The crisis in Ukraine: Is the Cold War back?

Questions & Answers
Soldiers, believed to be Russian, ride on military armoured personnel carriers on a road near the Crimean port city of Sevastopol on March 10. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Soldiers, believed to be Russian, ride on military armoured personnel carriers on a road near the Crimean port city of Sevastopol on March 10. (Photo: Baz Ratner/Reuters)

In recent weeks, the world’s attention has been fixed on Ukraine, where months of anti-government protests ousted the country’s pro-Russian president, followed by the arrival of Russian troops, who seized control of the Crimean Peninsula. Political analysts are calling it the greatest geopolitical crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

With tensions in Eastern Europe continuing to swell, we turned to Maria Popova, an expert on the region, for her insights. Popova is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and the author of Politicized Justice in Emerging Democracies: Courts in Russia and Ukraine. She spoke to Gary Francoeur.


For those of us not familiar with the whole story, can you explain how this complex political crisis developed?

The crisis started in late November with a protest triggered by Ukraine’s further move towards the European Union. The government had, for about a year, promised to sign an association agreement with the European Union, and about a week before it was scheduled to be signed, they suddenly changed their minds and announced that they wouldn’t sign it.

That triggered small protests, which were about to fizzle out in early December when the government used police brutality and repression to drive the protesters out of Independence Square. That’s when the protests very quickly grew from a couple of hundred people to hundreds of thousands.

The protests came to a head on February 21, when the government tried to suppress the protests and it turned violent. In the ensuing skirmishes, the [Victor] Yanukovych regime that was in power dissolved and [ousted President] Yanukovych eventually fled to Russia.

About a week later, Russia made an incursion into Crimea to reportedly protect Russian speakers against the new central government in Kiev. Russia has tried to deny that they are militarily in Crimea, and Vladimir Putin recently said that the 15,000 or so heavily-armed people in unmarked uniforms moving around Crimea are actually spontaneously organized self-defense units, which I don’t think anybody is buying. That’s how we’ve reached this point.

What exactly is at stake, not just for the people of Ukraine, but also internationally?

For the people of Ukraine, what is at stake is nothing short of the territorial integrity of their country.

For the larger world, it has enormous implications for future relations between Russia and the European Union, the United States and Canada, who are all not happy with Russia’s incursion into an independent state. They are trying to figure out a way to contain the Russian incursion, maybe considering economic sanctions against the Russian government to convince them that this will be a costly exercise.

To what extent is there public support for Russia’s actions within those parts of Ukraine with large Russian-speaking populations? Your recent op-ed in the Washington Post noted, for instance, that the new Ukrainian government does contain some right-wing nationalist elements that have antagonized Russian speakers in the eastern part of Ukraine.

While the eastern part of Ukraine has traditionally been Russian-leaning, the question now is whether the Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the region are welcoming this intervention or are weary and solidifying their Ukrainian identity. It is important to keep in mind that these people are Russian-speaking Ukrainians and not Russian themselves. While there has been some support for Russia, the pro-Ukrainian demonstrations have been larger than pro-Russian demonstrations. There are many reports that Russia has had to import protesters into Ukraine. I think it is still too early to tell, but so far the eastern Ukrainian reaction to the Russian military intervention in Crimea has been very cautious rather than supportive.

We’ve seen the White House start to impose economic sanctions on Russia. What further response should we expect from the U.S. and the European Union?

The Russian economy right now isn’t doing very well. I know there is talk that Europe gets a lot of its oil and natural gas from Russia and that’s why it would be reluctant to impose sanctions, but at the same time, I think it is important to remember that Russia has to sell its oil and gas somewhere to keep its economy going.

General sanctions and targeted sanctions are two very different strategies that might be used to try to change the Russian government’s mind on the issue. If general sanctions go through, that would, of course, affect regular Russian people because the economy will do worse. Targeted sanctions aimed at the Russian elite, however, might include freezing their assets in Europe and North America, or trying to limit their access to arbitration courts in the U.K., which Russian companies have been regularly using. This might have an important policy — constraining effect without actually directly hurting the general Russian population.

Do Western countries bear partial responsibility for the crisis? There is a school of thought that says that Russia felt threatened by the way in which NATO and the European Union have courted former Soviet states. The West tends to be far more cautious in not provoking China over Taiwan, for instance.

