Colombo Telegraph

Self-Determination And The Russian People Of Ukraine

By Veluppillai Thangavelu

Veluppillai Thangavelu

Extending the Right of Self-determination to Russian People of Ukraine is the Best Solution

Close on the heels of Crimea‘s voluntary annexation with the Russian Federation after holding a referendum on the basis of the inherent right of people to self determination, Ukraine is in turmoil once again. The Russian people who dominate the south – eastern parts of Ukraine are demanding the same right of self determination to either join the Russian Federation or declare out right independence.

The Russian “separatists” have seized more than dozen towns and cities and even TV stations   since protests broke out in April this year.  They are most active in  Donestk, Lugansk, Slavyansk and Kharkov cities.  Ironically, the Russian separatists are adopting the same tactics used by pro-European protesters who occupied government buildings and ultimately forced President Yanukovich to flee the country. Since Yanukovich’s ouster, Kiev’s interim government has faced a wave of protests in the predominantly Russian-speaking east.

On April 16th the Ukrainian authorities began what they called an anti-terrorist operation. It ended in humiliation when two columns of armoured vehicles were stopped by local civilians backed by rebel militiamen. Faced with the choice of having to kill civilians and then probably getting killed themselves, the soldiers capitulated. One column was allowed to leave but the soldiers of the other lost their vehicles and arms, and some 40 soldiers were put on buses and sent back to Kiev the capital.

There is fear in Western capitals that Russia is going to repeat “The Crimean scenario” in south-eastern Ukraine as well.  In Crimea it is the Russian Special Forces stripped of identifying insignia who successfully took control of the military and civil installations in the entire peninsula.

The US is chiding Russia for alleged interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine, but it supports the Ukrainian nationalists who usurped power unconstitutionally in Kiev supports them with much more than friendly words and gestures.

According to US,   Russia is behind the turmoil that is rocking the eastern part of Ukraine.  The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov has declared that Russia is not going to repeat the Crimean scenario. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said  that Moscow does not want to invade eastern and southern Ukraine and denied the presence of any soldiers or spies there. In an interview to he said “I think what happened in Crimea turned out to be a big shock for Western partners. They can’t tolerate it. And they see the same scenario in south-eastern Ukraine.”  Faced with increasing broader sanctions by the US as well as EU, this may be an attempt by Russia to defuse the tense situation in eastern Ukraine.

According to Ryabkov, the Kiev authorities should give people from south-eastern Ukraine a chance to participate in shaping the future of their own country. “It’s a normal desire to decide your country’s future. It is the basis of any democratic process,” he added.

Ryabkov said he doesn’t consider the protesters in Slavyansk and Donetsk, in Donetsk Region, as separatists. “These are the people who insist on their rights, including the right to their language and access to information,” he said. Although the Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov has not exactly  spelt out the words “self determination” that is what he is implying. As in the case of Crimea, he wants Kiev to allow the Russian people who form the majority in the south – eastern parts of Ukraine the right of self determination to decide their political destiny.

Russia Defence Chief has assured US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel that Russia would not invade Ukraine. But Ukraine’s acting government thinks otherwise. It accuses Russia of orchestrating the unrest which Russia could use as a pretext to invade Ukraine.  Anything  seems possible these days. But, if the Russians do annex parts of Ukraine it will primarily because of political and military considerations and not because of any concerns about economy.

Country Profile

At this point in order to understand the stand off between Kiev and the Russian people of south – eastern Ukraine, it is helpful to look at   Ukraine’s country profile.

Region                                    –                    Eastern Europe
Surface area                            –                   603,500 sq.kms
Population in 2001                  –                   48.416   million
Ukrainians                                –               37.541 million (77.5%)
Russians                                  –                 8.344 million (17.2%)
Others (Moldavians/Romanians etc)  –        2.531
Capital city and population in 2011       –     Kiev (2.829 million)
United Nations membership date          –      24 October 1945
GDP: Gross Domestic Product (million current US$) 2011    –   US 165 billion
Per capita income   (2010)                  –         US 6,700
Official language                                  –        Ukrainian
Spoken                                               –        Ukrainian, Russian, others
Currency                                 –                   Hryvnia (UAH)

Coup d’état in Kiev

What triggered the current turmoil and political crisis? In November 2013, widespread protests broke out in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. These protests responded to President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to back out of a plan to sign a far-reaching agreement with the European Union (EU). The plan would have established a closer political and economic relationship with the EU and signalled Ukraine’s interest in joining the 28 nation bloc. Pro-EU Ukrainians took to the streets, hoping that Yanukovich would retract his decision. He did not and instead signed a $15 billion trade deal with Russia. Pro-EU demonstrators rejected Yanukovich’s decision to deepen Ukraine’s ties with Russia and continued their demonstrations. Moscow had controlled the territory of present-day Ukraine for centuries, up until 1991, and many protesters did not want to see hard-won gains, specifically those tied to political and economic independence, undone.

