Sunday, 20 April 2014
KIEV, Ukraine -- Despite the ray of good news in Thursday's Geneva agreement on steps to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine, President Obama was right to sound a note of caution, observing that "I don't think we can be sure of anything at this point." The deal, reached by Russia, Ukraine and the West, called for, among other things, disarming illegally armed pro-Russian demonstrators in eastern Ukraine, and the surrender of the government buildings they have seized. These are good and essential first steps, but unless they can now be implemented as a basis on which the parties can move to further, bolder steps to reverse underlying trends, Ukraine could still slide into civil war. If this happened, how would it affect American national interests? Could Ukraine become a 21st century echo of the Balkans in the 1990s, when the collapse of Yugoslavia saw a decade of war between Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians and Kosovars? No one should forget that just a century ago Ukraine was sucked into a tragic, bloody civil war shortly after gaining independence in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. There is a saying that history never repeats itself, but it does sometimes rhyme. Fortunately, full-blown civil war in Ukraine still seems unlikely — mainly because one side, the Ukrainian government, appears both unable and unwilling to fight. Nonetheless, it's not hard to sketch a scenario in which war is the outcome -- and from that to envision a further scenario in which the U.S. finds itself drawn into a direct confrontation. As we have seen in the past two weeks in eastern Ukraine, Russian speakers— acting either spontaneously, or at the behest of Russian security services, or both — have taken control of government buildings in 10 cities in Ukraine's eastern provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv. Ukrainian military, security and police forces are so impotent, demoralized and compromised by Russian infiltration that their response has so far been pathetic. This week, the New York Times reported on the Ukrainian government's "glaring humiliation," when a military operation to confront pro-Russian militants instead saw Ukraine's 21 armored vehicles separating into two columns, surrendering or retreating. In several instances, when confronted by pro-Russian crowds, soldiers and policemen have even switched sides. If Thursday's deal unravels and Ukrainian authorities remain unable to restore basic law and order, the pro-Russian demonstrators occupying buildings will be emboldened to expand their reach. Further steps may include the demonstrators setting up an independent "republic" in the three Eastern regions and seeking to drive out forces loyal to Ukraine's interim government, provoking the Kiev government to respond with greater force, and then calling in Russian troops to defend them against what they will claim to be "fascists" from western Ukraine. Responding to a crackdown, Russian security forces would likely provide arms and other assistance to the Russian speakers, claiming that such a call for assistance from "compatriots" is impossible to ignore. As conflict intensifies, western Ukrainians, perhaps even Poles or other Europeans, could come to the aid of Ukraine. In this spiral, one thing could lead to the next, ending in significant bloodshed in eastern Ukraine, and perhaps even spreading beyond. Widespread violence or civil war would certainly be a calamity for Ukrainians. But would its consequences for American national interests require an American military response? Fortunately for Americans, the answer is no. In 2008, when Russia crushed Georgia in a short war that ended in Russia's recognition of independence for the former Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that was President George W Bush's answer. As the ongoing civil war in Syria has claimed more than 150,000 lives, neither President Obama nor his most ardent critics, like Arizona Sen. John McCain, have judged this such an extreme threat to U.S. interests that Americans must kill and to die to stop it. That the U.S. does not have vital national interests in Ukraine will not mean that the U.S. has no national interest in holding Moscow accountable for violating territorial integrity assurances that Russia and the U.S. gave to Ukraine in 1994 in persuading it to give up nuclear weapons. Indeed, if left to take its course, this crisis has the potential to fuel further developments that engage core American national interests. For example, if Crimea becomes Putin's precedent for creeping annexation in which Russia-instigated Russian speakers occupy government buildings, liberate a territory and establish a relationship with Russia, where will this stop? Could the 25% of the population in Latvia who are Russian speakers be tempted (or coaxed) to follow suit? Both Latvians and Russians vividly recall that in 1940 Stalin annexed Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, nations that regained their independence only in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Russian military intervention in Latvia, even under the guise of special forces in green garb without insignia, would almost certainly be engaged by Latvian military and police. If Russian security forces came to the assistance of their brethren in Latvia, as they would be likely to do, this would mean a direct confrontation between Russia and the U.S.-led NATO. Many Americans are not aware that Latvia and its Baltic neighbors are members of the NATO alliance, of which the United States is the leader. How many Americans know that members of that alliance, including the United States, commit themselves in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty to regard an attack against one NATO signatory as "an attack against them all"? Pursuant to that commitment, successive American presidents have approved war plans in which Americans would fight to defend the territory of all members of the alliance. Preventing Ukraine's collapse into civil war must therefore be a high priority for the leaders of both the United States and Russia. The Geneva agreement on "initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security," which U.S. and Russian diplomats signed, along with their EU and Ukrainian counterparts, represents the first real step in the international community's collective effort to reverse Ukraine's slide into chaos. Leaders in both Washington and Moscow will have to follow up with further, bolder steps to prevent Ukraine's spiraling into a civil war that could draw them into a direct confrontation. These additional steps will require all parties to accept arrangements that would be unacceptable — except for the fact that all feasible alternatives are even worse.
