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Ukraine: The New Cold War Battleground

Tensions in Ukraine have been running high since ousted president Viktor Yanukovych brokered an economic deal with Russia in November, spurring month-long protests that eventually led to the overthrow of the government.

A new, pro-West Ukrainian government was installed last week, naming Oleksandr Turchinov as president and opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister until elections occur in May.

The new government already faces a number of serious challenges that could threaten the nation’s future and stability – potential bankruptcy, and most prominently, Russian aggression.

With Ukraine teetering on the brink of debt in the face of the political turmoil in its southern peninsula, Kiev has been working with the United States and the European Union on financial deals that will help stabilize Ukraine’s economy. The U.S. has pledged $1 billion in aid and the EU has offered $15 billion for short- and mid-term stability. Ukraine is also seeking assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

However, the country’s international relationships could be hampered by a growing Russian incursion in Ukraine’s southern Crimean Peninsula.

Crimea hosts a majority of ethnic Russians and has emerged as a contentious region in the past week as Russian troops have taken up posts under the guise of defending those living in the region.

On Tuesday, Russian president Vladimir Putin denounced the government in Kiev, calling it an “unconstitutional coup.” Russia, citing Yanukovych’s letter to Putin requesting use of Russian force to “reinstate legality, peace, law and order, and stability…” in Ukraine, argues its occupation is legitimate and necessary for national security purposes.

Putin also claims that local citizens’ demands of aid and protection are additional sources of legitimacy for intervention, appearing as a twisted version of the “responsibility to protect” principle. (The R2P is a new international security norm of viewing the protection of human rights as an obligation).

The military threat that began last week, after Putin ordered military exercises near the Ukrainian border, has since escalated. Russian troops have surrounded military posts, blockaded Ukrainian ships, seized a major commercial port and set up roadblocks throughout the region, effectively seizing control of Crimea. Although violence has not broken out, volcanic tensions hold the threat of conflict that could quickly turn ugly.

The tenuous atmosphere has caused international concern. The 28 European Union foreign ministers condemned Russia’s actions, along with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Diplomatic meetings with Russia are scheduled to occur in Paris to discuss the next steps in the emerging international crisis. However, it does not seem likely that Russia will relent. The situation in the Crimean Peninsula is beginning to look like a Cold War-style battleground between the West and Russia.

Many nations have called Russia’s occupation of Crimea an infringement of Ukraine’s sovereignty and are threatening a variety of consequences. Kerry warned of economic sanctions, asset freezes, travel bans and measures that would drawback business investments in Russia.

Other G8 nations have also warned of the costs of Russia’s illegal intervention in Crimea. British foreign minister, William Hague, and French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius have both threatened sanctions on Russia, claiming its military deployment is a violation of international law.

In fact, the United Kingdom, U.S., Ukraine and Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, which established the “territorial integrity” and independence of Ukraine.

The diplomatic agreement also included promises by the signatories never to use economic tactics or force to coerce Ukraine to their wills. Well, if the Russian bailout offered to former Ukrainian president Yanukovych counts as a coercive economic measure – or, even worse, crippling gas prices for Ukraine, Russia has broken its first promise.

The occupation of Crimea is a violation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory and could be considered a threat or use of force in order to coerce Ukraine, meaning Russia has broken both its first and second promise in the Budapest Memorandum and its principal objective.

Russia has obvious reasons for its intense interest in Ukraine. It relies on Ukraine for exporting natural gas to the EU. Russia’s influence over Ukraine has also given it more leverage against the EU – the most recent example being when Yanukovych accepted a Russian bailout over EU aid in November. Ukraine also plays an instrumental role in Putin’s Eurasian Union vision.

Ukraine’s position as a buffer state between the EU and Russia (the West and Russia) makes its future a huge concern for both sides.

Russia is unlikely to leave Crimea anytime soon. In fact, Crimean factions do not want Russia to leave – some are calling for independence from Ukraine in order to join the Motherland.

Could the turmoil in Crimea represent a potential conflict between defending sovereignty and allowing self-determination?

If the international community does not respond adequately, what does that mean for the future of state sovereignty, intervention and the stability inherent in such international laws and customs?

With the delicate diplomacy and negotiating of Syria and ongoing complexities in the Middle East, the West will be reluctant to use extreme measures to deter Russia from further infiltrating Ukraine. Western leaders are urging for a diplomatic solution to the situation, but will these actions be persuasive enough?

While the West and Russia argue it out in what could be characterized as Cold War-esque bickering, the fate of Ukraine hangs in the balance.

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