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Russia's fleet in Crimea: what's the real deal?

President Yanukovich’s unexpected extension of the lease on Russia’s fleet in Crimea has Ukraine in an uproar. No one knows the full extent of that agreement. It was clearly not just about cheap Russian gas

“Have you heard a volcano has erupted in Crimea? It has this unpronounceable name - Ey-a-won’t-let-you-keep-the-fleet-here?” I said to my colleague, hoping to cheer him up. He continued: “yes, the Constitutional Court has already ordered the eruption to stop”. This exchange sums up what’s been going on in Ukraine since the lease allowing Russia’s fleet to remain in Crimea was extended on 21 April. Those who voted President Yanukovich into office are insisting that the fuss will die down by the beginning of May, while supporters of the opposition leader Yulia Timoshenko are preparing to fight to the bitter end to get Viktor Yanukovich impeached.

Ukraine suddenly finds itself in the throes of a serious political battle. Everyone, from schoolchildren to pensioners, is arguing about whether or not President Yanukovich was right to give the Russian navy in Crimea permission to stay until 2042, with the right to extend it until 2047.

President Viktor Yanukovich's decision to extend Russia's lease of Black Sea port Sevastopol - potentially until 2047 - caused dramatic scenes in Ukraine's upper house.

People like the head of the “Russian bloc” Gennady Basov immediately welcomed it as a “symbolic act”, the first move towards returning both Crimea and the entire Ukraine to Russia, where they belong.

A number of Oblast (regional) councils in western Ukraine, including the Lviv and Ternopol Oblasts, have already called for Yanukovich to be impeached for violating the constitution, which states that it is categorically prohibited to base foreign troops on Ukrainian territory.  The constitutional court, of course, could have insisted on this. Yanukovich’s allies have already announced that if it were to do so, the president would obey the law.

But the unique twist to this situation is that only the President, the Prime Minister or a majority of the parliament have the right to make these requests to those who interpret the constitution. So a majority of judges rejected the submission to the Constitutional court made by ex-president Viktor Yushchenko and 50 people’s deputies. And the leader of the Party of the Regions in parliament, Alexander Yefremov, already rushed out an announcement to the effect that:“Neither the President, the government, or the Party of the Regions in the Supreme Rada will ask the Constitutional Court to consider the validity of the conditions of the agreement signed by the presidents of Ukraine and Russia”.

Why is this? Those who welcome the agreement can cite plenty of arguments in favor of it. Firstly, the reduced gas price that Russia has offered in exchange for extending the lease will help Ukraine out of its energy crisis, without needing to raise the price of gas to consumers. In Sevastopol, the fleet also provides 15,000 jobs for Ukrainian citizens, and is crucial for the city infrastructure, and so on. Mikhail Nenashev, deputy of the Russian State Duma, and head of the movement to support for the fleet, has even agreed that their Black Sea fleet will rescue Ukrainian sailors from Somali pirates. “We know how many of our brothers from Ukraine are taken prisoner in Somalia. So a strong Black Sea fleet is useful. It brings practical help to the citizens of Ukraine and Russia,” he announced.

So what really happened? According to the actual text of the agreement of the lease, it ought only to have been extended in 2016. The decision which has just been taken relates to a date when neither Yanukovich nor his successor can be sure that they will be in power. It is an empty declaration. But in return for it, we have been given significant discounts on gas prices. This is prompting political analysts to conclude that what we have been told is only the tip of the iceberg of the real agreement between Yanukovich and Medvedev (and Putin, who urgently flew to Ukraine).

 


The Russian Sevastopol fleet provides 15 000 Ukrainian jobs (cc) Argenburg

Exactly six months ago, the press-secretary of Ukraine’s Security Service, Vladimir Gorbulin, announced in his article in “Zerkalo Nedeli” that the “strategic goal of the Russian Federation’s foreign policy is to establish a ‘protectorate’ over Ukraine with the possible subsequent division of the country. This virtually amounts to an ultimatum: the preservation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity depends on its acceptance of a ‘special relationship’ with the Russian Federation, and hence to a Russian protectorate over a weak Ukraine”. Gorbulin believes that the Kremlin does not yet have a detailed plan for achieving this goal, and that Russia is prepared to respond to the situation opportunistically: “Moscow’s actions will be determined by the course of the situation, and above all by the reaction of Ukraine”.

The details of this prediction are as follows: according to Gorbulin and his younger colleague Alexander Litvinenko, the protectorate over Ukraine is not the final foreign policy goal of the Russian Federation, but is only seen as a transitional stage for the further territorial division of Ukraine into three parts, based on the model published  in the Italian geopolitical magazine Limes. This involves the direct inclusion of the south and east of Ukraine in the Russian Federation, the creation of a puppet government in Central Ukraine, and isolation of the west as the main “disturber of the peace”.

