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A pro-Russian spiral

The pro-Russian activity in Ukraine was on the rise years before the annexation of Crimea. Every new turn allowed a test of new mechanisms of separatism and new arguments to justify a violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. As a result, all the events which took the international community by surprise in 2014 were nothing new. They were being tested earlier.

February 5, 2018 - Yury Lobunov - Stories and ideas

“There has never been and there will never be such a country as Ukraine in the history of mankind”, said a representative of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. The opinion was expressed 12 years ago, on December 26th 2005.

On more than one occasion, Ukraine has been at risk of losing Crimea and what is today the self-proclaimed the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics. Support for the pro-Russian movement, however, never seemed to be high enough despite rhetoric of pro-Russian groups repeating itself word for word every year from decade to decade.

A spike in separatist sentiments, preceding the events of 2014, came in 2008. “Putin threatened to annex Crimea and eastern Ukraine if Ukraine joins NATO”, Russian media reported. The Russian defence ministry confirmed its readiness to use military force against the neighbouring country.  The head of Russia’s Committee on the CIS Connections and Cooperation with Compatriots, Alexey Ostrovsky (the present-day governor of the Smolensk region), stated at that time: “Russia can raise the question to which state Crimea belongs. The Russian Federation has legal reasons to reconsider the agreements made by Khrushchev.”

Moreover, in 2008, Gleb Pavlovsky’s Russian journal published three scenarios of an invasion of Ukraine. The first one was put to test six years later. “Russia is conducting a landing operation of marines, taking over the key elements of Crimea’s infrastructure: airfields, ports, roads … Ukrainian units in Crimea are not subject to direct attack, unless they show resistance. Due to the hesitation of Kyiv officials any serious resistance is unlikely,” the article read. “If Russia does not withdraw its forces from Crimea due to political reasons, a Crimean Republic’s independence referendum will take place and subsequently – probably in several years – there is a high possibility of Crimea forming a union with, or even joining, Russia.”

The second scenario – the annexation of “Novorossiya” failed. The third, and the most dramatic – a return of Kyiv, “the mother of all Russian cities”, to Russia – never materialised.  

In Ukraine, pro-Russian moods have also appeared over the years since the fall of the Soviet Union. Some people in Crimea spoke about “rebuilding political unity of peoples of historical Russia”. The former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov was allegedly behind much of the pro-Russian activity. Two years earlier, in 2006, one of the leaders of the Crimean separatists, Svyatoslav Kompanets, who had argued that Russia’s financial support flowing into the peninsula was insufficient, did not hide the fact that Russia provided aid to its compatriots abroad: “Considering the huge investments from Russia, the departments of RCC (Russian Community of Crimea) in Crimea’s regions turned into get-togethers for those who are over 60 years old…All our attempts to turn these communities into strongholds of peaceful Russian opposition ended in failure,” he complained. “The Coordination Council patronised by the General Consulate of Russia in Simferopol will become the new mass organisation of Russian compatriots.”  

In February 2009 when the crisis passed, pro-Russian groups continued their activism. Advocates of the “Republic of Donetsk”, structured as a non-governmental organisation, claimed that the territory of Donbas and Kherson region is now an “independent and sovereign Russian federal state”.  The temperature in Crimea also continued to rise: the republican committee of the Progressive and Socialist party headed by Natalia Vitrenko came up with an idea of a referendum on separating Crimea from Ukraine and joining Russia. The idea was supported by the party’s regional committees in Odesa, Donetsk, Nikolaev and Luhansk.

Decisive turn

 The 2008 tensions only increased the appetites for grabbing part of the Ukrainian territory. The methods had been created and tested in 2004.

The theory of a “non-existing Ukraine” was formulated back in 2004. At that time, the Luhansk Regional Council decided on the formation of an Autonomous South-Eastern Ukrainian Republic. They also asked that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, acknowledge the autonomy of the newly formed entity. The All-Ukrainian Congress of the local authorities that took place in Severodonetsk (Luhansk region) on November 28th 2004 decided to hold a referendum on forming the South-Eastern Republic on December 12th. In his speech, the chairman of the Donetsk regional council, Boris Kolesnikov, used the same rhetoric as the founders of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in 2014.

“There’s an emergency in Ukraine today. The opposition leaders in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (the parliament) violated the law and the Constitution. The situation is getting out of control,” Kolesnikov said. “Till the end, we hoped for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But it is clear that it is no longer possible. We are obliged to protect the interests of our voters. If they don’t give us the right to protect our choice, we are ready to go for the last resort.”

