by Mark Semotiuk

On March 16, Crimea will hold a referendum on joining the Russian Federation. The referendum seeks to legitimize Russia’s current occupation. If the referendum in Crimea is free and fair, as verified by international election observers, Crimea should be free to join the Russian Federation. It is already clear, however, that the referendum will be illegitimate.

On February 24, the Crimean Prime Minister recognized the new national government formed as a result of the protests in Kyiv.  On February 26, the media began to report that Russian soldiers entered Crimea.

On February 27, professional and heavily armed Russian speaking gunmen seized Crimea’s parliament. Under siege, the Crimean parliament approved a no-confidence vote and unconstitutionally appointed the head of the Russia Unity party as Prime Minister. On February 28, the full scale occupation of Crimea began and Russia soon gained full scale operational control of the peninsula.

On March 6, the Crimean parliament approved the referendum on the future of Crimea. A recent poll shows that only 41% of Crimeans wish to unite with Russia. Just as the Crimean parliament elected the Prime Minister under the barrel of a gun, the Crimean people will vote to join Russia under the barrel of a gun.

A clean break

Already there are signs that international observers will not be able to monitor the referendum. Journalists have not been allowed in Crimea since March 1. On March 4, the Senior UN Envoy was threatened by a group of 10 to 15 gunmen and cut his mission short. On March 6, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) cancelled its military observer mission as the observers were not granted access.

Putin understands the significance of the current events. Unlike 2004’s Orange Revolution, the ousted government’s actions resulted in the death of 100 people. This left such a deep wound on the Ukrainian psyche that there was a clean break with the old political guard.

Putin’s pretext for occupying Crimea is that he is defending Russian citizens. This is a thin excuse. Crimea has an ethnic Russian majority and the Crimean constitution protects Russian as a language. Putin also hasn’t shown much concern for the actual Ukrainian and Crimean Tartar (Sunni Muslim) minorities.

The conventional thinking is that this pretext allows Putin to protect his interests in Russian naval bases in Crimea. These bases give Putin access to the Mediterranean, like the old Soviet naval base in Tartus, Syria, for example.

New narrative

But potentially there is a darker and more troublesome narrative: having consolidated control of Russia, Putin is beginning to believe his own propaganda. Putin styles himself as a modern Tsar Nicholas I. He wishes to develop a stronger sense of religious and national identity within Russia to act as a counterweight to the West’s liberal ideologies.

Ukraine was the cornerstone of Putin’s Eurasian Union. The Union was an effort to restore some of the glory of the Soviet Union, whose collapse Putin called the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. Under such a narrative, Putin genuinely believes that he is saving Ukrainians from a mob of fascist and neo-Nazi protestors. Putin may not stop in Crimea. He may also attempt to gain control over Eastern Ukraine.

Tactically, Putin is drawing firm red lines. Crimea is under Putin’s control unless he decides to back down – he has the initiative.

By contrast, the West’s response has been hesitantly reactive. In 1994, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom signed the Budapest Memorandum on Ukraine’s denuclearization. By signing that document the West committed to respecting Ukraine’s territorial and economic sovereignty.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Since then the West has mostly ignored Ukraine.[/quote]

Instead, Russia has kept Ukraine on a tight economic leash through reliance on gas subsidies. Had the West truly enforced the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine could have slowly drifted out of Russia’s economic orbit over the last 20 years.

Western credibility on test

Unfortunately, inaction manifested itself into the Crimean crisis. The stakes are high. Instead of economic assistance, Western values and credibility are now on the line. The crisis serves as a reminder that in geopolitics tension builds over long periods of times and often snaps in large and unpredictable ways.

Consider the current nuclear agreement under negotiation with Iran. How will Iran respond if it sees that the West does not enforce its nuclear agreements over time? Or take China. If tensions flare between China and Taiwan or Japan, the Crimean crisis will serve as a modern precedent.

The Crimean referendum will not be legitimate. For Putin to drop the narrative that Crimea is willingly joining Russia, the West must threaten sufficiently large consequences. If a diplomatic solution is not reached and action is limited to economic sanctions, Putin may become isolationist. This may embolden him to make additional land grabs in former Soviet territories.

To prevent this, the West should signal that if Crimea illegitimately joins Russia, the rest of Ukraine will accede to NATO. [quote align="center" color="#999999"]Threatening to put NATO on Russia’s border increases the pressure on Putin to work within a credible international law framework.[/quote]

As a worst case scenario, after secession, it limits Putin’s land grab to Crimea. It demonstrates that the West enforces its international agreements.

