Vox populi, vox dei: A few words on Ukraine, Crimea and the West

By N. Gourof,
Editor, Strife:


Events, those nemeses of politicians, according to Harold Macmillan, tend to unravel too fast for cautious observation and a balanced development of popular opinion. They have certainly done so in the crisis of recent days in Ukraine. Characteristically, views and perceptions of a large portion of the reading – and blogging – public, both in the region in crisis and in places remote, are lacking in balance, objectivity and common sense. The Russians are, as usual, overtly xenophobic, while the Russophobic West is singing odes to the Western ideals of liberty and democracy, leaving out the refrain of economic enslavement of the newly-liberated and newly-democraticised. Between the two Goliaths, Ukraine looks increasingly like a David with a split personality, its people(s) divided, with one part mesmerised by a false European dream and the other – by an almost messianic vision of Russia as its patrimonial protector.

We will not dwell here on the spark that ignited the Ukrainian powder keg, the notorious EU agreement rejected by the admittedly corrupt and rightly ousted V. Yanukovich, an agreement which the current authorities in Kiev are ready to sign without reservation. It is sufficient to say only that reading its articles brings to mind more than it should an understanding of Ukraine as tomorrow’s third-world market for European goods. What everybody should dwell on, however, are the words which are used resoundingly in the media, becoming weapons sharp and lethal in the information war that is currently raging. The word of the day seems to be ‘legitimacy’.

The Western media have been referring to the recently (locally) elected head of the Crimean Cabinet, Sergey Aksyonov as illegitimate. Mr. Aksyonov was branded as such on the day of his appointment by a formal decree from Kiev, signed  by the acting President of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchinov. Decree 187/2014 cites several sources from the Ukrainian legislation, from constitutional articles to laws specific to the organisation and administration of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. The problem, however, which is drawing little attention, is that the self-appointed government in Kiev has exactly the same basis of legitimacy as the self-appointed government of Crimea, if not less so. If in Kiev the justification for the ceasing of power is that ‘we were chosen [as opposed to ‘elected’] by the Ukrainian people’, how is Aksyonov’s appointment any different? The answer – it isn’t. In reality, Crimea, with its 58% ethnic Russian population seems to be closer to demonstrating legitimacy than the interim administration in Kiev. After all, the ideological and political divide in Ukraine as a whole is much less clear-cut than the localised division of affiliations in Crimea and Sevastopol, as pro-Russian demonstrations in major Ukrainian cities demonstrated during the weekend.

The fact that the Kievan government has been ‘recognised’ by the UK, the US and some of the EU states is not enough to make Turchinov the legitimate president and commander-in-chief. Before a national referendum at least, if not formal and clean elections, the current authorities in Kiev are no more legitimate than locally appointed or self-appointed officials. After all, recognition by an independent state is something the Crimean government can also boast. In the absence of extra-legal legitimising factors, only actual power remains the legitimising final word. The Kiev leaders have none. Russia already has an active military presence in the region, which not only gives more credibility to foreign recognition of the Crimean Government (from Moscow), but also grants actual advantage, strategic, tactical and political. Russia is already in Crimea, that much is obvious. Whether the uniformed (and unmarked) groups for three days now establishing tactical control in strategic points in the region were Russian one cannot say for certain. If this was the case, the ease with which this control was established demonstrates that Russia was always calling the shots there, especially as reports about the Ukrainian Army units holding out and not surrendering still cannot be verified, and as the latest declarations of Vladimir Zamana, the acting Defence Minister of Ukraine are particularly ineffective in countering the effects of the broadcast of the Commander of the Ukrainian Navy, Rear-Admiral Denis Berezovsky swearing allegiance to the people of Crimea.

Russia’s right to interfere on the basis of protecting the ethnic Russian population may be debatable. However, at the moment, the right of the Kiev government to issue orders and proclamations or to speak as if on behalf of a united and unified Ukraine is similarly debatable. As for the rights of the EU or the US to get actively involved, there are none. According to Reuters, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier today condemned what he has called ‘Russia’s incredible act of aggression’ in Ukraine, saying that Russia is behaving ‘in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text’. The examples of Kosovo, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, however, indicate that Russia’s behaviour is decidedly 21st century. Moreover, ‘protection of one’s citizens and ethnic brothers on the other side of our border’ carries much more legitimising panache as a pretext than slogans about spreading democracy in foreign oil-wealthy countries far, far away.

Secretary Kerry indicated also, that Russia still has ‘a right set of choices’ to follow, threatening sanctions by the US and NATO. Dangerous chest-thumping from afar, and such it will remain. There is a moment in the film The Sum of all Fears, where the Russian President is discussing a crisis in the region and the possibility of Western intervention and says to the main character, a US analyst: ‘For you to get involved here, it’s like sleeping with another man’s wife… And what you are suggesting is that afterwards they all live together under the same roof. But what really happens is that the betrayed husband goes out and buys a gun.’