In November, 10123 President Yanukovich responded by using the police and the security forces to suppress the uprising. The security forces  used violence and intimidation tactics in their crackdowns against demonstrators. In January 2014, Yanukovich’s government implemented anti-democratic legislation restricting political dissent. The legislation banned the installation of tents and stages in public spaces, criminalized the use of masks and helmets at protests, and outlawed the slandering of government officials. Facing immense public pressure and criticism from the international community, the government repealed the laws just two weeks after they had been enacted. Anti-Yanukovich demonstrations and fears about Russia’s sway over Ukraine continued. In late February, the violence reached an all-time high with rising death tolls among protesters and the police. Under growing pressure, Yanukovich fled Kiev and the parliament voted to oust him from government.  This has brought the importance of the Ukraine to the center stage of the world’s political scene.

Russia accused USA and Germany of   financing and directing the coup d’état and installing a pro-Western puppet regime.  Many independent observers tend to agree with Russia.

The pro-EU protests quickly came to be called the Euromaidan movement. The protesters were mainly from Kiev and western Ukraine and include, among others students, workers, retirees, entrepreneurs, and journalists. These protesters’ demands extend far beyond establishing a stronger partnership with the EU and center around human rights, freedom and democracy. Other groups, such as right-wing neo – Nazi Right Sector have carried out their own anti-Yanukovich demonstrations. Russia has accused the Right Sector nationalists as fascists and reactionaries. According to Russia, the  Right Sector  still has a stranglehold on the interim government installed after the fall of Yanukovich.  It  has labelled pro-EU Ukrainian demonstrators as “extremists” and condemned these protesters for staging a constitution coup d’état to oust  President Yanukovich.

Which Way? EU or Russia?

There is no unanimity whether  Ukraine should  follow a European path or establish closer ties with Russia.  Following the ouster of Yanukocich tens of thousands     in  Ukraine  have participated in rallies that not only signal their support for Yanukovich, but also a preference for continued strong ties with Russia. Many pro-Yanukovich demonstrators are from the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine—regions that are the base of Yanukovich’s support, the location of major industries, and where Russian language  is more commonly spoken. Most pro-Yanukovich protesters reject the idea of a far-reaching partnership with the EU, fearing that such an agreement would do more harm than good to the Ukrainian economy and the people.

Yanukovich’s decision to break off an agreement with the EU took  many European leaders  by surprise. Why did Yanukovich back out of a deal that was five years in the making? EU members have identified Russia as  the culprit and  criticized Russia for exerting economic and political pressure on  Ukraine and for meddling in Ukraine’s  internal affairs.

Officially, Russia claims  that it has a policy of non-intervention in Ukrainian politics. That it has no plans to invade Ukraine. However, Russia is interested in keeping Ukraine within its sphere of influence for security reasons.  Russia’s natural gas pipelines cuts across Ukraine and Ukraine itself is a major market for Russian gas. Nearly 25% of the European Union’s natural gas comes from Russia and 80% of that gas passes through the Ukraine. Russia supplied gas to Ukraine at less than the market price, but this concession has since been withdrawn. It has also withdrawn the offer of US15 billion financial aid to Ukraine to tide over financial collapse.

Ukraine was once a hub for the Soviet Union’s most advanced nuclear missiles and military technology. A former secret nuclear missile base in Ukraine has been turned into a museum.

Ukraine   also possesses a formidable military -industrial complex. If the Ukraine were to join the European Union and perhaps even NATO, someday, this would constitute a major national security threat to the Russia. In which event the Cuban Missile Crisis, in reverse, will look tame by comparison.

The turmoil in Ukraine is part of a wider strategic battle between the West and Russia to control Ukraine with its 48 million people and natural resources. Ukraine is the largest country in Europe next to Russia. Three former states Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have joined NATO and after the annexation of Crimea NATO is holding joint exercises with Azerbaijan, Armenia and Moldova.  The US has responded to the pleas from Eastern Europe by reinforcing NATO air force and ground troops in the Baltic countries. US has also dispatched aircraft to Poland and Canada 6 fighter jets to NATO.

Ukraine was the economic hub of the former Soviet Union and its atomic arsenals.  Politically, Russia does not want Ukraine to form stronger ties with the EU. Russia  despite all the widening  sanctions imposed  by US, Canada and EU doesn’t want to break relations with either the EU, or the US. However, war of words has escalated between Russia and US.   US Secretary of State Kerry blasted Sergei Lavrov for being “a big, fat, un-reset-button liar.”

