Ukraine between a rock and a hard place: SFU expert

Ukraine is in a no-win situation with Russia.

And all we can hope for is that cooler heads will prevail, says a local expert in international security.

Simon Fraser University history professor André Gerolymatos said Russia's recent movement of troops into the Crimean area of Ukraine is "naked aggression." The situation has "plunged the world into crisis."

But it's just the latest in moves that have put the superpower in control of its smaller neighbour off and on since the 16th century.

In 1954 then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine as a goodwill gesture, he explained. It didn't matter much at the time because Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union.

That changed after the Iron Curtain fell and the Soviet Union came apart. In 1994, the two countries cut a deal. Ukraine would give up all its nuclear weapons. In exchange, Russia would honour its neighbour's boundaries, including Crimea.

More recently, after Ukraine went through a time of economic chaos, the European Union approached it about joining the EU. Russia countered by offering $15 billion to Ukraine to stay put, which was agreed to by   former president Viktor Yanukovych.

After months of peaceful protests in Ukraine, Yanukovych ordered the military to turn on the protesters. That ultimately led to the president being toppled, forcing him to flee.

Russia's interest in Crimea is partly due to its large ethnic Russian population. But more importantly, it's home to Sevastopol, the only year-round, warm-water port Russia has access to, said Gerolymatos. That's where its battlefleet is stationed.

If Ukraine joins the EU and takes Crimea with it, Russia would be completely hemmed in, losing all military access to the sea.

Russia's military presence in Crimea is illegal under international law and breaks its treaty with Ukraine. But Western powers have few options, he said.

The U.S. won't go to war with Russia over this. And the EU won't accept heavy economic sanctions because 40 per cent of its natural gas comes from Russia via pipelines through Ukraine.

"If they upset [Russian president Vladimir] Putin he can just turn off the gas."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's warned that Russia could get kicked out of the G8 group of world leaders. But Gerolymatos said that would be an extreme and dangerous measure. He suggested it would force Russia to react, and along with cutting off the flow of gas, it could decide not to abide by any international laws.

The situation also raises the spectre of a larger agenda, he said. Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Poland also have significant ethnic Russian populations that Russia could decide to move in to protect.

"Is this the beginning of Putin trying to reconstruct a Russian empire?"

Gerolymatos is hopeful Putin will have a face-saving move in the works.

As for whether Putin might decide to take over the rest of Ukraine, he's not convinced.

"He will more than likely sit back and allow Ukraine to disintegrate into chaos and maybe down the road take it over. Or install a Russian puppet which would be a lot more sensible."

Right now it's a very dangerous situation, he said. With a major power's armed forces in play, all it would take is for accidental gunfire to lead to a full-scale military altercation.

Burnaby resident Paul Cipywnyk is two generations away from ever having lived in Ukraine, but he's been glued to the Internet and TV for any news of the conflict.

He's heard through family that distant relatives in southwestern Ukraine are okay but worried. Fortunately, they're away from the areas of recent military action.

He noted that there is a clear divide between people in western Ukraine who support closer ties with the EU and eastern Ukrainians who want to stick with Russia.

Cipywnyk said the scenario seems all too familiar to Russian imperialism taking over Ukraine during Czarist and Soviet times. Even populating Crimea with ethnic Russians was part of Russia's plan to maintain a claim over the region, he said.

"It's very worrisome," Cipywnyk said. "I don't have a very positive outlook on this."

Ultimately, said Gerolymatos, Ukraine faces not getting either the $15 billion offered by the Russians or any EU aid to get them out of its economic mess.

"Everybody stands to lose in this scenario and Putin knows that. This is why he's exploiting it. The question I think is, who wants to lose more?"

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