KIEV, Ukraine -- A day after an international deal in Geneva to defuse the East-West crisis in Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists vowed not to end their occupation of public buildings and Washington threatened further sanctions on Moscow if the stalemate continued. Leaders of gunmen who have taken over city halls and other sites in and around Donetsk this month in pursuit of demands for a Crimea-style referendum on union with Russia, rejected the agreement struck in Geneva by Ukraine, Russia, the United States and European Union and demanded on Friday that the leaders of the Kiev uprising must first quit their own government offices. Moscow renewed its insistence that it has no control over the "little green men" who, as before Russia annexed Crimea last month, appeared in combat gear and with automatic weapons to seize public buildings - a denial that Western allies of those who overthrew the pro-Russian president in Kiev do not accept. The White House renewed President Barack Obama's demands that the Kremlin use what Washington believes is its influence over the separatists to get them to vacate the premises. It warned of heavier economic sanctions than those already imposed over Crimea if Moscow failed to uphold the Geneva deal - or if it moved to send troops massed on the border into Ukraine. "We believe that Russia has considerable influence over the actions of those who have been engaged in destabilising activities in eastern Ukraine," national security adviser Susan Rice said. "If we don't see action commensurate with the commitments that Russia has made yesterday in Geneva ... then obviously we've been very clear that we and our European partners remain ready to impose additional costs on Russia. "Those costs and sanctions could include targeting very significant sectors of the Russian economy." President Vladimir Putin's spokesman hit back, while voicing scepticism - of a kind also heard from the Ukrainian government - about how useful the cautiously worded Geneva pact would be. "You can't treat Russia like a guilty schoolboy," said Dmitry Peskov. "That kind of language is unacceptable." The Russian foreign ministry said: "The Americans are once again stubbornly trying to whitewash the actions of the Kiev authorities, who have embarked on a course of violently suppressing protesters in the southeast who are expressing their legitimate indignation over the infringements of their rights." UKRAINIAN OFFERS Ukraine's interim government, in power since pro-Western protests forced President Viktor Yanukovich to flee to Russia two months ago, was at pains to show it was keeping its part of the bargain. Its ill-equipped security forces have shown little sign of being able to regain control in the east by force. Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, though admitting he was not overly optimistic about the agreement solving what has become the gravest East-West crisis since the Cold War, said militants would be offered an amnesty. And he and the acting president made a formal joint broadcast pledging constitutional reform to devolve power to the regions and bolster the status of Russian as an official language in areas where it was widely spoken. Russia has made much of the presence of far-right "fascists" among those who forced Yanukovich out in February. In parliament, nationalists briefly tried to abolish a law allowing the official use of Russian, the first language of many in the 46 million population, and of a majority in the eastern regions. Critics of Putin say that Kremlin-controlled Russian media have fuelled unjustified fear of the new Kiev leadership in the east of Ukraine, where Yanukovich had his power base. But Russia, which Ukraine and the West say is destabilising the new government in order to maintain and extend its influence over its most populous ex-Soviet neighbor, echoed the Donetsk militants in denouncing the authorities' failure to dismantle what is effectively an anti-Russian protest camp in Kiev. The barricaded encampment around Independence Square, known as Maidan, played a crucial role in bringing down Yanukovich after he roused popular anger by rejecting closer economic and other ties with the EU in November. Now, hard-core activists on the square say they will defy any efforts to move them on until a presidential election has been held successfully on May 25. Ukraine's foreign minister warned the militants in the east that they could face "more concrete actions" after the Easter weekend if they failed to