Rising turmoil in eastern Ukraine

Taking charge: Pro-Russian activists seize the regional administration building in Slovyansk.

Pro-Russian groups calling for independence have occupied more public buildings in eastern Ukraine. Is Russia behind all this? Does President Putin intend to annex it, as he did Crimea?

‘Will eastern Ukraine be another Crimea?’ That’s what many around the world are asking this week.

Crimea was a part of Ukraine until last month when it was annexed after several weeks of protests by its Russian-speaking inhabitants and a low-key invasion by Russian military forces. This union with Russia was overwhelmingly supported by a referendum.

Much of the world, including the US and the EU, stood with Ukraine’s government in condemning this as a breach of international law. They introduced economic sanctions against Russia, but have ruled out any military action for the present.

Now the same thing seems to be happening in eastern Ukraine. In many of its towns and cities, armed groups are taking over public buildings. Most are Russian-speaking Ukrainians, though some are Russian citizens who have crossed the nearby border to support them. A few look like members of the Russian special forces, with powerful weapons and military equipment. They say they are protesting against the new interim government in the capital, Kiev, which they do not believe is legitimate, and say they want independence.

Many believe Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, is behind these protests. In a tense phone call on Monday the US president told his Russian counterpart to use his influence to encourage the protestors to disarm. In reply, Putin asked Barack Obama to use his influence to prevent the Ukrainian government using force against them.

In fact, this is just the latest battle for influence over Ukraine’s future. It is a large and potentially rich country strategically placed between Russia and the EU and both neighbours would like it to be their ally. Many of its citizens would like closer ties with the EU, but many Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who live mainly in the east of the country, favour better relations with Russia.

Looking east or west?

Some warn that this is a dangerous time. They remember that, in a speech to the Russian people in 2005, Putin said that ‘the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.’ Ukraine used to be part of that large, Russian-led empire which fell apart in 1991. They predict that Putin would like to recreate at least part of it in eastern Ukraine as a defence against the EU and NATO.

Others say that Putin doesn’t want to annex eastern Ukraine as he did Crimea. That might risk a civil war and could be very expensive in military terms. His plan is to keep Ukraine from joining the EU and NATO. His disruptions in the east are likely to wreck the election of a new Ukrainian president planned for May 25 and ensure the government remains weak. And its weakness will mean Putin remains in control of the region.

You Decide

  1. Do you think Russia will take over eastern Ukraine?
  2. If they want it, do the Russian-speaking Ukrainians have a right to independence?

Activities

  1. Form groups and research which European countries used to be part of the Soviet Union before it collapsed in 1991 and also which countries were allied to the Soviet Union as part of the Warsaw Pact. Discuss in class what has happened to them since.
  2. Class debate: ‘A country can only succeed if all its people speak the same language.’

Some People Say...

“Russia is right to help those who speak its language wherever they are.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is this crisis in Ukraine important?
The events in Ukraine over the last couple of months have brought the US and the EU into direct confrontation with Russia. The effects of the economic sanctions which have been brought in will be bad for Russia, but also, to a lesser extent, for the West. It could also get much worse. For example, much of Europe depends on Russia for its gas. There is also the possibility of a military confrontation which could be bloody and disastrous.
Why does Ukraine matter so much to Russia?
President Putin does not want to have a successful, corruption-free, democratic Ukraine with strong ties to the EU on the border with Russia. It would be an example to those in his country who would prefer something similar at home and would threaten his own power.

Word Watch

Annexed
An annexation is when a country takes over the territory of another country, usually by force.
Referendum
Although the result of the referendum was 96.7% in favour of joining the Russian Federation, it was considered invalid by most of the world. There was no option on the ballot paper that things should stay as they were.
Breach
In 1994 Ukraine, Russia, the US and the UK all signed a memorandum in Budapest guaranteeing Ukraine’s independence and borders. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a breach of this.
Sanctions
Travel bans and freezes on bank accounts in the West have been placed on 33 Ukrainian and Russian officials and politicians, including members of Putin’s inner circle.
Interim
Mass protests in Kiev against the government of President Viktor Yanukovych began last November and ended with his flight to Russia in February this year. A temporary government was then formed in order to arrange new presidential elections on May 25. Russia and its supporters in eastern Ukraine do not recognise it, claiming that President Yanokovych was illegally removed from office by a coup.
Legitimate
Legitimacy is the popular acceptance of a government’s fitness to rule. Most obviously this can be done by winning a free and fair election.
NATO
A military alliance formed by the US after the second world war to defend western Europe against the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact. Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 several Warsaw Pact countries have joined NATO.

Subjects

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