“We suggest forming a new South-Eastern Ukrainian state in the form of a federal republic. The capital of the new state will be Kharkov, and thus, the first capital of the independent Ukrainian republic will be restored,” Kolesnikov continued.

On the same day the Donetsk Regional Council decided to hold a referendum on forming the Donetsk Republic. Later on, the Donetsk Regional Council chose the date of the referendum –January 9th 2005.

The pro-Russian turn in Ukraine foretold the continuation of Russia’s meddling in Ukrainian politics. Towards the end of 2004, Russian journalist Leonid Radzikhovsky predicted the consequences of Russian policy towards the neighbouring state with mathematical precision. “The price to pay for Donbas, Crimea, Odesa and Luhansk may not be a demagogical war in the newspapers or among the political scientists but the next real cold war against the western world, Europe and the US,” he wrote.

“Secondly, at our western border there will be a Ukrainian state, or what has remained of it, which will truly hate us as hard as one can hate those who have destroyed your previous state.”

The events of 2004 shook Ukraine even harder. In 2005 the heads of the “Hero Cities Union” –made up of the Russian community of Sevastopol, the Sevastopol Cossack Union, the Russian people’s town meeting of Simferopol, the Russian Crimean Movement, the Yalta Voters’ Club, the All Crimean Voters’ Movement “For the republic of Crimea” and the organisation “Patriotic Initiative” – asked Vladimir Putin, the Federation Council and the State Duma to acknowledge “the fact of the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by Ukraine and begin the process of returning these territories to Russia”. It called the state to show the international community any “internationally standardised legal documents which grant Ukraine sovereignty over Crimea and Sevastopol”. The pro-Russian social activists further asked that “in case such documents cannot be provided, to acknowledge the fact of the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by Ukraine and return these territories to Russia.”

In 2006 during a meeting in Crimea, social activists of the People’s Front Sevastopol-Crimea-Russia, blamed Russia for “double treachery”. It was not the first time they made such an accusation, as their voiced disappointment with Russian policies on earlier occasions. In 1995 Russia did not support the elected president of the Crimean Republic Yuri Meshkov’s call for the return of Crimea. Later, in 1999 Russia ratified a Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership with Ukraine, which acknowledged the former USSR administrative borders between the two republics as state borders, in line with the theory of the “fraternal Ukrainian nation”. Back then, the activists raised the question about the territorial allegiance of Crimea and Sevastopol.

Turning points

Pro-Russian activity has oscillated throughout the history of independent Ukraine. The growing desire of Crimea to join Russia was voiced even before the “treachery” of 1994. Moreover the desire was legally expressed: the Sevastopol City Council decided to acknowledge its “Russian legal status”.

A year before, Crimean activists held a rally in favour of “economic separatism”. The Crimean parliament decided to come up with its own tax and customs system, create a national bank and join the rouble currency. Between the perceived “treacheries”, in 1997, the first United Congress of Russian Communities in Crimea decided on “taking a constitutional way to making Crimea a part of Russia again and fulfilling the decisions of the State Duma and the Federal Council of the Russian Federation about the Russian status of Sevastopol”. During this meeting, the Russian representatives openly encouraged separatist sentiments. A State Duma Deputy Sergey Baburin denied Ukraine’s right to Crimea: “There are decisions of the representative bodies of Russia not to shift the sovereignty over Crimea and Sevastopol to anyone else.”

Next turning point?

The pro-Russian activity within Ukraine’s borders began expanding. Every new turn allowed a test of new mechanisms of separatism and new arguments to justify a violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. As a result, all the events which took the international community by surprise in 2014 were nothing new. They were being tested earlier.

Analysing the development of Crimean separatism I deliberately omit the resistance of the Ukrainian state, since all these efforts have largely failed. In other words, the Ukrainian society, the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian authorities and the Ukrainian elite did not notice, ignored or insufficiently opposed pro-Russian activity. It is likely that such a softball position was encouraged by the theatrical and ridiculous image of pro-Russian activism. It was largely viewed as being on the margins or just cries of the freaks in the streets. The illegal decisions of municipal authorities and the absurd requests and claims of social activists did not seem to threaten the status quo.

Today’s pro-Russian activity in Europe seems to be equally ridiculous. It seems unlikely that it could cause any serious problems and is often not taken very serious. Innocent pranks by internet trolls, tricks by marginal groups and ambiguous relations of individual parties in the West with the Kremlin have not raised much concern, similar to the long-term, pro-Russian activism which had not sparked any reactions in Ukraine before the annexation of Crimea. This means that nothings could stand in the way of a pro-Russian spiral in Europe. The only thing different is the scale and location.

Yury Lobunov is a journalist and analyst at Gulf State Analytics.

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