized control of the Crimean Peninsula. Political analysts are calling it the greatest geopolitical crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

With tensions in Eastern Europe continuing to swell, we turned to Maria Popova, an expert on the region, for her insights. Popova is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and the author of Politicized Justice in Emerging Democracies: Courts in Russia and Ukraine. She spoke to Gary Francoeur.


For those of us not familiar with the whole story, can you explain how this complex political crisis developed?

The crisis started in late November with a protest triggered by Ukraine’s further move towards the European Union. The government had, for about a year, promised to sign an association agreement with the European Union, and about a week before it was scheduled to be signed, they suddenly changed their minds and announced that they wouldn’t sign it.

That triggered small protests, which were about to fizzle out in early December when the government used police brutality and repression to drive the protesters out of Independence Square. That’s when the protests very quickly grew from a couple of hundred people to hundreds of thousands.

The protests came to a head on February 21, when the government tried to suppress the protests and it turned violent. In the ensuing skirmishes, the [Victor] Yanukovych regime that was in power dissolved and [ousted President] Yanukovych eventually fled to Russia.

About a week later, Russia made an incursion into Crimea to reportedly protect Russian speakers against the new central government in Kiev. Russia has tried to deny that they are militarily in Crimea, and Vladimir Putin recently said that the 15,000 or so heavily-armed people in unmarked uniforms moving around Crimea are actually spontaneously organized self-defense units, which I don’t think anybody is buying. That’s how we’ve reached this point.

What exactly is at stake, not just for the people of Ukraine, but also internationally?

For the people of Ukraine, what is at stake is nothing short of the territorial integrity of their country.

For the larger world, it has enormous implications for future relations between Russia and the European Union, the United States and Canada, who are all not happy with Russia’s incursion into an independent state. They are trying to figure out a way to contain the Russian incursion, maybe considering economic sanctions against the Russian government to convince them that this will be a costly exercise.

To what extent is there public support for Russia's actions within those parts of Ukraine with large Russian-speaking populations? Your recent op-ed in the Washington Post noted, for instance, that the new Ukrainian government does contain some right-wing nationalist elements that have antagonized Russian speakers in the eastern part of Ukraine.

While the eastern part of Ukraine has traditionally been Russian-leaning, the question now is whether the Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the region are welcoming this intervention or are weary and solidifying their Ukrainian identity. It is important to keep in mind that these people are Russian-speaking Ukrainians and not Russian themselves. While there has been some support for Russia, the pro-Ukrainian demonstrations have been larger than pro-Russian demonstrations. There are many reports that Russia has had to import protesters into Ukraine. I think it is still too early to tell, but so far the eastern Ukrainian reaction to the Russian military intervention in Crimea has been very cautious rather than supportive.

We’ve seen the White House start to impose economic sanctions on Russia. What further response should we expect from the U.S. and the European Union?

The Russian economy right now isn’t doing very well. I know there is talk that Europe gets a lot of its oil and natural gas from Russia and that’s why it would be reluctant to impose sanctions, but at the same time, I think it is important to remember that Russia has to sell its oil and gas somewhere to keep its economy going.

General sanctions and targeted sanctions are two very different strategies that might be used to try to change the Russian government’s mind on the issue. If general sanctions go through, that would, of course, affect regular Russian people because the economy will do worse. Targeted sanctions aimed at the Russian elite, however, might include freezing their assets in Europe and North America, or trying to limit their access to arbitration courts in the U.K., which Russian companies have been regularly using. This might have an important policy -- constraining effect without actually directly hurting the general Russian population.

Do Western countries bear partial responsibility for the crisis? There is a school of thought that says that Russia felt threatened by the way in which NATO and the European Union have courted former Soviet states. The West tends to be far more cautious in not provoking China over Taiwan, for instance.

In one sense, NATO and the European Union are partially responsible for Russia’s reaction in Ukraine today. However, at the same time, they are probably responsible for the fact that we are seeing this happen now, rather than in the Baltics, the Balkans or in other parts of the former Russian sphere of influence. In other words, the expansion of NATO has taken the Baltics off of Russia’s plate. If we say that the West is responsible for this reaction in Ukraine, then we should also be prepared to say that the West should have also accepted Russian intervention in the Baltics and in the Balkans. The comparison with China and Taiwan can’t really be made here because Taiwan is a breakaway part of China while Ukraine is not a breakaway part of Russia, but a constituent part of the Soviet Union that disintegrated. It is quite different.

Also, the European Union and NATO have actually been very cautious and not offered Ukraine any guarantees that it would be a member of those organizations. Basically, the association agreement between Ukraine and the European Union that was at stake in November was the same kind of agreement that they have with countries in North Africa. It isn’t a very close kind of agreement, it’s not a first step to membership and it’s not even the beginning of even talking about membership. It is the same with NATO, which has not offered all that much to Ukraine, so I don’t really see how this situation can be placed on the West.

What role can Canada play in this crisis?

Canada is playing an important role right now in that the Harper government has staked out a clear position which has gained unity in the Canadian Parliament. That sends a strong signal to the Russian government that an important international player – I think Canada has significant moral authority in that regard – is unequivocally stating that they do not approve of their actions in Crimea.

What impact has this crisis had on how Ukrainians and Russians regard one another?

It is important to note that this conflict is not pitting the Russian people against the Ukrainian people. In fact, recent polls have shown that the majority of the Russian population is against their government’s incursion into Ukraine. The majority of Russians see Ukrainians as a brotherly people, so there isn’t really a conflict among the population themselves.

Do you have any sense of what Putin's bottom line might be in this crisis? Is there a point from which he is not likely to budge?

It is hard to speculate as to what Putin’s intentions are, but I think that Russia will not budge on Crimea and will probably incorporate it into its country somehow, either formally or informally. The negotiations now are over eastern Ukraine and whether it will be destabilized or separated from the rest of the country. That is what is in play right now and what we don’t know yet.

How can the turmoil in Ukraine be prevented from escalating?

All diplomatic channels between the West and Russia must be opened. They should be talking about how to resolve this crisis on a daily basis, which I hope they’re doing. In addition, the Ukrainian government has exercised enormous restraint in the sense that Ukrainian forces have not tried to resist this military incursion by a neighbouring state. A lot of people have seen the videos that have gone viral of Ukrainian soldiers marching unarmed against armed Russian soldiers and demanding their bases back.

The combination of diplomatic efforts and negotiations at a high level and restraint by the Ukrainian government is the way to go forward.