8 thoughts on “Vox populi, vox dei: A few words on Ukraine, Crimea and the West”

  1. Firstly, I do not argue the United States has made a habit of unfairly subjugating nations at our convenience. On that, the U. S. has no moral superiority to the Russian Federation. But Americans have as much right as anyone to say something when there is utter bollix.

    Russia has no right to step into the Ukraine this way, no more right than it had in Ossetia. If the Russian population wants to be part of the Motherland, so be it. Let them secede legally and without armed forces of the neighboring, historically belligerent nation. Would Mexico be wrong to prepare for war if we up and and claimed some stretch of land just south of the Rio Grande because we say the people there wanted it? If the U. S. did this only just after the ousting of a leader there who disregarded his own people in favor of the United States, would that be anything but the set up for unlawful seizures exactly like Hitler did to Austria in 1938?

    I can see some of your points above, but defending anything about how Putin behaved here is simply wrong. This reads like disinformation. If no one steps in, this isn’t likely to lead to World War Three- yet. But if no one stops nations from simply taking what they want (Russia, China, or the U. S.), war on a broad scale is the only probable result. It is only a matter of when.

    Remember that the next time you try to justify an ex-KGB leader reinventing Anschluss.

    1. Generalisations are not fruitful, I agree. Yet even the most patriotic estadunidense had to see the reasoning behind the Kremlin’s reply to Susan Rice the other day, hinting at the US’s usual approach of “do as I say, and not as I do”. That Putin was in the KGB is as irrelevant as Arafat having been once a known terrorist. Realpolitik in foreign policy is beyond such labels, because in the end what matters is the ‘now’ and ‘tomorrow’ and not the ‘yesterday’.

      The Crimean situation has little similarity to Anschluss. One could argue for a certain similarity to the strategy of Soviet invasions in Eastern Europe, albeit tentatively, but drawing a parallel between Putin and Hitler belongs, I think, in the realm of fantasy.

      Putin behaved in much the same manner as anyone in his place would have. There is a major strategic interest of Russia’s in a region which has lengthy ties (political, ethnic, cultural and economic) with Russia. This region is autonomous, and in the chaos of the Ukrainian political situation as it stands now, without any legitimacy behind the Kievan administration, the Crimeans can and should have a say as to what they need and want. In essence, the people there (and I should know, as I have familial ties in the region), were nowhere near revolting until the Kiev power-grabbers began escalating the situation with grand declarations of bans on language and citizenship. A truly prudent interim ‘revolutionary’ government would wait until things are firmly settled before provoking legally dubious and culturally quite provocative measures aimed at minorities, especially autonomously grouped minorities, like the Russians of the Crimea peninsula. In this situation Putin played his card. He would be stupid not to.

      1. I can’t pretend to understand the political wants or needs of Ukrainian citizens in Crimea, so I don’t dispute anything along those lines. But Putin is still a despicable human being and his personality pervades the Russian government. Most importantly, I can’t see how you think martial forces breaching national boundaries can be justified short of halting genocidal acts being committed at the time- and if anything like that was going on, it would demand international involvement to halt and remedy the situation. Russia is historically expansionist, especially in this part of Europe. It marched in immediately after one of the Ukraine’s rulers was removed for siding against his own people in favor of Russia. If an effective invasion is alright here, is justification ever needed for other incursions where the probable invader says it’s alright by virtue of protecting the local ethnicity? (This was exactly Hitler’s argument for taking the most defensible part of Austria, by the way.) If so, can international agencies insist on ensuring the people aren’t being repressed if that is all we need to be assured nothing is wrong?

        Your viewpoint is your own, and I respect that. Maybe in this case Russia may actually be justified- notwithstanding its ambitious and homicidal leader. But your logic rests on a slippery slope, and it can only lead to direct conflict between large nations when buffer states are insufficient to stem the ambition of enlarging powers. The parallels between Ossetia, the Crimea, and Anschluss are irrefutable here. However this works out, there is no way to justify sending in the troops like this.

        1. One could argue, that martial forces are breaching national boundaries in order for there not to be any act of oppression, genocidal or not. I do not quite get your objection. I wrote above, that Russia’s justification is debatable. I do not think that necessarily amounts to endorsement. I also said, that in actuality, there is no invasion, since Russia was already and has been there. Furthermore, Russia did not ‘march in immediately after one of the Ukraine’s rulers was removed for siding against his own people in favour of Russia’. It ‘marched in’ after the interim government in Kiev announced controversial measures that were perceived as anti-Russian and a Crimean government representing a Russian majority population appealed to Russia. Not exactly the same picture, is it?

