A Sevastopol Bride for a Russian Suitor

A Sevastopol Bride for a Russian Suitor

May 25, 2010

Now that the tear gas has dispersed, the rotting eggs and urine have been cleaned from the Ukrainian Duma (yes, Russian TV showed footage purportedly from the Ukrainian Duma of a man urinating) I want to review the agreement to allow the Russians to continue to use the Sevastopol base. The 11-year engagement ended with marriage but not all the guests agreed the bride had chosen wisely.

Much has been written about the deal in the Ukrainian and Russian press, in particular. Was it a “sell-out” or an expediency that with hindsight will mark President Yanukovych as a shrewd politician?

Protagonists of the “sell-out” view, argue that the agreement is a violation of the Constitution and, no matter what its merits—if there any—it is plain wrong. It defers any possibility of Ukraine joining NATO until 2042. And even if this outcome was always Yanukovych’s intention, why did he do it so quickly after his election? Surely a President known for his pro-Russian viewpoint would have sought to normalise the relationship with Russia and, over time, punitive levies on goods such as gas would have been dropped as a matter of course. Probably without having to give up the family silver; after all, there are precious few pieces left.

Furthermore, critics argue, the Russians can pick on the most minor Ukrainian infringement—a missed payment would not surprise most observers—to renege on the deal, whereas ousting the Russian incumbents in Crimea will be nigh on impossible.

Or, perhaps, they speculate, Yanukovych sees himself as a good son of his upbringing righting Nikita Khrushchev’s “wrong.” In 1955, Khrushchev ceded Crimea from Russia to Ukraine as a “gift” for which he was later denied a state funeral, and suffered the indignity of not being buried in the Kremlin wall.

Those who err towards the view that it might prove to be a shrewd move invariably want to see an improving relationship between Russia and Ukraine. The Russians would never have left the Sevastopol base freely in 2017, they argue, so conflict has been avoided. They point out that a reason behind the Russia-Georgian war in late 2008 may have been to gain access to Sukhumi, the Black Sea capital of the disputed territory of Abkhazia in Georgia. Though Sukhumi is a far less ideal port than Sevastopol, it is clear that a resurgent Russia will have limited credibility without a Black Sea port to call its own. And they were determined to control at least one port. So, conflict on Ukrainian soil has been averted and lives have been spared.

Furthermore, the “shrewdies” argue, there’s the immediate economic benefit of the deal. Currently the Ukrainian Government subsidizes the cost of gas to her people and that adds to the budget deficit. The bold agreement—whereby the contractual gas price is reduced by 30% and Gazprom stops paying export duties to the Russian government, thereby putting the burden on the Russian budget—helps fill a substantial hole in Ukraine’s budget. It also looks good to people, like the IMF, who need to be humoured if they are to be encouraged to plough even more money into Ukraine.

So, there are supporters of both points of view. And whilst many people will see the issue as a difference of opinion between the pro-Russian Ukrainians of eastern and southern Ukraine versus the rest, I would caution against such a simplistic view. I’m left thinking, has anyone bothered to ask the Crimean Tartars what they think? And taking the idea further, whose was the bride of Sevastopol to give away?

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