cooperate with monitors from Europe's OSCE security body and start vacating buildings. But, he said, the Maidan was not an "illegal" occupation and so unaffected. Russia's envoy to the European Union said Ukraine was misreading the Geneva accord, "in particular that it only applies to the eastern and southern provinces and those who are demanding federalism, but not to Kiev, where everything is legal including the ongoing occupation of Maidan". The Geneva agreement requires all illegal armed groups to disarm and end occupations of public buildings, streets and squares. This week has already seen several people killed in eastern Ukraine, although details remain unclear. The self-declared leader of all the eastern separatists said he did not consider his men to be bound by the agreement. Denis Pushilin, head of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, told journalists in Donetsk, the regional capital, that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov "did not sign anything for us; he signed on behalf of the Russian Federation". First, he said at a news conference in the heavily barricaded, occupied headquarters of the regional administration, Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk and Acting President Oleksander Turchinov should quit their offices, as they took them over "illegally" after Yanukovich was ousted. "The Kiev junta is signing agreements and fulfilling none of them. They are provoking crisis," he said. "Turchinov committed a crime against his own people. We will keep going to the end." But Alexei, a separatist in nearby Slaviansk, acknowledged that the Geneva talks may have changed the situation: "It turns out Vova doesn't love us as much as we thought," he said, using a diminutive term for Putin, who is viewed by many of the militias in occupied buildings as their champion and protector. FEAR, SUSPICION Massive unknowns hang over the situation. Putin's ultimate goal may not be the Crimean-style annexation of Ukraine's industrial heartland, despite his comments in a major public appearance on Thursday in which he recalled that what is now eastern and southern Ukraine was the tsars' New Russia. The Kremlin denies any ambition to take territory and many analysts believe it is principally seeking to influence events in Ukraine to ensure a favorable outcome in next month's election following the loss of Russian ally Yanukovich. That in turn raises questions of the role of Ukraine's rich business "oligarchs" in the crisis and the election. Conspiracy theories abound in Kiev, according to which the rich and powerful may be fomenting unrest behind the scenes to further their own ends or to curry favor with Putin, who holds sway over the Russian business interests of Ukrainian tycoons. Suspicion of the elites whom they blame for robbing the national wealth and corrupting government and society for the 23 years of post-Soviet independence drives activists on Kiev's Maidan to insist they will not dismantle "self-defense" barricades until after they see a fair election next month. "People will not leave the Maidan," said 56-year-old Viktor Palamaryuk from the western town of Chernivtsi. "The people gave their word to stay until the presidential elections so that nobody will be able to rig the result. Then after the election we'll go of our own accord." As shrines to the 100 or so who died in violence on the square became a focus for Good Friday solemnity, when Christians mark the crucifixion of Jesus, many said that weariness after five months of protests would not break their will. "Nobody will take down our tents and barricades," said 34-year-old Volodymyr Shevchenko from the southern Kherson region. "If the authorities try to do that by force, thousands and thousands of people will come on to the Maidan and stop them." Right Sector, a far-right nationalist group at the heart of battles with riot police in February, saw the Geneva accord as being directed only at pro-Russian separatists in the east. "We don't have any illegal weapons," said Right Sector spokesman Artem Skoropadsky. "We, the vanguard of the Ukrainian revolution, should not be compared to outright gangsters." Washington did not spell out what further sanctions it might place on Russia. With the EU, it has so far imposed visa bans and asset freezes on a small number of Russians, a response that Moscow has mocked. But some EU states are reluctant to do more, fearing that could provoke Russia further or end up hurting their own economies, which are heavily reliant on Russian gas.
