Russia’s expansion toward Ukraine

ISTANBUL (CIHAN)- Russian soldiers blockade a Ukrainian military base in Crimea. “Surrender!” they tell the Ukrainian soldiers at the base. One of the Ukrainian soldiers appears at the door and shouts back, “Russians never surrender!”
This is a joke. It points out that there is no difference between Russians and Ukrainians. Russian and Ukrainian soldiers formed the backbone of Czarist Russia’s army as well as the Red Army. Therefore, the Ukrainian army in Crimea didn’t resist. They didn’t see it as treasonous to adopt Russian citizenship. The Ukrainian army may not have resisted the Russian army, but Ukrainian nationalists and the new Kiev administration are redefining and recreating the Ukrainian identity. They are trying to divorce this identity from the East (Russia) and bring it closer to the West (the European Union).

The Kiev administration tried to eradicate all traces of the Soviet Union and Russian culture. It fancies integrating with the West by destroying traces of the past. Recently, the Ukrainian government put an end to the celebration of May 9 as Victory Day, marking the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II. The “fraternity” between Russians and Ukrainians is quickly melting away. The tension between the two nations has not yet escalated into clashes but the risk is gradually increasing. Among the radical Ukrainian nationalists are groups who seek to trigger combat in order to completely sever relations between Russia and Ukraine.

The Ukrainian presidential election slated for May 25 may not guarantee stability in the country. Originally scheduled to be held on Feb. 26, 2015, but moved to an earlier date in the wake of Euromaidan, the polls will be the sixth presidential election in the country. Radical Ukrainian nationalists have stopped caring about the countryside due to the power struggle in Kiev.

Euromaidan has made it clear that social media has once again emerged as the least expensive and most effective tool for triggering change and influencing people. With its supremacy in social media, the West wanted to offer Ukraine a virtual world. But Russia also managed to assert its supremacy in social media recently.

Ukraine’s political and economic systems are controlled by oligarchs. These oligarchs have taken over and consumed financial aid coming from the West. This had led to delays in the country’s recovery from economic crises.

The power swap in Euromaidan caught Russia unawares but the Kremlin quickly recovered from the shock. With its Crimea move, it launched a counterattack. Ukraine believed it would become part of Europe in the post-Euromaidan process but Russia asserted its supremacy in the country while the US and the EU failed to lend Ukraine strong support.

Russia acted swiftly with regards to Crimea. It didn’t take its time to assimilate Crimea. It distributed Russian ID cards to Crimean people, salaries were increased threefold and living conditions for soldiers were improved. The state administration, especially the legal system, was brought in line with the Russian system. Crimea’s trouble-free annexation boosted the happiness and self-confidence of the Kremlin and Russians. The sanctions launched by the US and EU were received positively as they helped reinforce nationalist sentiments in Russia.

Many Russians started to believe that with the annexation of Crimea, Russia has been born again, particularly given the fact that the country had been retreating since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Thanks to the annexation of Crimea, Russians have forgotten about the increasingly unfair distribution of income or the continued oligarchic rule in the country. Support for Vladimir Putin has increased. Russia’s state-owned TV channels have started airing programs mainly about nostalgia for the Soviet era and about Crimea. Soviet songs, films, documentaries, intellectuals, lifestyles and symbols have become fashionable. Russians are being encouraged to holiday in Crimea.

Russian influence in east Ukraine (Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk) and Odessa is on the rise. The Kremlin is forcing Ukraine to draft a federal constitution and accept quadripartite talks (Russia, the US, the EU and Ukraine) on the future of Ukraine. Russians announced that they have established the People’s Republic of Donetsk and that Donetsk will hold a referendum on May 11 to join Russia ahead of the presidential election.

Everyone has started asking the same questions: For how long will Russia’s expansion continue? And to what extent will it be allowed?

HASAN KANBOLAT (CihanToday’s Zaman) C