Over the past few weeks, trouble has been brewing in Ukraine.
Protests began in November last year, because many Ukrainians were unhappy that then-President Viktor Yanukovich decided to suspend signing of the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement. The Agreement would have brought Ukraine closer to the European Union. EU integration has brought many economic opportunities and other benefits to citizens of new members in recent years. Russia has spent most of the post-Cold War period gaining influence in Eastern European countries. The rise of a pro-EU government in Ukraine would be a political blow for Moscow – a blow which Russia is apparently ready to stop with force.
In January, protests escalated into riots. Ukrainian police were given permission to use force against protesters. The first death of a protestor occurred on January 21. Several prominent activists were attacked by police in the next days, some fatally. Throughout this crisis, Yanukovich met several times with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Yanukovich was impeached on Feb. 22 and fled to Russia, where he stated on Feb. 28 that he is still the rightful leader of Ukraine. The Prime Minister of Crimea, a semi-autonomous peninsula on the Black Sea, stated that he will follow the decisions of Yanukovich. Vladimir Putin successfully petitioned the Russian Duma for the right to use force in Ukraine on March 1.
The next day, Russian troops occupied the Crimea peninsula under the pretext that the Crimea peninsula is home to a large population of ethnic Russians – coincidentally, the Crimea is also home to Russia’s only Black Sea naval base. The Russian base at Sevastopol is leased from Ukraine, and a pro-EU policy would likely mean the end of that lease. Protests against the new pro-EU government also began in eastern Ukrainian cities such as Donetsk and Kharkiv. On March 3, Ukrainian troops were supposedly ordered to leave bases in the Crimea or face assault by the Russian military, though Russian authorities deny making such threats. Newly elected Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has called Russian intervention a “declaration of war.”
Fears are growing in Europe that the conflict may expand to Eastern Ukraine in a full-scale invasion. Polish tank divisions have been mobilized near the Poland-Ukraine border. Both Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and her Polish counterpart Bronislaw Komorowski have called upon NATO article 4, which states “[NATO members] will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of [them] is threatened.”
I spoke with my uncle, Tomasz Kraj, a professor at the Pontifical University
of John Paul II in Krakow, Poland.
“It is possible to stop Russia. We can harm them economically. We can stop buying resources from them.” Speaking about how he believes things may pan out, he said “A war may arise from this. A lot will depend on America. Russia does not react to the soft. Russia needs to be dealt with sharply, decisively, and with consequences. It needs to feel pain.”
If Russia was truly concerned about the wellbeing of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, Putin would be calling for a referendum to be held in each province on whether that province should stay a part of Ukraine. However, expecting anything decent from a former KGB member with his track record is too much to ask for. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, he is “in another world.”
I feel that Western European countries must act more swiftly. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Kiev on Monday. But all the US has done so far is cancel attendance at the G8 summit scheduled to be held in Sochi. The UK, France, and other EU members have stated that they will not be considering sanctions against Russia at this time. These statements are a bitter disappointment. By the time they act, it may be too late. Kraj said in our conversation that “many people here compare this to the situation before World War II.” Let us hope it will not end that way.