In one sense, NATO and the European Union are partially responsible for Russia’s reaction in Ukraine today. However, at the same time, they are probably responsible for the fact that we are seeing this happen now, rather than in the Baltics, the Balkans or in other parts of the former Russian sphere of influence. In other words, the expansion of NATO has taken the Baltics off of Russia’s plate. If we say that the West is responsible for this reaction in Ukraine, then we should also be prepared to say that the West should have also accepted Russian intervention in the Baltics and in the Balkans. The comparison with China and Taiwan can’t really be made here because Taiwan is a breakaway part of China while Ukraine is not a breakaway part of Russia, but a constituent part of the Soviet Union that disintegrated. It is quite different.

Also, the European Union and NATO have actually been very cautious and not offered Ukraine any guarantees that it would be a member of those organizations. Basically, the association agreement between Ukraine and the European Union that was at stake in November was the same kind of agreement that they have with countries in North Africa. It isn’t a very close kind of agreement, it’s not a first step to membership and it’s not even the beginning of even talking about membership. It is the same with NATO, which has not offered all that much to Ukraine, so I don’t really see how this situation can be placed on the West.

What role can Canada play in this crisis?

Canada is playing an important role right now in that the Harper government has staked out a clear position which has gained unity in the Canadian Parliament. That sends a strong signal to the Russian government that an important international player – I think Canada has significant moral authority in that regard – is unequivocally stating that they do not approve of their actions in Crimea.

What impact has this crisis had on how Ukrainians and Russians regard one another?

It is important to note that this conflict is not pitting the Russian people against the Ukrainian people. In fact, recent polls have shown that the majority of the Russian population is against their government’s incursion into Ukraine. The majority of Russians see Ukrainians as a brotherly people, so there isn’t really a conflict among the population themselves.

Do you have any sense of what Putin’s bottom line might be in this crisis? Is there a point from which he is not likely to budge?

It is hard to speculate as to what Putin’s intentions are, but I think that Russia will not budge on Crimea and will probably incorporate it into its country somehow, either formally or informally. The negotiations now are over eastern Ukraine and whether it will be destabilized or separated from the rest of the country. That is what is in play right now and what we don’t know yet.

How can the turmoil in Ukraine be prevented from escalating?

All diplomatic channels between the West and Russia must be opened. They should be talking about how to resolve this crisis on a daily basis, which I hope they’re doing. In addition, the Ukrainian government has exercised enormous restraint in the sense that Ukrainian forces have not tried to resist this military incursion by a neighbouring state. A lot of people have seen the videos that have gone viral of Ukrainian soldiers marching unarmed against armed Russian soldiers and demanding their bases back.

The combination of diplomatic efforts and negotiations at a high level and restraint by the Ukrainian government is the way to go forward.


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17 Responses to “The crisis in Ukraine: Is the Cold War back?”
  1. Boris says:

    Maria Popova, judging by her name, should probably be aware of many interesting facts. For example, Crimea was part of Russia during past 300 years. 60% of Crimean population are ethnically Russian, not at all Ukranian or just “Russian speaking”. Crimea has been separate from Russia starting from beginning of 90s, i.e. for only about 20 years. Crimea has been transferred under the jurisdiction of Ukranian soviet republic from the jurisdiction of the Russian soviet republic in 1954 by Nikita Kruschev, then the head of Soviet Union. Both republics were then part of the Soviet Union. The change of jurisdiction did not mean anything then, but the optimization of operations. Sevastopol, the main city of Crimea and the headquarters of the Russian Black see fleet was under the direct jurisdiction of Moscow until 90s. Russia has an agreement with Ukraine according to which it can use military to ensure the security of facilites the the Black see fleet is dependent on. I could go on forever with similar stuff.

    Those are a few pieces of information that, in my opinion, are missing from the article. I think these and other pieces of information, if included in the article, could make it more balanced and informative. They could help the reader better understand the pretext of the situation. In fact, the former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger in his recent article (see e.g. did a much better job in reviewing different aspects of this complex situation.

    It is a pity that American Kissinger expresses more balanced opinions and is much better at knowing Russian history and at understanding Russia/Ukraine relationship than the Russian speaking Maria Popova.

