Anna Biel, Ph.D., History Instructor at FMCC, graduated from the Orel State University, Russia, and SUNY Albany
As the recent events in Ukraine demonstrated, the age of revolutions is far from over. On February 22, 2014, a revolution in Ukraine ousted its pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich and brought to power his opponents. Mass protests began in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in November 2013, sparked by Yanukovich’s last minute (and Russian-prompted) refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU), which could have paved the way for Ukraine’s EU membership in the distant future.
On February 25, 2014, the newly established government of Ukraine revoked the multicultural language law, depriving Russian and other minority languages of their previously held status of “regional languages” and banning their use in courts, schools, and other government institutions.
In response to these developments, on March 3, the Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized the deployment of the Russian forces in the Ukrainian autonomous republic of Crimea, which boasts the Russian-speaking majority, ostensibly, to “defend the Russian population.” Putin said to have responded to the pleas for military help from Yanukovich, the man the Russian government still regards as Ukraine’s legitimate president. Within twenty-four hours, the Russian troops, wearing unmarked uniforms, occupied key posts across the Crimean peninsula, while the Russian naval forces surrounded Ukrainian bases and ships.
While the EU and the United States condemned Russia’s invasion of Crimea as an “act of aggression” and a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, European countries remain divided over possible sanctions against Russia, partially, because of commercial interdependence of Russia and Europe. The US announced that it would not participate in a G8 summit scheduled in Sochi, Russia, in June 2014, unless Russia reversed its course on Ukraine.
Ukraine occupies a unique geopolitical position in Eastern Europe as a country where the West and the East converge. Whereas the Western part of Ukraine, formerly known as Galicia, has cultural, linguistic, and religious ties to Poland, the eastern part of Ukraine has deep historical, linguistic, and religious affinities with Russia. The capital of Ukraine, Kyiv (Russian: Kiev), was the center of the first Russian civilization, the Kievan Rus, which lasted from the 9th to the 13th century. With the rise of Moscow as the center of a new, Muscovite, state, the position of Ukraine became that of “the Ukraine,” meaning a “borderland” in Russian. Russian tsars and, later, Soviet leadership forcibly implemented the policy of Russification in the Ukraine, aimed at the eradication of the Ukrainian language and traditional Ukrainian culture and the introduction of Russian as the official language in the region. Forced into the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR) in 1922, the Ukraine received the Crimean peninsula as a gift from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the establishment of an independent Ukraine (note the absence of “the” in its name). Crimea received a new status of an autonomous republic within the sovereign Ukrainian state.
A series of military agreements between Russia and Ukraine (1997 and 2010) allowed Russia to base its Black Fleet in the naval port of Sevastopol in Crimea and keep it there until 2047, in exchange for Russia’s investment in Ukraine’s social and economic development and its continued export of natural gas to Ukraine at the 30 percent discount (an estimated $40 billion savings for the nearly bankrupt country).
On March 6, the Crimean parliament voted in favor of joining Russia. The referendum held in Crimea on March 16 showed the overwhelming support of its voters (97 percent) for separation from Ukraine. Viewing the referendum as illegal, the EU and the United States are to impose financial sanctions against the top Russian officials involved in the Crimean crisis. The EU will also temporarily remove customs duties on Ukrainian imports to the EU.