Ukraine: Where Will it End? Part II
4: Crimea and Eastern Ukraine
In the last few days of February, pro-Russian armed men took over important buildings in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. On March 1, the Russian parliament gave the go-ahead for the use of Russian forces to stabilize the situation and “protect the people of Crimea from lawlessness and violence.” The decision was justified on humanitarian grounds, and thus in line with international legal norms (an interpretation neither Kiev nor Western governments accepted). Secondly, a referendum was held in Crimea , where 97 percent voted for secession from Ukraine. Despite strong protests from the Ukrainian authorities in Kiev and Western governments, Crimea was formally Russian on March 18 (annexed).
In April, riots broke out in and around the eastern cities of Luhansk and Donetsk. These areas have traditionally been more oriented towards Russia and also have a significant Russian ethnic minority, and the majority of the population has Russian as their main language. The two areas declared themselves independent people’s republics on 11 May. Since then, there has been a parallel deterioration in the level of conflict – both internally in Ukraine and in relations between affected external parties. However, the most extensive sanctions against Russia were adopted only after a Malaysian passenger plane MH17 was shot down over areas controlled by the rebels. 298 people, most of them Dutch, lost their lives, and the rebel groups, and indirectly Russia, were blamed. The circumstances surrounding the shooting are still unclear . According to Ebizdir, US , Ukrainian and Russian authorities accuse each other.
A much-discussed question is whether what is happening now in Eastern Ukraine is a civil war (internal parties) or a form of hybrid war (with Russian, external interference). Both Ukrainian and Western governments accuse Russia of being directly involved in military forces and equipment. Russian authorities deny having troops in eastern Ukraine. They insist that Russian citizens there are either voluntary civilians or military defectors. Both the Ukrainian military and the separatists have been accused of using cluster munitions , which both sides deny. NATO also complains about Russian entry into their airspace. In 2014, this activity tripled compared to 2013, according to NATO.
Even though a ceasefire agreement was reached between the parties in September 2014 in Minsk, January 2015 was the bloodiest month since last summer. In January, the Kiev authorities also imposed travel restrictions on citizens in the rebel-held areas. This means a waiting period of 10 days to be able to cross the borders from or to Ukrainian-controlled territory. The authorities have previously also stopped pension payments and other social benefits to these areas, as well as the opportunity to withdraw money. Organizations such as MSF complain about limited opportunities to provide humanitarian assistance, and warn of a possible medical crisis due to lack of medicines and equipment. The Kiev government justifies the austerity measures for security reasons. By many others, they are interpreted as an attempt to put further pressure on both the rebels and the population in the rebel-controlled areas.
5: Challenges: national division and economic crisis
In May 2014, multi-billionaire Petro Poroshenko, known as the “Chocolate King”, was elected president. In several areas in the east of the country, no elections were held following pressure from the rebels. In October, there were parliamentary elections. Turnout was around 52 percent (compared to 58 percent in 2012), but was much lower in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east and Odessa in the south. In November, the rebels held their own elections in Donetsk and Luhansk. The Ukrainian authorities have rejected this as a “farce”.
The division of the population is one of the biggest challenges for the new government. Opinion polls show that the majority of people in eastern Ukraine do not want to be part of Russia on an equal footing with Crimea. But they also do not want to let go of their close relationship with Russia. The rebels’ demands for more autonomy (internal self-government), and the desire of the population in the east for something similar, must thus in one way or another be taken seriously. While the idea of a federal state was rejected in the 1990s, the pressure for increased decentralization is now great. A peace agreement will also have to address the issue of a unitary state versus a federal state with states that have more or less autonomy.
In addition to the situation in eastern Ukraine, the new authorities are also facing serious economic problems . In December 2014, the Ukrainian National Bank determined that the country had a decline of 7.5 percent in GDP in 2014. At the same time, it estimated that inflation was expected to increase to 17-18 percent in 2015. The authorities have made it clear that they will need 10-15. billion in aid by 2016. At the same time, they have to deal with the economic dependence on Russia, and especially in the energy sector. It does not simplify the matter that more than 3 million Ukrainians are migrant workers in Russia.