by Baibhav Kumar Panda

From the year of 2013, Ukraine has been host to mass public protests at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, an event known as the Euromaidan due to a conflict in opinion between the majority of the people of Ukraine, who favoured larger involvement with the European Union and the then President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych who explored closer economic relations with Russia and scrapped the scheduled signing of the free trade agreement with the European Union. Meanwhile Russia was unhappy with these developments, having always perceived Ukraine as being within its sphere of influence and thus hostile to Ukraine’s desire to integrate more closely with the European Union with the signing of the Free Trade Agreement.Russia instead wanted Ukraine to join it’s own alliance,the ‘Eurasian Union’, a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan and warned Ukraine that it could not sign both agreements.

At a Discussion forum in Yalta in September 2013, Sergei Glazyev, adviser to the President of Russia Vladimir Putin, publicly announced that Ukrainian authorities are making a mistake in thinking that Russia would be neutral in the years to come by and that Ukraine needed to join the customs union with Russia to balance its trade with its largest creditor Russia. He then proceeded to frame a clear threat that if Ukraine signed the agreement and associated with the EU, Russia would feel that their strategic partnership and friendship treaty with Ukraine was violated and that Russia would no longer recognise Ukraine’s status as a state and would intervene if Pro-Russian regions of the country directly appealed to Moscow. To increase the credibility of this threat, Glazyev threatened to increase further economic sanctions if the agreement was signed, after Russia had already imposed import restrictions on certain Ukrainian products.The threat was very credible but probably counter-effective as Ukraine and the European community, while feeling the seriousness of Russia’s threats, also realised that Ukraine’s integration with European Union was the best way to deter the threat.

The recent animosity between Ukraine and Russia is set in historical precedents.Russia has always been keen to retain Ukraine as their ally, away from the influence of the west which had become an increasingly frustrating experience for Russia from the beginning of 2004 with the election of Viktor Yushchenko instead of the Pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovyc. This frustration intensified with Ukraine’s increasing co-operation with the NATO, deploying the third-largest contingent of troops to Iraq in 2004 as well as being the only country among NATO Partners to have participated in all major NATO-led Operations and missions.

With the election of Pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2010, Russia began improving ties,the first action being renewing the lease of the Russian Black Sea Naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea which allowed Russian troops to stay on in Crimea beyond 2017 which was against the Ukrainian Constitution. Russia too began to offer significant rewards to court Ukraine away from the European Union by agreeing to buy 15 billion dollars of Ukrainian debt and also by reducing the price of Russian Gas supplies by about a third on December 17, 2013 right in the midst of the Euromaidan protests.This was a clear case of altering the consequences to make Russia look like an attractive alternative to the European Union. By offering this reward, Russia also re-affirmed it’s serious resolve to ensuring a pro-Russia Ukraine, thereby raising the credibility of any future threat made to secure the same objective of a pro-Russia Ukraine.

The Russian deal failed to stem the protests at Euromaidan and the protests escalated with violent repercussions.President Yanukovych signed the EU Backed Agreement on settlement of the political crisis in Ukraine to end the protests and fled to East Ukraine. Arseniy Yatsenyuk was appointed as prime minister and he restored the constitution of 2004. The new government annulled a bill which provided for Russian to be used as a second official government language in regions with large Russian-Speaking Populations, thus alienating many in the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine and though this was later vetoed by the acting president of Ukraine, Oleksander Turchynov. Russia viewed it as an anti Russian act and distrusted the new government with the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev condemning it and saying that it was a real threat to Russian interests and to the lives and health of our citizens there. The new Ukrainian government was formed of politicians who all agreed on the need to integrate with the European Union, chiefly led by former foreign and trade minister and the incumbent president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko who was a key organiser of the Euromaidan. Poroshenko was at the conference where Sergei Glazyev had issued that explicit threat against Ukraine, and Poroshenko criticiser the words of Glazyev stating that it was these actions of Russian officials that brought for the first time in Ukrainian history, a larger number of people supporting integration with the EU rather than Pro Russian ties and that it were these heavy handed tactics and threats of a trade war from Russia that made European Integration inevitable.

Ukraine clearly defied the threat by Russia, with the new government focused on integration with European Union.Ukraine took inspiration from countries like Poland whose foreign minister Radek Sirkoski remarked about how Poland’s relations with Russia had improved after being a member of the NATO and the EU. Ukraine felt a sense of security if they were to become members of the European Union as had many members of the erstwhile Soviet Union like Estonia and Latvia which were now relatively free of Russian influence.The fact that Russia had never been involved in a previous engagement, either militarily or economically with a member of the European Union weakened the credibility and effectiveness of Russia’s threat as Russia lacked a precedent, the presence of which would have most definitely strengthened the degree of credibility of its threat and perhaps this lack of a precedent would have contributed towards creating a doubt in the target, Ukraine if Russia actually intended to carry out on its threat.

With Ukraine defying Russia’s threat, Russia could either back down or carry out the threat. Glazyev’s threat was fulfilled. Realising the lost cause of negotiations without Yanukovych in the government and the strategic importance of the Sevastopol port in Crimea,Russia militarily intervened and painted the incident as a “Re-Unification of Crimea”, by annexing Crimea on 18 March 2014 after staging a disputed referendum where the majority of the people of Crimea voted to join the Russian Federation. Russia also militarily supported the separatist movements in Donbass in Eastern Ukraine with Reuters reporting that Russian paramilitaries were reported to make up to 80% of the combatants. Ukraine’s perception on the Russians following up on the threat was miscalculated and today Ukraine is still wary of another invasion.

Baibhav Kumar Panda is a Defence and Strategic Analyst. Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IDN. IDN does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same