Prior to World War II, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement which allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland. Then in opposition, Winston Churchill issued sharp criticism. He said: "You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonor and you will have war."

The West now faces the same choice. To prevent war it must signal that it is ready for it. NATO must allow Ukraine to accede as a consequence of illegitimate Crimean secession. Otherwise, the West may again lose the initiative on the crisis. The consequences of which would be large and unpredictable.

Mark Semotiuk is a Fordham University Law Student currently studying European Union Law in Paris at Pantheon-Assas (Paris II). Mr. Semotiuk has been an international election observer in Ukraine on multiple occasions. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Commentary
Friday, 07 March 2014 18:52

Kyiv has painted itself into a corner

By

I had thought the fever in Ukraine had spiked at last — but it rages on.

The Crimean Parliament’s Thursday vote for a referendum by March 16 on joining Russia and the Ukrainian Rada’s vote on pursuing membership in NATO got right to the heart of the crisis: security, and the accommodation (or not) of Russia’s obvious and abiding security interest in Crimea.

Meanwhile, Moscow made it clear again that it does not recognize the Kyiv government (Russia wouldn’t let its Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, meet his Kyiv counterpart, Andrii Deshchytsia, in Paris Wednesday). It also signalled it will act to discredit the new authorities — using tactics like the leak of a recording of a cellphone call made some weeks ago in which Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet told EU’s foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton of evidence that the snipers at the Maidan had worked not for Yanukovych, but for someone in the current government.

This crisis is not now (if it ever was) about trade. It will not be settled by sanctions, even if the West gets together on a credible threat of truly punishing sanctions — highly unlikely, given the massive collateral damage such an act would afflict on all the economies involved, including that of Ukraine.

Ukrainians’ need for aid is immediate and massive. They will be doing without Russia’s $15 billion and facing a possible 40 per cent hike in their Russian gas bills at the end of this month. They’ll also be at the mercy of the IMF — which never saw a politically sensitive social benefit it didn’t insist a struggling state cut.

The IMF’s usual prescriptions would be nonsense in this case. For a new Kyiv government facing elections, they would be, as Lloyd Axworthy has pointed out, a “sure recipe for defeat.” Get ready for ironies, though: A good chunk of the Western aid cash will flow straight to Russia, to pay down debt and meet the rising gas bills.

On the crux of the issue — Ukrainian NATO membership — Putin has made two points. First, Russia controls Crimea, which will not join NATO. Indeed, it may in ten days vote to join Russia. And if Crimea does go through a democratic referendum, Putin will no doubt declare the 1994 Budapest Memorandum — which assured Ukraine of protection from threats or use of force against its territorial integrity and political independence in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons — to be moot.

In short, no one is going to push Russia out. Despite all our sustained bellicosity, with Canada playing the Last Cold Warrior Standing, it would take months for the U.S. Navy to tow Protecteur to Sevastopol.

Second, as Putin demonstrated by running up the Russian flag in Donetsk for a day and then running it down (point made without a shot fired), Russia is quite capable of destabilizing eastern Ukraine — and the Kremlin would not hesitate to do so if Ukraine were to join NATO. We’ve been warned.

NATO is not a knitting club — it is a military alliance that includes nuclear powers. Like any great power, Russia — under Putin or anyone else — would not abide such hostility on its borders. It will not rent the base for its Black Sea Fleet from NATO. Ukraine is about as free to adopt a security policy hostile to Moscow as we are to do the same thing to Washington. Of course our sovereignty is infringed upon. Welcome to the real world.

No intelligent observer can claim to be surprised by these facts. And no matter how often our government evokes Sudetenland, the Nazis and the Second World War, accommodating ourselves to reality is not “appeasement.” It’s common sense.

NATO leaders meet Friday. Last week, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen described Ukraine as a “friend,” a partner — not a member. There will be much angst in the orchestra, but I doubt the tune will change. We must hope Ukrainians hear and get the point. It is not wise to bait a bear.

For Canada and other stubborn boosters of NATO expansion (such as the Poles and Balts), the chickens now come home to roost. The conclusion is hard to escape: The hopes, expectations and fears we helped foster misled our Ukrainian friends into underestimating the risks in picking a fight with Russia, which Kyiv has now done.

