Saturday, 8 March 2014

Russia: the Ukrainian February 21st agreement should stand

In an insighful piece in last Sunday's Observer, Dmitri Trenin drew attention to the importance, from Moscow's perspective, of the aborted 21st February agreement between ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich and the Ukrainian opposition:
The agreement, signed on 21 February, was a delayed capitulation by Yanukovych – who had been seen triumphant only a couple of days earlier. An even bigger surprise was the rejection of these capitulation terms by the radicals, and the opposition supporting Yanukovych's immediate resignation. Finally, the German, Polish and French governments, who had just witnessed the Kiev accord, raised no objection to the just-signed agreement being scrapped within hours.
Russia, whose representative had been invited to witness the signing of the 21 February document, but who wisely refused to co-sign it, was incensed. What Moscow saw on 21-22 February was a coup d'état in Kiev. This development led to a fundamental reassessment of Russian policy in Ukraine, and vis-à-vis the West.
In a few blog posts I have drawn attention to this element, but in various interactions have been accused of placing too much importance on it.

This afternoon (Washington time) the Russian Foreign Ministry carried a series of tweets from Russian Foreign Minister Dmitri Lavrov.  One of them in particular grabbed my attention:

It seems clear to me that Russia is emphasizing adherence to this agreement (though I imagine that Yanukovich will not feature and will be replaced by a different representative of his Party of the Regions) as the basis for a settlement in Ukraine, on the basis of the formation of a national unity government.  This is a point that Henry Kissinger emphasized in his well-received op-ed in the Washington Post, about which I blogged here.

Lavrov's comments draw attention to two important elements in this crisis that need to be emphasized, and have been forgotten by the Western media whose focus, quite understandably, has been on the Russian military's seizure of the Crimean peninsula.

The first is that Russia feels betrayed by the failure of Europe to stand over the agreement, and in doing so ignored what Moscow sees as legitimate Russian interests in Ukraine.

The second is that Ukraine is a divided country still in search of a unifying national identity 23 years after its unexpected gift of independence.  While pro-Russian sentiment existed in the east and south of the country, there are few Russian-speaking Ukrainians who actually want to become part of the Russian Federation, as this poll in January that was reported on in the Washington Post illustrates:

In the east and south of Ukraine, where Yanukovich and his Party of the Regions' support was strongest, the pro-Moscow leanings of the Ukrainians there (majority Russian-speaking) stem in a large part from feeling Soviet, rather than Russian.  It is unlikely that Russian violation of Ukrainian sovereignty has made them more likely to feel that Russia is their homeland.

And that is the big unknown, that has been overlooked in a simplistic "pro-Russia"/"pro-Ukraine" Manichean binary.  National identity is complex and fluid.  Given that Yanukovich is now out of the picture, who now speaks for this half of Ukraine, and what exactly is it that they would want, if a national unity government were formed or the 21st February agreement upheld?

Nobody really knows, and what's worse is that few in the West are even asking the question.

-->UPDATE: Well, this piece in the NYT shows that I was wrong, and some are indeed asking the question, though the I'd like to see more reporting from other outlets for confirmation.

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