A Force of Habit

As intense diplomatic efforts continue to try to defuse tensions in Ukraine, Luke Luby assesses the events so far.

An “act of aggression” is how the United States Secretary of State John Kerry labelled Russia’s invasion of the Crimea region of Ukraine, and has said, while condemning the move, that Moscow is looking for a pretext to invade much of the rest of the country.

The comment came as Kerry was visiting Kiev, intending to show support for Ukraine’s new political leaders. He expanded on this by adding that: “The United States reaffirms our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity according to international law. We condemn the Russian Federation’s act of aggression.  It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further.”

Kerry’s comments show how much of the western world view Russia’s hostile takeover of many military installations and other buildings in Crimea, a peninsula where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has a major base.

To date, Russia has been unsuccessfully pressured into withdrawing its fleet or face economic sanctions and diploma isolation. Nonetheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far resisted and said that he reserves the right to use force as a last resort in order to protect his, as he termed it, fellow compatriots in Ukraine.

The invasion of Crimea comes shortly after Viktor Yanukovich, the Moscow backed former President of Ukraine, was deposed as President in February.  This was followed by the installation of acting President Oleksandr Turchinov, Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, and Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia, each of whom seem to favour a working relationship with America, rather than Russia.

In the last number of weeks, Putin has said that there was no need to send Russian troops into Ukraine yet, but has not ruled out any more military action. Speaking to a Russian news conference, he said that he reserves the right to use “all means” available to protect his citizens in Ukraine and described the toppling of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich as an “unconstitutional coup and armed seizure of power”. This statement was the first that Putin had released since the takeover of Crimea.

Putin has also claimed that Russian speaking citizens in Ukraine are in danger, but Kerry has said that, so far, there is no basis to support this kind of statement. Speaking at the press conference, Kerry noted: “Russia has talked about Russian-speaking ordinary citizens that are under siege. They are not. And in fact this government has acted remarkably responsibly.”

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“Russian military action is not a human rights protection mission. It is a violation of international law and a violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the independent nation of Ukraine, and a breach of Russia’s Helsinki Commitments and its UN obligations.” Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the UN

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He then went on to criticise Putin and the rest of the Russian leadership, who have also come under fire in recent months due to their discrimination of the LGBT community. Kerry continued:

“It is not appropriate to invade a country and at the end of a barrel of a gun dictate what you are trying to achieve. What we are looking for here is a responsible way to meet the needs of the parties of Ukraine.”

During his visit, Kerry also announced an economic stimulus package and what can be seen as technical assistance to the new Ukraine government. Since the invasion of Crimea, gas markets have become spooked at the possibility that Russian troops that are being built up on the border could enter eastern Ukraine, as many of the gas pipelines that feed into France, Germany and Italy all pass through Eastern Ukraine.

At a UN Security Council Meeting on Ukraine, Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the UN, summed up the general opinion of the western nations regarding Russia’s invasion of Crimea:“It is a fact that Russian military forces have taken over Ukrainian border posts. It is a fact that Russia has taken over the ferry terminal in Kerch. It is a fact that Russian ships are moving in and around Sevastapol. It is a fact that Russian forces are blocking mobile telephone services in some areas. It is a fact that Russia has surrounded or taken over practically all Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea. It is a fact that today Russian jets entered Ukrainian airspace. It is also a fact that independent journalists continue to report that there is no evidence of violence against Russian or pro-Russian communities.”

Power added:  “Russian military action is not a human rights protection mission. It is a violation of international law and a violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the independent nation of Ukraine, and a breach of Russia’s Helsinki Commitments and its UN obligations.”

“The central issue is whether the recent change of government in Ukraine constitutes a danger to Russia’s legitimate interests of such a nature and extent that Russia is justified in intervening militarily in Ukraine, seizing control of public facilities, and issuing military ultimatums to elements of the Ukrainian military. The answer, of course, is no. Russian military bases in Ukraine are secure. The new government in Kyiv has pledged to honour all of its existing international agreements, including those covering Russian bases. Russian mobilisation is a response to an imaginary threat.”

The tensions involving economic relations in the region, especially regarding gas flow from Russia to both Ukraine and Europe, continue to increase. Germany is perhaps the best example of this, as described by Noah Barkin of Reuters: “Heavily dependent on Russian gas and closer to Moscow than any other leading western nation, Germany faces a major policy dilemma as the Ukraine crisis descends into a Cold War-style confrontation of tit-for-tat threats and ultimatums.”

There have also been heated debates between the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN and the Russian counterpart about how many troops are legally allowed enter another country, according to a number of UN treaties. At least 16,000 Russian troops have entered Crimea since February 26th, with the Ukrainian ambassador claiming that Russia has far exceeded the 11,000 troop limit. However, Russia’s ambassador says that treaties allow for 25,000 troops to enter another country.

It looks unlikely that Russia’s military will be pulling out of Crimea in the near future as long as Putin perceives his citizens at risk.