Pro-Russian activists in Odessa, Ukraine’s third largest city. *AFP photo
Pro-Russian activists in Odessa, Ukraine’s third largest city. *AFP photo

Tensions remain on a knife-edge in the Ukraine this week after Russian troops moved into the Crimean peninsula.

The move sparked international condemnation and claims by the Ukraine that Russia had declared war on its people. Just yesterday US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Ukraine pledging $1 billion in US aid.

In a speech yesterday Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to dial down the rhetoric somewhat, stating that force would be a ‘last resort’ against the Ukranians.

This crisis may be taking place thousands of miles away but there could be very real implications for Bermuda and the rest of the world. Simon Jones draws from international media for this report.


When did the conflict begin?

It has been brewing for some time. It comes after a long period of instability in Ukraine when protestors repeatedly clashed with Government over a trade pact. Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych looked like he was going to sign a historical political and trade agreement with the European Union. But on November 21, he decided to suspend talks with the EU. Many Ukrainians were outraged. They took to the streets, demanding that Yanukovych sign the EU deal.


What happened next?

The President then flew to Moscow, where he and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russia would buy $15 billion in Ukrainian debt and slash the price Kiev pays for gas. And then, when the demonstrations showed no signs of dying down, he adopted a sweeping anti-protest law that barred people from wearing helmets and masks to rallies and from setting up tents or sound equipment without prior police permission. This sparked concerns that the new laws could be used to put down demonstrations and deny people the right to free speech and clashes soon escalated. The demonstrators took over City Hall for the better part of three months.


What was the end result?

Protesters took control of presidential administration buildings without resistance and opposition leaders called for elections on May 25. President Yanukovych fled the country and a new coalition government was formed with Arseniy Yatsenyuk nominated as Prime Minister. 


Why has the conflict escalated again?

On February 28, Ukrainian sources revealed that Russian troops had taken up positions around strategic locations on the Crimean peninsula. On March 1, Russian troops took over Crimea without firing a shot. The Russian Parliament approved a request by Putin to use Russian troops not just in Crimea, but in Ukraine as a whole. In response, Kiev’s interim government accused Russia of declaring war and ordered full mobilization of its armed forces to counter the intervention.

Russia has since vowed that its troops will remain in Ukraine to protect Russian interests and citizens until the political situation has been “normalized”.


What is the significance of the Crimean peninsula?

Russia has been the dominant power in Crimea for most of the past 200 years, since it annexed the region in 1783. However, it was transferred by Moscow to Ukraine — then part of the Soviet Union — in 1954. The peninsula is now the focus of the crisis, which threatens to spill into the rest of Ukraine.


What has been the international response?

The Western world has condemned Russia’s actions as a ‘violation’ of Ukraine’s sovereignty. EU foreign ministers met in an emergency session in Brussels and the G7 of major industrialized powers condemned Moscow’s military build-up.

Visiting Kiev on Monday, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, described Russia’s incursion into Ukraine as “certainly the biggest crisis in Europe in the 21st century”.

At the weekend, President Obama urged the Russian leader to pull forces back to bases in Crimea. Mr Putin has responded by saying that Moscow reserves the right to protect its interests and those of Russian speakers in Ukraine.


Why should we care about this conflict in Bermuda?

The prospect of a war in Europe has already caused gas and oil prices to rise while the Russian ruble has fallen to a fresh all-time low against both the dollar and the Euro. If the US and Europe were to get involved in this conflict there would inevitably be negative knock -on effects for our economy as well.


What is the latest?

A tense standoff remains. Yesterday President Putin said there was currently no need to send Russian troops into Ukraine. But he added that Russia reserves the right to use “all means” to protect citizens in the east of the country. He announced the end of massive Russian military exercises near Ukraine’s border and ordered the troops back to barracks.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry brought a pledge of $1 billion in US loan guarantees for Ukraine’s new anti-Russian leadership as he arrived in Kiev to show solidarity with former opposition leaders now facing a military standoff with Moscow.

Sources: BBC, CNN, Washington Post, Guardian