The spectre of a new Cold War is haunting Europe. The crisis in Ukraine, exacerbated by Crimea’s parliament vote in favour of joining Russia, threatens to evolve into the classic, stereotypical West versus the Kremlin confrontation. To understand what the possible outcomes could be, it is important to recount how matters reached this stage and Moscow’s perception of these developments.
In November 2013, then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (still accepted by all parties as democratically elected) decided not to sign the association agreement with the EU. Instead, he opted for the Russian economic bailout package — $15 billion plus natural gas at discounted prices. Protests ensued, with thousands occupying central Kiev. Initially, there was a carnival air about the protests — fiery speeches, foreign dignitaries, including ministers mingling with and speaking to the protesters. Senior US officials were photographed distributing sandwiches to anti-government demonstrators.
The protests spread to other towns in western Ukraine, with government buildings being occupied with muscle provided by rightwing and neo-Nazi outfits. In Kiev, meanwhile, Yanukovych decided by mid-February that it was time to clear the demonstrators from the streets. Police action started. Nearly 100 people were reportedly killed. (Latest reports indicate that many of these deaths were the result of work by snipers from the opposition forces.)
Mysteriously, the police action was halted and the opposition invited for talks. The negotiations resulted in an agreement on February 21 that was a virtual surrender by Yanukovych. The agreement, countersigned by three European foreign ministers, was summarily dismissed by the protesters, who were by now led by radical nationalists. No one, including the three ministers, appeared to object.
Yanukovych fled the capital, surfacing later in southern Russia. The Ukrainian parliament, meanwhile, anointed an interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, and subsequently a cabinet of ministers led by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Moscow viewed these developments as a coup manufactured by radical Ukrainian nationalists with full support of the US and Europe.
The Kremlin fears that Kiev will now pursue aggressive pro-Western policies — not only looking for economic integration with the EU but also seeking membership of Nato, discarding the neutrality it undertook to maintain in 2010. Moscow also fears that Ukraine may seek to reopen the question of the Crimean port of Sevastopol being a base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Russia fears that the loss of the Crimean base will alter the strategic balance, making the Black Sea a large Nato-dominated lake.
Given this background, Moscow moved swiftly to secure Crimea, which neither Russia nor most Crimeans have ever accepted as being part of Ukraine. Crimea’s “gifting” to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had little significance while the USSR existed, but became continued…