Geneva Agreement

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, his acting Ukrainian counterpart, Andriy Deshchytsia, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and diplomats  held  emergency talks  that lasted several hours in Geneva  on April 17th  to “de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine.” An   Agreement was reached by Russia, US, EU, Ukraine  and a  joint statement was  issued  saying  all sides have agreed to  take steps to reduce  tensions and ensuring the security of all Ukrainians. The Agreement further called for all illegal armed groups to be disarmed, all illegally seized buildings to be returned to their legitimate owners and all occupied public spaces to be vacated. It promised amnesty for protesters who leave buildings and give up their weapons, apart from those convicted of capital crimes, adding that it also urges a halt to violence in Ukraine and condemns all extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism, in the country.

But, the hopes that the agreement generated on April 17th would lead to an early resolution of the Ukrainian crisis have been swiftly dashed. The agreement remains on paper only.  Denis Pushilin, the chairman of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk, speaking in the region’s occupied administration building, said that Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister “did not sign for us”.

Mr. Pushilin rejected the deal made on their behalf by Russia, saying that the buildings now under the control of his Donetsk Republic would only be vacated after all the buildings occupied in Kiev had been vacated. By this he meant that the new Ukrainian government was illegal and hence it had to disband first, before orders would go out for the same to happen in the Donetsk and the rest of the Donbas region, where anti-government rebels have seized buildings and put up checkpoints.

Meanwhile, both US and Russia resumed their war of words each accusing the other of breaching the terms of the agreement that is reminiscent of the cold war era.

According to Russian Deputy FM, the Kiev authorities and their “puppeteers in Washington and some European capitals” aren’t fulfilling the conditions of the April-17 Geneva agreement. “They [Kiev and the West] claim that we [Russia] aren’t complying with the agreements but they haven’t shown any evidence that they are fulfilling them,” he said. He gave a reminder that the main issue surrounding these agreements is the disarmament of the Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) a neo Nazi  group and freeing seized streets and squares across Ukraine.


Even before the current turmoil broke out Ukraine’s economy was in bad shape. It has recorded the lowest GDP growth rate among the former Seattleite countries of Soviet Union. The GDP grew just under 50% between 1992 -2013 compared to Armenia which recorded 400% growth during the same period.  After the crisis broke out Ukraine’s economy has taken a hammering. Until mid-January its currency, the hryvnia, was fixed at 8:1 with the dollar; it now trades at about 10:1. Unemployment rate remains at 9% of the population. Foreign Reserves have decreased. The government has recently issued short-term debt at interest rates as high as 15%; this year its bonds have done about as badly as Venezuela’s. Many analysts are worried that the country will soon default on its debt.

The economic turmoil reflects recent political instability. But, Ukraine’s economic problems were long in the making. Dubious economic policy, distaste for reform and endemic corruption have brought the country to its knees. . After the crisis Russia has removed all subsidies extended to Ukraine over purchase of gas. It has threatened to cut off supplies if Ukraine fails to settle mounting bills. A move that would only deepen the financial burden on ordinary people. To off set  losses,  Ukraine has increased the retail gas prices by 50%.  This year alone Ukraine needs to find about $25 billion to finance its large current-account deficit and to meet foreign creditors, including Russia. But the foreign-exchange reserves remain roughly at US$12 billion.

Future of Ukraine? 

What is in store for Ukraine in the future?  Is it possible Russia will still take over parts of south-eastern Ukraine by force? Unfortunately yes: almost anything seems possible these days.  Who dreamt Russia will annex Crimea without firing a shot?  Russia has valid reasons to annex parts of Ukraine for concern over political and military considerations.

Like in Crimea, Russia can invoke the principle of self – determination for the Russian people living in Ukraine.  All peoples have the right to self-determination by virtue of   possessing a well defined historical territory, who share a common language and a common collective and national consciousness. Russian people living in Ukraine fit this definition.

In fact, the application of the principle of peoples right to self-determination saw many countries becoming free including Ukraine. All the 15 satellite states of Soviet Union became independent after the demise of the USSR in 1991. The same with former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The 5 federal states became free on the disintegration of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Recently East Timor, South Sudan, and Kosovo became independent under the same principle of right to self-determination. In fact 23 countries became independent taking the total UN member countries to a record total of 193 at present.

The world has become stronger not weaker after all these countries emerged as free countries.  The principle of right of self determination should be applied to the Kurdish people, Tibetans, Kashmiris, Libyans and Eelam Thamils and other national minorities fighting for the right of self-determination.

Extending   the right of  self-determination to Russian  people of Ukraine who constitute 17.2% of the population  is the best solution to end the crisis! It will bring  peace and prosperity to both  Ukrainians and Russian people. It need not necessarily out right independence, it could be an autonomous state within a federal Ukraine.

A parrot will fly away even if you lock it up in a cage made out of pure gold and feed it with tasty fruits and vegetables.

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