DONETSK, Ukraine -- Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk say they will not leave the government building there, defying the Kiev authorities and threatening a new international deal on Ukraine. The separatists' spokesman said that the Kiev government was "illegal" and so they would not go until it stepped down. Russia, Ukraine, the EU and US earlier agreed that illegal military groups in Ukraine must leave official buildings. The deal was reached in Geneva. The sides agreed that illegal military groups in Ukraine must be dissolved, and that those occupying buildings must be disarmed and leave them. The foreign ministers also agreed that there would be an amnesty for all anti-government protesters. US President Barack Obama has cautiously welcomed the Geneva deal. But he warned that the US and its allies were ready to impose new sanctions on Russia - accused by the West of supporting the Ukrainian separatists - if the situation failed to improve. A tense standoff continues in eastern Ukraine, where separatists - many of them armed - are occupying official buildings in at least nine cities and towns. Alexander Gnezdilov, spokesman for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said his group would evacuate the government building in the eastern city only when the "illegal" Kiev government vacated parliament and the presidential administration. Another protest leader in Donetsk said the separatists would not leave unless pro-European Union demonstrators in Kiev's Maidan Square - the vanguard of the protest movement that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Moscow - packed up their camp first. A statement from the Donetsk separatists said "we cannot accept the values of the Kiev junta, we have our heroic past going back to World War Two, we are the Russian bear which is waking up". "Don't worry, everything will stay peaceful and orderly. The only problem is if the Kiev junta want war." They said they would not ask Russia for help yet, but "we will have a referendum before 11 May, about Donbass independence - after that we will ask for help". Addressing the Ukrainian parliament on Friday, interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said an amnesty bill had been prepared for separatists who laid down their arms and left government buildings - and he urged them to do so. "Russia was made to condemn extremism and to agree that all bandit groups should immediately lay down arms and vacate premises. So vacate. Your time is over. We are urging them to immediately observe what the Russian minister signed and to leave Ukraine alone," he said. But later the Ukrainian interim authorities struck a more conciliatory tone. In a joint televised address, Mr Yatsenyuk and acting President Oleksander Turchynov appealed for national unity and promised to meet some of the demands of protesters in the east of the country. They said they would support constitutional change, including the devolving of power to local councils - including over their official language, a key demand of Russian-speakers. In other developments on Friday: The interior ministry in Kiev issued an arrest warrant for Olexander Yanukovych, the eldest son of fugitive ex-President Yanukovych and a millionaire businessman, for alleged forgery of documents; the ex-president fled to Russia in February - it is not clear where he or Olexander are now. Russian shares bounced back after the Geneva deal - the RTS index in Moscow was up 2.8% and the MICEX up 2.3%. They had slumped earlier in the week. Russia demanded that Kiev explain an official notice restricting entry to Ukraine for most Russian men aged between 16 and 60. Media spotlight on Putin Russian newspapers devoted their front pages on Friday to coverage of a four-hour televised phone-in with President Vladimir Putin, rather than the Geneva talks. "Vladimir Putin: You don't need to worry about a thing" said the front-page headline in Rossiskaya Gazeta, while Kommersant bore the headline: "Putin charts a stubborn line". Mr Putin was repeatedly applauded by Russians during the live event, in which he demanded firm security guarantees and equal rights for Russian-speakers in Ukraine. He said he hoped he would not have to use his "right" to send Russian forces into Ukraine. Moscow has tens of thousands of troops massed along the border with its neighbor. Mr Putin was speaking after Wednesday night's clash in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, in which three separatists were reportedly killed by Ukrainian security forces after hundreds of pro-Russians attacked a military base. US-UK resolve But speaking in Washington just hours later, President Obama expressed scepticism as to whether Russia would keep its side of the bargain. "My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days, but I don't think, given past performance, that we can count on that," he said. In a telephone call with UK Prime Minister David Cameron, the two leaders agreed that the United States and Europe were prepared to take further measures to impose a new round of sanctions if Russia failed to help restore order. And speaking on Friday, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "We do want to see over this weekend Russia take the necessary actions to reduce tensions to make sure the agreement in Geneva yesterday is upheld. "We believe that Russia contributed to destabilising the east of Ukraine over the last week, now it's an important obligation on them to contribute to stabilising it. "We will all want to see evidence of that otherwise we will return to imposing more sanctions on Russia as we agreed at the beginning of the week." Ukraine has been in crisis since President Yanukovych was toppled in February. Russia then annexed the Crimean peninsula - part of Ukraine but with a Russian-speaking majority - in a move that provoked international outrage.