It seems that Gorbulin has already paid for his prediction: his Institute of Problems of National Security was one of the first to be disbanded in Ukraine under the new president. This perhaps confirms that our neighbours are following the above-described geopolitical strategy, and that at the time of Gorbulin’s publication they were still not certain that Viktor Yanukovich would come to power, nor that it would be possible to reach such agreements with him.

The fact that what happened on 21 April (the day that the Russian bloc of Ukraine proposes to celebrate from now on as the “day of the beginning of our reunification”) was opportunistic, a spontaneous acceptance by the Ukraine of a proposal from Moscow, is shown by the fact that President Dmitry Medvedev flew to President Viktor Yanukovich in Kharkov supposedly to discuss dividing up the aviation industry. The fleet was not on the agenda, and in fact it was not supposed to be on the agenda for another five yeas. There was absolutely no need to extend the term of stationing of the Russian Black Sea fleet at all – this is simply the best chance for the first “test of compliancy” of the new Ukrainian president. It was characteristic that the decision was made unexpectedly, illogically and at an inappropriate time, and at a time when the current internal Ukrainian conflict was escalating.

The new tactic “Fewer words – more deeds”, declared by Yanukovich, is not to the taste of Ukrainians, who during the years of Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency got used to detailed information from the media about all the actions planned by the government. If the explanations that ex-president Leonid Kuchma gave after the meeting between Yanukovich and Medvedev had been given before it, then perhaps there would not have been such a wave of protest, youth movements, and protest groups formed on social networks which declared their readiness to take to the streets. “In the economic sense, these agreements on the price of gas are undoubtedly profitable for Ukraine,” Kuchma announced. “Especially at the moment, when the country is facing a crisis. A discount of $100 per 1,000 cubic meters – practically one third – is significant. Now the price of gas for Ukraine will indeed be the lowest among all other European importers, with the exception of Belarus”.

But, as I was saying, Yanukovich is not exactly spoiling Ukrainian citizens with information. We find out everything else afterwards – that the president flew to the US, shook Obama’s hand and gave him all our miraculously preserved enriched uranium, then received his Russian colleague in Kharkov and allowed him to keep his fleet there until it turns into scrap metal… At the same time, there are rumors in the journalist and expert community that Yanukovich was given lists of enterprises from both the American and Russian sides which foreign investors are interested in acquiring. And many of them are not in state ownership, but this is unlikely to put him off – Russia is now prepared to share its experience of dealing with the oligarchs.

What about the stationing of the fleet? The State Duma is already preparing an agreement of ratification, and it is now up to the Ukrainian parliament. The issue is urgent – evidently, the year 2017 is knocking on the door of the supreme legislative body. But the regions have already barricaded themselves to stop a blockade of the parliament on 27 April, the day that ratification is scheduled. There are enough votes – out of the entire coalition, only the non-party-affiliated deputy Taras Chornovich said that he did not support the president’s decision.

Yes, Ukraine’s intelligentsia has written an open letter calling to stop the ratification of the agreement to extend the term of the Russian fleet’s stationing in Ukraine. Writers Oksana Zabuzhko, Taras Voznyak, Yevgeny Bystritsky, Igor Koliushko and others stated that: “Only 50 days have gone by since the newly-elected president Viktor Yanukovich was sworn in, with his hand on the Peresopnitsky Gospels; since he swore to protect the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, observe the Constitution, and raise the authority of Ukraine in the world. Now, he is instead, on his own initiative, signing an agreement to extend the term of foreign troops stationed on our territory for a period that is fantastic for modern civilization – 25 years”. The Ukrainian intelligentsia is certain: “The signature on an anti-national agreement clearly demonstrates the feudal style of thinking of the ruling group, and is simply a usurpation of power. If the current regime does not rethink its actions, Ukraine can look forward to a future like that of the divided Moldova and Georgia”.

But in fact, the process of ratification may go on for a long time. There is no hurry. If this parliament does not accept it, then another parliament may be elected. This is a test for the state and the people. And it is a very serious one.

When I had almost finished writing this article, my neighbour came to visit. She’s politically active, took part in the protests on Independence Square, and recently voted for Timoshenko. “Yushchenko just said that he would use straw for fuel in order not to depend on Russian gas, and not see the fleet here?! He’d be better off keeping quiet – look what he reduced us to. If he were in power we’d be eating straw now! Right now I’m right behind Yanukovich – if the pensions really are increased, and the price of gas doesn’t go up, the fleet can stay here till the end of the century! But of course, I don’t trust him further than I can throw him.” This is basically what people think. It’s like living on a volcano here, as Europe knows: you can ignore it for a long time. Then suddenly it goes up!

Marina Starozhitskaya is a journalist specialising in Russian-Ukrainian relations. She is laureate of the 2009 Ukrainian President's Prize for Journalism.


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