The bitter irony remains that no country on earth has more interest than Ukraine in good East-West relations — and that no country on earth has done less than its friend Canada to promote them.

Christopher Westdal is a consultant, corporate director and occasional commentator on international affairs. A former Canadian diplomat, he was ambassador to Russia (2003-06), the UN in Geneva and the Conference on Disarmament (1999-2003), Ukraine (1996-98), South Africa (1991-93) and Bangladesh and Burma (1982-85). In Ottawa, he worked in Foreign Affairs, CIDA and the Privy Council Office. Mr. Westdal lives in Chelsea, Quebec.

Re-published with permission.

Published in Commentary
Sunday, 09 February 2014 15:13

A Canadian at Euromaidan in Kyiv

by Mark Semotiuk

I had seen the reports. Riot police indiscriminately beat innocent women and children. Tanks were shipped into the city. 20,000 people were transported into the Kyiv and paid to attend a pro-government rally. Provocateurs were paid to start fights so that a state of emergency could be declared. The National Security Agency raided opposition offices with machine guns and closed subways due to terrorist bomb threats. Reports of Russian Special Forces, who were loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin and had no national ties to the protestors, landed in Ukraine. People talked of an impending civil war. I was afraid to go to the Maidan.

The moment I arrived, my fear melted. Tens of thousands of people greeted me to the largest cultural festival imaginable. On stage they played modern pop songs. In the crowd people grouped together and sang classic folk songs. Both the pop songs and the folk songs were about love of country and love of people. Every half hour the entire crowd burst out into the national anthem.

Grandmothers stood in the square until 4 a.m.; students would not leave. People were draped in Ukrainian flags and traditional clothing. Volunteers passed around free food and tea and manned medical tents. Young couples came here on dates. Friends shared stories, sang songs and read poems around fires to keep warm. The people were united against fear.

Through casual conversations, I learned that the people were protesting because President Viktor Yanukovych’s “democratically” elected government lost its legitimacy through corruption. Its power relies on a system of political patronage where supporters are paid with bribes or political favours. Its influence depends on propaganda and fear of economic or physical consequences. Members of the Yanukovych government embezzled money. As if that was not enough, when the Yanukovych government tried to control the people’s protests with fear, the government became undisputedly illegitimate.

Illegitimate government

The protesters told me that words of the Yanukovych government do not match its actions. The Yanukovych government claims that Ukraine cannot strengthen its ties with the European Union because of the short-term economic consequences. Yet it is the Yanukovych government that failed to implement the reforms necessary for Ukraine’s economy to grow. Supporters of the Yanukovych government claim that the West is illegitimately intervening in Ukraine. Yet it is the Yanukovych government that is illegitimately paying people to attend pro-government rallies. The Yanukovych government says that the riot police are necessary to protect the security of the country. Yet it is the Yanukovych government that is beating, torturing and killing the Ukrainian people. Through these actions the Yanukovych government has rendered itself illegitimate.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The protestors know that even after the illegitimate Yanukovych government falls there is a long and difficult road ahead. They talk about how Ukraine must crack down on corrupt practices; reform the pension sector; create an independent judiciary; implement fiscal, exchange rate, and monetary policy reform; and provide for more capital investment.[/quote]

Will to reform

The protestors aspire to modernize the Ukrainian economy so that it can grow. They want to become more economically sophisticated and diversify into different markets. They no longer want their financial well-being to rely on turning under-priced Russian materials into world-market-priced commodities. They point to Poland and other post-Soviet countries that have blossomed due to reforms implemented in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Through an immense outpouring on the streets of Kyiv, the Ukrainian people have shown the political will to bear the cost of these reforms. If the reforms are implemented, they believe Ukraine’s economy will flourish.

For Ukraine to thrive there is one reform that must be made above all. It must be united. The Yanukovych government has a political base, part of which is legitimate. But, in December, as I walked through the barricades separating pro and anti-government rallies, I saw that it was government soldiers who prevented fellow countrymen from interacting. Like Stalin the Russian despot, members of the Yanukovych government recognize that ideas are more powerful than guns.

As EuroMaidan burst out into the national anthem, the government protestors could hear them. Hundreds of the paid protesters stop listening to the political programming so that they could sing along. They longed to be united.

It is a beautiful thing. Every time Ukrainians sing the national anthem they send a message to the illegitimate Yanukovych government. In particular, they finish with the final line:

Душу й тіло ми положим за нашу свободу. І покажем, тобі Віктор, що ми, браття, козацького роду.

