By Joe Mellor, Deputy Editor
As Viktor Yanukovych became the world’s most wanted man, the US declares Ukraine is “under new management.” But could this inflammatory language further damage relations with a wounded Russia?
Ukraine’s interim President Olexander Turchynov has warned of the dangers of separatism following the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych. Many in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions oppose his overthrow and the installation of a more European-leaning interim administration.
Yanukovych, like recently unseated Egyptian leader, Mohamed Morsi, was democratically elected, but ousted as a result of his people sacrificing their lives in the central squares of the respective nation’s capitals. Regardless of the poor leadership of the two ex-PMs, Morsi’s power was taken illegally and Yanukovych’s deposition was at the very least highly irregular.
This has led to Russia accusing the west of sponsoring a takeover of the country by “terrorists” and “extremists”, and clashing with Washington over plans for early elections in May. The blistering language from Ukraine’s neighbour and former overlord collided with western attempts to keep the Russians onside for the looming challenge of establishing an inclusive government to shore up an economy in freefall.
Russia has a relatively small ethnic minority based around the semi-autonomous Crimea region and Far East of the country. However, Ukraine is still viewed as Russian territory by officials and large sections of the Russian public.
Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev’s statement that interim authorities in Kiev had conducted an “armed mutiny” should not come as a surprise. It fits well with the Kremlin’s policy of playing on Russians’ nostalgia over the Soviet past and treating the West as bent on undermining the new, successful and powerful Russia.
The concern is that a similar situation to the Georgian crisis in 2008 might arise, when Russian troops flooded into the small state and to this day remain in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Georgia now considers Russian-occupied territories.
However, Ukraine isn’t Georgia, it is the second largest country in Europe (after Russia) with a fairly robust military. Russia couldn’t ride roughshod across Ukraine like it did to Georgia six years ago.
What Ukraine needs is stability as soon as possible. With each passing day this doesn’t happen, military intervention from Russia becomes more likely.
To achieve this Ukraine needs money, fast, as the Government is effectively bankrupt. In fact the protests in Kiev were sparked by Yanukovych’s shelving of an agreement with the EU in November and turning instead for a $15 billion bailout loan from Russia. Yanukovych turned to the east, when his country decided to lurch west, leading to the current crisis.
This financial support was extended without any strings attached, with the dual purpose of helping Ukraine avoid a likely default and building goodwill for closer economic relations in the future. However, so far Russian has provided only $3 billion, freezing further disbursements pending the outcome of the ongoing political crisis.
Now Ukraine will need to seek substantial funds from the IMF, who have previously offered the troubled country funds. Following the 2008 world economic crisis, the IMF twice offered Ukraine loan packages, but each time it stopped issuing the money after Ukraine refused to fulfil policy requirements.
With Ukraine out of the zone of Moscow’s influence, President Putin’s idea of a customs union which would bring the former Soviet republic under Russia’s leadership becomes a distant and doubtful dream.
Defending the rights of Russians in Ukraine is another political concept used by Moscow to promote its geo-strategic interests. The new authorities in Kiev will have to make sure that Ukraine’s Russians do not feel excluded from the political process.
If ethnic Russians are supressed under the new administration and the west, especially the US, ramps up its anti-Russian rhetoric, expect Russia to react like a wounded animal. Whether this would be direct military action or causing political instability in the ethnic Russian areas remains to be seen, but a response would be expected by Russia and demanded by nationalistic sentiments in the nation.