As the crisis in Ukraine continues to unfold and policymakers struggle to restore a modicum of political stability to the region, concern is growing as to when the tit-for-tat escalation between Russia and the West will subside. Although there remain many avenues short of violence available for all parties to pursue at this stage, concern is nonetheless growing, and amidst widespread calls for de-escalation there is no consensus about how this could be achieved. In order to gain an understanding of how tensions could be abated, it is necessary to abandon the notion that the Russian government is entirely at fault.
The Ukrainian population will continue to pay the biggest price in this conflict, but the two most influential actors are Russia and the US-led group of Western allies. Both of these interlocutors can be assigned some significant degree of blame for the emergence of this current predicament and both can be accused of overplaying their hands in a game of realpolitik.
For its part, Russia was quite aggressive in preventing Ukraine from deepening its European ties. While Russia and many Ukrainians held understandable objections to some aspects of the EU trade deal, by using Ukraine’s precarious economic condition to stymie Ukrainian-EU ties, Russia likely exacerbated the already deep and volatile divisions within the country.
Meanwhile, Western countries lent visible support to anti-Yanukovich protestors, quickly condemned the Yanukovich government’s handling of protests that contained significant violent elements, and lent immediate legitimacy to a government led by a President not elected to his office who assumed power once Yanukovich had effectively been deposed.
While it is unreasonable to expect western countries to condemn pro-western demonstrators, even when some of them use violent tactics, their active encouragement of these protests and lack of emphasis on democratic procedures has conveyed a message to Russia. Whatever legal and constitutional ambiguities about the removal of Yanukovich exist, for all intents and purposes he was abruptly deposed through a violent struggle in the capital. This sent a clear message to Russia that “playing by the rules” was superseded by the severity of the situation. Understood as a response to an already escalated proxy struggle, the actions of the Russian government in Crimea are entirely explicable and have not necessarily been founded upon foolhardy imperialism or paranoia about Western influence.
It is also worth noting the political actors in Ukraine and their role in bringing about this now globally significant crisis. The Yanukovich government has been widely accused of corruption that could only have worsened the already existing bitterness many Ukrainians felt toward it. Additionally, although it has been noted that many anti-Yanukovich protestors were violent, the well-documented deaths of unarmed protestors are inexcusable, and while blame may lie primarily with authorities on the ground, the government’s inability to restrain its law enforcement authorities amidst such immense political sensitivities surely exacerbated the situation.
Finally, the anti-Yanukovich leadership that has now assumed power in Kiev wasted little time in undermining what little potential there was for a quick return to stability. It is important to remember that this government’s executive leadership gained power and replaced a President that, despite his contentious subsequent behaviour, was legitimately elected in a democratic process that gave all sections of Ukraine the opportunity to cast a vote.
By unseating Yanukovich and replacing him, the new authorities have effectively annulled the Presidential votes of millions of Ukrainians, albeit without unseating eastern and southern parliamentarians. Even if it is accepted that Yanukovich effectively destroyed his own democratic legitimacy, and questions about the legality of the transition are dismissed, one could be forgiven for expecting those now governing to display some restraint before the entire government receives a clear electoral mandate.
Instead, they began legislating at a furious pace. This flurry of lawmaking included an apparently wilfully incendiary decision to eliminate the Russian language’s official status in the country. To his credit, the acting President has delayed signing this bill into law. Nevertheless, many in the east and south of the country have been left to wonder why the leadership in Kiev holds the authority to rule over them with no electoral mandate.
Concerns about the new government have been compounded by the far-right elements within it. For example, the current head of the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council is a man responsible for founding the “fascist” party that evolved into the far-right Svoboda Party represented in parliament. The unrelieved alienation of millions of Ukrainians throughout the ethnically and linguistically Russian sections of the country has extended a degree of credence to Russia’s spurious irredentist claims.
There is more than one political actor to blame for the current tensions in Ukraine, and a solution to this crisis will not be found in any attempt to intimidate Russia into surrendering its influence over this strategically vital country. If the role of all parties in sparking this crisis remains unrecognized, the desires of both Russia and the US-led West to establish their influence over the region could render this situation even more combustible.