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Colin Wolfgang Headshot

The Ukrainian Eye of the Storm

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Many saw last week's deposition of Ukrainian President Yanukovych as a triumphant display of positive change stemming from a revolution of the masses. Obviously, this has been a topic of discussion on the Global Atlas for several weeks -- even months -- as Ukraine strayed from their Western ambitions to foster closer ties with the E.U. and leaned even farther into Russia's nefarious embrace. As a brief recap, mass protests ensued, eventually dwarfing the previously colossal Orange Revolution protests of 2004, and the situation deteriorated into widespread violence in Kiev and the eventual ouster of President Yanukovych. To many, including myself, last week's events seemed a harbinger for imminent peace in Ukraine and, hopefully, the integration into the E.U. that Ukraine's economy so desperately needs these days.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there -- in fact, last week may simply have been the eye of the storm. Former President Yanukovych turned up in Russia yesterday, which should not be a surprise to anyone. His allegiance to the former Soviet empire was hardly masked during his wheeling and dealing with Russia over the past several weeks, and after being overthrown by his people, he has sought refuge in Moscow. With the Sochi Olympics being over, Russian President Putin likely has less deference for Western opinions on the matter, and will have no qualms about openly protecting a man who is being sought after by the transitional government in Ukraine for his role in the deaths of over 100 protestors.

Yanukovych's asylum was a predictable move, however, and truthfully does not cause Ukraine any real harm. What does cause Ukraine harm is the events of the past 24 hours in Crimea, where masked, armed Russian militiamen have seized major government buildings and put up Russian flags. Crimea is an autonomous region that is nevertheless under Ukrainian sovereignty, as it has been since 1954 when Soviet leader Krushchev transferred it from Soviet rule to Ukrainian rule. However, the peninsula is strategically important to Russia given that much of the infrastructure of their Black Fleet is situated there. With such instability and tension between the bordering nations, it is likely that Russia will do virtually anything within their power to secure Crimea and protect their Navy stronghold there.

Russia also received rebuke from U.S. Secretary of State Kerry yesterday, after an order was made to place Russian troops in Western Russia in preparation for massive war games. Suggesting it would be a "grave mistake" for Russia to intervene in Ukraine militarily, Kerry voiced support for the transitional government in Ukraine days after it was made public that the U.S. was debating a $1 billion loan to help stabilize the Ukrainian economy.

Kerry's words were carefully chosen, and demonstrate that the U.S. is taking the threat of military engagement very seriously. This is smart when looking back in recent history in the region: in 2008, Russian troops invaded neighboring Georgia over what started as a petty dispute, refusing to back down until the entire international community was threatening serious repercussions. Ukraine is substantially more important to Russia than Georgia is or was in 2008, and it's because of this that a military conflict remains safely within the realm of possibilities.

The next several days and weeks will be pivotal for the region. The transitional Ukrainian government has stated publicly that they will be signing agreements with the E.U. immediately in an effort to stabilize their economy and garner some added support to counter the pressure coming from the east. This is a step in the right direction, but it will take time for things to even out in the country. Russia, meanwhile, seems to be on track to force greater destabilization in Ukraine. Military intervention on Russia's part would likely devastate Ukraine and has the serious possibility of dragging outside forces into a conflict that shouldn't exist in the first place. Furthermore, Crimea may very well become Russian territory should the Ukraine decide it is incapable of defending the peninsula at the moment. Crimea has always leaned towards a pro-Russian mentality, and Russia seems ready and willing to occupy the region and defend their Black Fleet. Hopefully, though, the pressures of the west will dissuade Putin from any unwise actions, and the region can work towards a much-needed stabilization.