WASHINGTON, DC -- The Pentagon is exploring options for deploying U.S. troops to Poland to expand NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe because of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, as pro-Russian militants defiantly refused Friday to leave government buildings in eastern Ukraine despite a diplomatic accord reached in Geneva. A senior U.S. official told Fox News on Friday the U.S. is considering sending relatively small units to the country of around 130 soldiers, and the units would be there on a rotational basis. Poland’s Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak told the Washington Post Friday the U.S. was planning on sending ground troops after speaking with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Thursday. Siemoniak said military planners are working out the logistics and the two countries also plan to increase their cooperation in air defense, cyber defense, special forces and other areas. Siemonack said he believes the U.S. needs to turn its focus back to Europe, after announcing a “pivot” to Asia. “The idea until recently was that there were no more threats in Europe and no need for a U.S. presence in Europe anymore,” Siemoniak told the Washington Post. “Events show that what is needed is a re-pivot, and that Europe was safe and secure because America was in Europe.” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told Fox News the agency will not announce any specific plans at this time, but is considering military options in Europe. “As Secretary Hagel made clear, we continue to look for ways to reassure NATO allies of our strong commitment to collective defense under Article Five,” he said. “To that end, we are considering a range of additional measures we could take to bolster air, maritime and ground readiness in Europe.” Kirby said such measures would either be pursued bilaterally with individual nations or through NATO. The U.S. also deployed 12 F-16 fighter jets to Poland in recent weeks and delivered 10 F-15s to the Baltic states for air-patrol programs. Vice President Joe Biden said on a trip to Poland last month the U.S. is looking forward to helping Poland as it continues to modernize its military. “It goes without saying that collective defense is a shared responsibility, and the United States of America strongly supports Poland’s military modernization and we look forward to being a partner in that modernization,” Biden said. Talks between Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union produced an agreement Thursday in Geneva to take tentative steps toward calming tensions in Ukraine. The country's former leader fled to Russia in February and Russia annexed Crimea in March. The Geneva agreement calls for disarming all paramilitary groups and immediately returning all government buildings seized across the country. Denis Pushilin of the self-appointed Donetsk People's Republic told reporters on Friday the insurgents in more than 10 cities do not recognize Ukraine's interim government as legitimate and will not leave the buildings until the government resigns. He demanded that Ukrainian leaders abandon their own public buildings. Ukraine has scheduled a presidential election for May 25, but Pushilin reiterated a call to hold a referendum on self-determination for the Donetsk region by May 11. The same kind of referendum in Crimea led to its annexation by Russia. In a sign that Ukraine's fledging government is ready to meet some of the protesters' demands, the acting president and prime minister issued a joint statement Friday saying the Ukrainian government is "ready to conduct a comprehensive constitutional reform that will secure powers of the regions," giving them a greater say in local governance. They also pledged "a special status to the Russian language" and vowed to protect the rights of all citizens whatever language they spoke. In Washington, President Barack Obama conveyed skepticism about Russian promises to de-escalate the volatile situation in Ukraine, and said the United States and its allies were ready to impose more sanctions if Moscow doesn't make good on its commitments. Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, complained on state television about possible further sanctions against Russia. "You must not act toward Russia as if it were a naughty schoolgirl, to whom you thrust some kind of paper where it's necessary to mark off that she did her homework," Peskov said. Meanwhile, former Ukrainian prime minister and presidential hopeful Yulia Tymoshenko arrived Friday in Donetsk in a bid to defuse the tensions and hear "the demands of Ukrainians who live in Donetsk." "I'd like to listen to these demands by myself and find out how serious they are, so that one could find the necessary compromise between the east and the west that will allow us to unite the country," she told The Associated Press. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has emphasized that the requirement to abandon occupied buildings applied to all parties — an apparent reference to the ultranationalist Right Sector, whose activists are occupying Kiev city hall and a Kiev cultural center.