          In any case, my main point was that in the Western media talk of legitimacy is decidedly one-sided and quite obviously employed in such a way as to present an image of a fully legitimate authority in control of territory being invaded by a foreign aggressor at the invitation of an illegitimate local administration. There are several problems here: (1) The local authority and the Kiev authority are equal in their legitimacy, meaning that one can not consider one legitimate and the other not. They are either both legitimate, or both illegitimate. (2) We are not talking about a simple invasion. It is not as straightforward as that, because Crimea is arguably a predominantly Russian region on what most Crimeans consider the wrong side of the border. (3) Ukraine is not a unified country, not by a stretch. While there was a lawful authority in Kiev, pro-Russian (Yanukovich) or pro-Ukrainian (Timoshenko), that did not matter. Now, the lack of a central control with even the appearance of legitimacy is simply not there, no matter how many UK and US foreign ministers/ secretaries show up in Kiev. One of the first points of contention from Crimea, before any movements of armed units and before any actual act of cession was that the new administration in Kiev, which grabbed power after a coup, not even a national revolution, started “штамповать законы и навязывать их регионам” (i.e. to stamp laws and hang them around the necks of regional parts [of Ukraine]). Two examples from the ground as it where: one of the SpetsNaz regiments in Kirovograd refused to march on Crimea yesterday. According to an interviewed soldier, ‘many of the guys have family there, I myself go on holidays to Yevpatoriya. Many of us do not understand against whom and for whose benefit we have to fight in Crimea.’ This attitude is mirrored by the extremely low percentages of conscripts arriving to barracks after an order of mobilisation from Kiev (currently numbers are about 1-1.5% of the projected totals).

          I think one of the problems is that most people see this in pro-Putin/Russia or anti-Putin/Russia terms. It would be more helpful to look at the situation from a Crimean point of view.

          1. National boundaries exist for a reason. You are saying they can be arbitrarily ignored if the majority of the resident population’s sentiments endorse the action. This cannot be allowed as international policy because it only leads to repression and forced admissions the intervention was welcome at all.

            Without the legal procedure of secession or any recognized call for assimilation by another country, this kind of maneuver should not be regarded so apathetically. The fact it coincides with wargames across the border means Russia was poised to do this whether it was desired or not. Even if the Crimean majority wanted this, the way it was done precludes it being permissible as a governmental policy. This preemptive liberation you seem to have so little qualm with is still a slippery slope argument.

          2. The key difference here is the status of Crimea. In a very real sense, because of its autonomy it is not quite Ukraine, something which is very evident from even a cursory comparison with the rest of Eastern regions of the country. That is why I would make much more fuss about Russia spilling its military beyond the peninsula.

            The thing about secession is that Crimea could not legally do it until there was a lawful and legitimate government in Kiev and a guaranteed adherence to laws previously in place. If you look at how things were progressing, you would see the pessimism about Crimea’s chances of making a move to formally secede. The relevant events progressed as follows: Yanukovich rejected (rightly so, though for the wrong reasons) an EU agreement; popular unrest led to his leaving; a political coup followed, its protagonists declaring themselves legitimate against any law or constitution, without properly impeaching the rightly ousted Yanukovich, which they should have done; (at this point everything was still quiet and this was before the Russian ‘military exercises’ at the border); then the authorities in Kiev started issuing proclamations and making statements with a certain nationalistic flavour. At this stage there were two ways for Crimea, to act or wait and see how far these plans would materialise. It is not unreasonable to argue that there was fear the Crimean autonomy would soon become victim of the new attitudes in Kiev. Given the fact that a conservative nationalistic group was now in charge at the centre, deciding illegitimately about interior policy and adopting a certain provocative rhetoric, waiting might mean (a) being perceived as de facto recognising the Kiev authority as legitimate, which would have been stupid to do, and (b) loosing the opportunity to even temporarily limit Kiev’s influence in Crimea before the political situation became clearer, which the Crimean authorities would never do. As soon as Kiev started sending its own people to take over, the Crimeans turned actively away, eventually calling on Russia to intervene. It is also quite probable that Russia had a measure of control of this process from a point on, though probably not from the very beginning.

            Of course, the Kiev authorities and in part ‘the West’ are eager to coach the affair in terms of ‘invasion of Ukraine’ rather than ‘occupation of Crimea’, which brings me back to what I’ve been saying about the improper use of words within the current information war.

            By ‘the West’ I mainly mean the US and, quite predictably therefore, the UK. The US have been trying to destabilise the EU for several years now, especially on its Eastern-South-Eastern borders. Russia’s existence, in a peculiar way, guarantees a certain balance of power. Therefore, Germany, as the leading EU country is not eager to compromise Russia as a stabilising block in the four-pillar system of international strategy, and where Germany leads, the Scandinavians will largely follow. An full US-EU-NATO move against Russia is therefore unlikely.

            My prediction is that hard sanctions against Russia are improbable without active EU support and potentially dangerous, as earlier Russia and China announced that they see eye-to-eye regarding the crisis; a closing between Russia and China on whatever pretext the EU will do everything to avoid. It will be Georgia all over again, unless Russia makes the mistake to move to regions outside Crimea.

          3. Russian military forces spilling beyond their borders is exactly what I am pointing out is wrong here. If that is the contention people should make a fuss about, why neglect this point by focusing on the specific ramifications or possible causes of the incursion?

            The details and justifiability of a foreign martial breach are immaterial if the act of using the military in this manner is itself inappropriate, yet allowed to occur without any effective international counter. Whether or not you realize it, the language of your original essay on this topic downplays this rather essential factor.

Share this

Copyright © 2019 Strife Blog. All Rights Reserved.

Designed by Kris Chan