We will lay down our soul and our body for our freedom. And by doing so we will show you that we are brothers of the Ukrainian family.

Mark Semotiuk is a Ukrainian Canadian who has been an international election observer in Ukraine on multiple occasions.

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Eastern Europe
Sunday, 09 February 2014 04:15

A Canadian at Euromaidan in Kyiv

by Mark Semotiuk

I had seen the reports. Riot police indiscriminately beat innocent people. Tanks were shipped into the city. 20,000 people were transported into the Kyiv and paid to attend a pro-government rally. Provocateurs were paid to start fights. A state of emergency might be declared. The National Security Agency raided opposition offices with machine guns and closed subways due to terrorist bomb threats. Reports of Special Forces, who were loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin and had no national ties to the protestors, arriving in Ukraine. People talked of an impending civil war. I was afraid to go to the Maidan.

The moment I arrived, my fear melted. Tens of thousands of people greeted me to the largest cultural festival imaginable. On stage they played modern pop songs. In the crowd people grouped together and sang classic folk songs. Both the pop songs and the folk songs were about love of country and love of people. Every half hour the entire crowd burst out into the national anthem.

Grandmothers stood in the square until 4 a.m.; students would not leave. People were draped in Ukrainian flags and traditional clothing. Volunteers passed around free food and tea and manned medical tents. Young couples came here on dates. Friends shared stories, sang songs and read poems around fires to keep warm. The people were united against fear.

Through casual conversations, I learned that the people were protesting because President Viktor Yanukovych’s “democratically” elected government lost its legitimacy through corruption. Its power relies on a system of political patronage where supporters are paid with bribes or political favours. Its influence depends on propaganda and fear of economic or physical consequences. Members of the Yanukovych government embezzled money. As if that was not enough, when the Yanukovych government tried to control the people’s protests with fear, the government became undisputedly illegitimate.

Illegitimate government

The protesters told me that words of the Yanukovych government do not match its actions. The Yanukovych government claims that Ukraine cannot strengthen its ties with the European Union because of the short-term economic consequences. Yet it is the Yanukovych government that failed to implement the reforms necessary for Ukraine’s economy to grow. Supporters of the Yanukovych government claim that the West is illegitimately intervening in Ukraine. Yet it is the Yanukovych government that is illegitimately paying people to attend pro-government rallies. The Yanukovych government says that the riot police are necessary to protect the security of the country. Yet it is the Yanukovych government that is beating, torturing and killing the Ukrainian people. Through these actions the Yanukovych government has rendered itself illegitimate.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The protestors know that even after the illegitimate Yanukovych government falls there is a long and difficult road ahead. They talk about how Ukraine must crack down on corrupt practices; reform the pension sector; create an independent judiciary; implement fiscal, exchange rate, and monetary policy reform; and provide for more capital investment.[/quote]

Will to reform

The protestors aspire to modernize the Ukrainian economy so that it can grow. They want to become more economically sophisticated and diversify into different markets. They no longer want their financial well-being to rely on turning under-priced Russian materials into world-market-priced commodities. They point to Poland and other post-Soviet countries that have blossomed due to reforms implemented in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Through an immense outpouring on the streets of Kyiv, the Ukrainian people have shown the political will to bear the cost of these reforms. If the reforms are implemented, they believe Ukraine’s economy will flourish.

For Ukraine to thrive there is one reform that must be made above all. It must be united. The Yanukovych government has a political base, part of which is legitimate. But, in December, as I walked through the barricades separating pro and anti-government rallies, I saw that it was government soldiers who prevented fellow countrymen from interacting. Like Stalin the Soviet despot, members of the Yanukovych government recognize that ideas are more powerful than guns.

As EuroMaidan burst out into the national anthem, the government protestors could hear them. Hundreds of the paid protesters stop listening to the political programming so that they could sing along. They longed to be united.

It is a beautiful thing. Every time Ukrainians sing the national anthem they send a message to the illegitimate Yanukovych government. In particular, they finish with the final line:

Душу й тіло ми положим за нашу свободу. І покажем, тобі Віктор, що ми, браття, козацького роду.

We will lay down our soul and our body for our freedom. And by doing so we will show you that we are brothers of the Ukrainian family.

Mark Semotiuk is a Ukrainian Canadian who has been an international election observer in Ukraine on multiple occasions.

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in International

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