MOSCOW, Russia -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's yearly Q&A session is always a mammoth and carefully orchestrated event. This year it lasted nearly four hours and was dominated by questions about Crimea and Ukraine. It was a chance for Putin to project himself as a reassuring statesman to his people, a leader who, from Russia's point of view, had this crisis under control. To his supporters he would have seemed a model peacemaker, advocating diplomacy and compromise. But his critics would have heard veiled threats, and an underlying steely determination to have his way. And in the light of what's been agreed in Geneva, his comments are also illuminating, a guide to what it is that Moscow wants. Starting point His main argument was that at the heart of any compromise had to be a deal between the government in Kiev and "real representatives" of the Russian-speaking rebels of eastern Ukraine (including some of the self-styled separatist leaders who have been imprisoned). That indeed was Russia's starting point at the talks in Geneva today between Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the EU, which have now resulted in an agreement to take initial steps to de-escalate the tension. But what Putin made clear was that in his view the most important talks - between the two opposing sides in Ukraine itself - have yet to start. What he stressed again and again was that all Russia wanted was what the pro-Russian protestors of eastern Ukraine themselves demand - some sort of federal or decentralised arrangement, so they can run their own affairs (and presumably stay closely tied to Russia), and a guarantee that these rights would be protected by law. It did not matter which came first, he said: a referendum to change the constitution, or the election planned for 25 May for a new Ukrainian president. The key was whether Kiev could deliver a deal and a guarantee which the east Ukrainians accepted. So far, so good. Not a hint of talk of any secessionist aims, of eastern Ukraine following Crimea's lead to break away and join Russia (an option which has found less traction, it seems, in eastern Ukraine than it did among Russian-speakers in Crimea). That, it seems, is not what Russia wants. But the vision of compromise, if all goes well with negotiations, was only half of what Putin had to say. There were also harsh words and warnings of what could happen if this attempt to exit from the crisis doesn't work. 'Look at Yugoslavia' To have sent the Ukrainian army into eastern Ukraine was madness, said Putin, a "grave crime" which meant that the illegal government in Kiev was staring into the abyss. He categorically rejected allegations that Russian special forces were operating in eastern Ukraine too. This, he said was "utter nonsense": the only forces in eastern Ukraine were locals, forced to take up arms in self-defense. Kiev had to pull its Ukrainian troops and heavy weaponry out, he said, before any compromise could possibly work. And if not, then Moscow would not recognise the presidential election in May and, more chilling still, everyone should remember that the Russian parliament had given him what he called the "right" to use Russian military force in Ukraine. He stressed that he hoped he would not have to give the order. But the threat remains: as a last resort, those tens of thousands of Russian troops based across the border might indeed be ordered to invade. And if Russians feared that this might create enmity for the first time in history between Russia and its Ukrainian brethren, it was not Russia's fault, said Putin. He nodded to (unnamed) foreign powers who were always trying to drive a wedge between Russia and its neighbours out of fear of Russia's size and power. "Look at Yugoslavia," he said. "They cut it up and then began to manipulate it. That's what they want to do with us." Anxieties This paranoia that the West has been out to weaken Russia emerged in other comments too. Absorbing Crimea into Russia had also been important in terms of national defence, he admitted, because otherwise the NATO alliance might have moved into Crimea and Sevastopol, elbowing Russia out of its rightful position at the heart of the Black Sea. But Putin's attitude to the West is complicated. He also wants to be friends again - and so, it seems, do many Russians. A succession of questions made clear that while Russians may welcome the return of Crimea to the motherland, they are also worried about the price they might have to pay for this victory. President Putin tried to reassure them: that there was enough money in Russian reserves to cover the billions of roubles needed to prop Crimea up. That crippling European sanctions were unlikely and that Russia did not face the prospect of international isolation because many countries understood its point of view. That if the Ukraine crisis could be resolved peacefully, a good working relationship with the United States and Europe could be restored. It was a telling reflection of the anxieties of ordinary Russian people. Just as his own performance was an insight into the fears and suspicions which have driven Vladimir Putin's actions so far and a glimpse of his game plan for how this Ukrainian crisis might be resolved. But the tensions have not yet subsided. His deep-seated grievances against the West will probably not go away. And after all that has happened it may be harder to rebuild co-operation with Western partners and with any new government in Kiev than he assumes. It's still too soon to tell which way this crisis may turn out.
Sunday, 6 April 2014
KIEV, Ukraine -- First, Russia took over a chunk of their country. Now, to the astonishment of many Ukrainians, Moscow is telling them how to run the rest of their nation. The lectures do not sit well here. Russia has been insisting that Ukraine adopt a federal form of government that would give regions nearly boundless authority. It’s a means to make the regions vulnerable to Russian interference, Ukrainians say, and eventually tear the country apart. And, they point out, Russia would never tolerate such a system itself. “The issue of federalization is absolutely artificial,” said Yuriy Yakymenko, a political expert at the Razumkov think tank in Kiev. “It’s part of Russia’s plan to impose control over Ukraine and prevent it from integrating with Europe.” Overall, 14 percent of Ukrainians support federalization, according to a poll released Saturday by the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-financed organization that supports democracy. Federalization was more popular in the south, 22 percent, and the east, 26 percent. The poll, which included Crimea, was carried out from March 14 to 26 as Crimea was being annexed by Russia. The results contradict the assertions Russia has made to justify its annexation of Crimea and its threats to intervene in eastern Ukraine, instead finding widespread opposition to Russian incursion and a growing preference for ties to Europe rather than Russia. Ukraine definitely needs decentralization, said Oleksiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Cities and villages want real self-government, he said. But federalization? “This is an idea developed by the Kremlin,” he said, “as a tool to divide Ukraine and play one region against the other.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, was adamant when he explained the plan in a television interview in Moscow several days ago, saying federalization would give each region of Ukraine authority over its own “economics, finance, culture, language, education, foreign economy and cultural ties with neighboring countries or regions.” He described recent events in Ukraine, where three months of demonstrations for good government resulted in the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country, as “the result of a deep crisis of national identity” caused by the inability to reconcile the interests of the various regions. “Things cannot keep going on in this way,” Lavrov said. “We are convinced that deep constitutional reform is required. Frankly speaking, we do not see any other way for sustainable development of the Ukrainian state other than a federal state.” A clearly irritated Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a rejoinder last week. “Instead of dictating its ultimatum-like terms to a sovereign and independent state, it should first pay attention to the catastrophic condition and complete lack of rights of its own national minorities, including Ukrainians,” the ministry told Russia. Officially, Russia itself is a federation and the Russian constitution guarantees freedom of speech and assembly, but in practice the country is highly centralized and freedom is limited, Haran said. Russian President Vladimir Putin has steadily built a top-down system he calls the “vertical of power.” And Russia, which snapped up Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula after arranging a March 16 referendum in favor of annexation that violated Ukraine’s constitution, has shown no tolerance for separatism at home. A declaration of independence by Russia’s southern region of Chechnya in 1991 led to two wars with Moscow that were fought with exceptional brutality and bloodshed. Although a Kremlin-installed strongman has extinguished most of the violence, Chechnya remains unpredictable. Last week, four Russian soldiers were killed and seven were wounded when their armored vehicle drove over an explosive device in Chechnya during what the Interior Ministry described as a reconnaissance mission. And Islamist separatists have taken the struggle to neighboring Dagestan, where shootouts kill hundreds of police and militants every year. Ukraine is tranquil by comparison. Although some pro-Russian crowds in eastern Ukrainian cities have clashed with pro-Ukrainian crowds since the fall of Yanukovych, Ukraine authorities say Russian agents provoked the disorder. But Russia has described what it calls “atrocities” against Russian-speakers, issuing warnings that suggest it is building a case to send troops into eastern Ukraine as it did in Crimea. The IRI poll released Saturday, however, found Ukraine’s Russian-speakers did not feel under threat. Even in the Russian-speaking east and south, including Crimea, 74 percent said they felt no threat. The Ukrainian government was overly centralized during the Yanukovych years, Haran said. “He sent his own people to rule every region.” Local executives now are appointed by the president and prime minister. The new Ukrainian government is working on changes to the constitution that are expected to result in decentralization, with executives elected locally. Volodymyr Hroisman, a deputy prime minister in charge of regional development, said last week that amendments would be made to the constitution this year, clearing the way for local elections next year. Until February, the 36-year-old Hroisman was the mayor of the city of Vinnytsia, about 160 miles west of Kiev. Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers, he said, has put itself on the record in favor of self-government and giving local communities the financial resources to solve their own problems. Lavrov said Russia had no intention of backing off. “I am convinced that we must insist, not because we want this,” he said, “but because it is a request of the southern and eastern regions.” A December poll by sociologists at Razumkov, however, found widespread opposition both to federalization and to any Ukrainian regions separating and joining Russia. Then, 15.8 percent (the March IRI poll found 14 percent) supported federalization, and only 7.5 percent were in favor of Ukraine’s southeastern regions jointing Russia. “People want the kind of self-government that will allow them to solve their own problems,” Yakymenko said. Broadly speaking, decentralization is a good idea, according to Oleksiy Matsuka, an online journalist in eastern Donetsk — as long as the country takes up the fight against widespread corruption. “When Yanukovych was in power, no one demanded federalization,” he said. “Yanukovych created more centralization. Strange. Once Yanukovych fled, his supporters started demanding decentralization. They want direct access to money, so they can steal it here.”
KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine on Saturday rejected Russia's latest gas price hike and threatened to take its energy-rich neighbour to arbitration court over a dispute that could imperil deliveries to western Europe Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russia's two rate increases in three days were a form of "economic aggression" aimed at punishing Ukraine's new leaders for overthrowing a Moscow-backed regime last month. Russia's natural gas group Gazprom this week raised the price of Ukrainian gas by 81 percent -- to $485.50 (354.30 euros) from $268.50 for 1,000 cubic metres -- requiring the ex-Soviet state to pay the highest rate of any of its European clients. The decision threatens to further fan a furious diplomatic row between Moscow and the West that has left Kremlin insiders facing sanctions and more diplomatic isolation than at any stage since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. "Political pressure is unacceptable. And we do not accept the price of $500 (per 1,000 cubic metres of gas)," Yatsenyuk told a cabinet meeting called to get a handle on the economic crisis that threatens to escalate tensions in the culturally splintered nation of 46 million. The profound scale of the rift between those who see their future tied to either Europe or the Kremlin was underscored when security agents announced the arrest of 15 men who allegedly planned to distribute 300 machineguns for the armed overthrow of the local government of a region neighbouring Russia. Ukraine's heavily Russified southeastern swaths have sought to stage their own independence referendums similar to the one that resulted in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea being annexed by Moscow last month. Yatsenyuk said Ukraine must now prepare for the possibility that "Russia will either limit or halt deliveries of gas to Ukraine" in the coming weeks or months. Gazprom's European clients saw their deliveries limited in 2006 and 2009 when the gas giant -- long accused of raising the rates of neighbours who seek closer ties to the West -- halted Ukraine's shipments due to disagreements over price. The state gas company supplies about a third of EU nations' demand, despite efforts by Brussels to limit energy dependence on Russia over its crackdown on domestic dissent and increasingly militant foreign stance. Nearly 40 percent of that gas flows through Ukraine, while the remainder travels along the Nord Stream undersea pipeline to Germany and another link through Belarus and Poland. Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuriy Prodan said Kiev was ready to take Gazprom to arbitration court in Stockholm if Moscow refused to negotiate over a lower price. "If we fail to agree, we are going to go to arbitration court, as the current contract allows us to do," Prodan warned. But Gazprom countered that it was ready to defend any court action because it was simply reverting back to the price set in a 10-year contract that Ukraine had signed in 2009. This week's rate hikes reflected the elimination of two separate discounts that Moscow had extended to the government of ousted pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych. Ukraine's state gas company "has already been executing this contract," Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kuprianov told the Interfax news agency. "So from the standpoint of international trade practises, that means that it recognised (the 2009 contract)." The budding gas war adds another layer of concern to a crisis that has seen Russia mass tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine's eastern border and ignore Western pressure to cede its claim on Crimea -- rejected by both Kiev and the UN General Assembly. The Unites States has responded by boosting NATO's defence of eastern European nations and trying to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin on the world stage. And both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Saturday that Europe -- once divided in the face of Putin's new expansionist streak -- was ready to impose broader economic sanctions against Russia if it pushed any harder against Ukraine. "If the territorial integrity of Ukraine continues to be violated, then we will have to introduce economic sanctions," said Merkel. "Might does not make right," she told a congress of her Christian Democratic Party. Ashton also said Europe was "prepared to take measures" against Russia. Yatsenyuk said he was busy trying to seal agreements with Ukraine's western neighbours on gas deliveries that would cost about $150 per thousand cubic metres less than Gazprom's price. Ukraine has already received small quantities from Poland and Hungary despite Russian disapproval. Yatsenyuk said he was also keen to secure an agreement with Slovakia, which receives all its gas from Russia and has been unwilling to complicate relations with Gazprom in the past. But Gazprom chief Alexei Miller responded by warning that Russia would be looking closely at any independent deals its client states reached with Ukraine. "European companies that are ready to provide reverse flow deliveries to Ukraine should take a very careful -- very careful -- look at the legitimacy of such sorts of operations," Miller told Russian state television.