    • Jacob Lazarovic says:

      Boris and others may choose to obfuscate the issue, but the key facts are not in dispute. Russia has occupied Ukrainian sovereign territory. Ukraine is an independent nation recognized by the UN, and furthermore by Russia in the Budapest agreement.

      If ethnic Russians anywhere in Ukraine do indeed have legitimate grievances these should be brought to the world’s attention, and potentially a legitimate referendum could be organized within Ukraine, a la Quebec or Scotland.

      Russia is simply exacerbating and exploiting tensions in order to further its ambitions to restore the Russian empire.

    • Kathy says:

      I have been following the crisis on The Real News Network, listening to a variety of opinions. When I read Ms Popova’s article I felt that, though she was not clear on the facts presented in Boris’ letter, she was clear on saying that probably Russia will incorporate Crimea (re-incorporate in my opinion) and that great diplomacy must be used re. eastern Ukraine which she described as being Russian-speaking and ethnically Ukrainian. I don’t think she purposely or in ignorance left out the information about Crimea. She may have assumed that people know, as I did because of my following the issue on more than CBC and CTV.

      I was unsure about how I felt about her interview until the end when she emphasized that “All diplomatic channels between the West and Russia must be opened. They should be talking about how to resolve this crisis on a daily basis, which I hope they’re doing.” This is absolutely key.

  2. Terry says:

    Maria did a decent job in presenting a generally well balanced and fairly neutral summary of the facts. I might, however, quibble with her description of the eastern Ukrainian response as “cautious rather than supportive” of Russia’s invasion. Based on statements by friends who have family in that region, it seems that they generally support Ukraine’s right to self determination. There is nothing cautious about that. Crimea is Ukraine and what has occurred is a foreign invasion. Related, it seems a majority of the younger generation in all parts of Ukraine (including eastern Ukraine) look West for inspiration on things like rule of law, transparency, good government and freedom of the press. That holds true across linguistic lines. In with rule of law, out with kleptocracy.

    Boris would like to get into more detail to examine the historical context of Crimea, which is fine, but he should understand that is not the intention of Maria’s piece. Boris should refrain from using an ad hominem because that is simply not good form and certainly un-McGillian!

    • Vadim says:

      Terry, we should all be aware of NATO interests in the region and how Ukraine is not socially or economically, but mainly military interest of the NATO in the area. Once you put this in perspective all bits fall together.. then you will start wonder if Cold War indeed was ever over… and who started pushing boundaries first.

    • Irina says:

      Hi Terri, I also have several friends in Sevastopol and Simferopol and all of them saying that the only hope they have that Moscow will help and protect them. I really would like to say “bravo” to Boris’ comment as he is absolutely right – before you judge you have to read more about Russian and Ukraine history, at least going back to Vladimir Monomakh’s time… The background of all this situation is in the history of the people living on the territory of Eastern Ukraine for centuries and, probably, it’s really not so easy to explain but you have to feel it being there. I don’t support Russia for their decision to resolve the situation with military forces, but from the other hand the Leader of Western Ukraine should not address his request for support to Chechen’s terrorists…

      • Terry says:

        Hi Irina,

        Thanks for your reply. I have no doubt you are right that there are individuals in Sevastopol and Simferopol that might take that view. However, like Jacob says above, the key facts are not in dispute — Russia has occupied Ukrainian sovereign territory. Ukraine is an independent nation recognized by the UN, and furthermore by Russia in the Budapest agreement. These actions of Russia are aggressive and not in keeping with international laws and conventions.

        I agree with you that understanding history can help inform an understanding of the current circumstances. To this end, we would do well to recall the Holodomor of the 1930s, where one of Putin’s predecessors-in-interest (Stalin) attempted to eradicate ethnic Ukrainians by a fabricated famine that claimed the lives of *millions* of ethnic Ukrainians — many of them in Eastern Ukraine. See The Stalin regime then resettled Eastern Ukraine with ethnic Russians. Ukrainians were subjected to policies of Russification under the Soviet regime.

        Ethnic Ukrainians, just like Quebecers, seek to preserve their language and culture. What would Canadians say if France surreptitiously sent thousands of unmarked military or paramilitary to “occupy” the island of Montreal to “protect” French speaking people against English speakers? Not only that – but what if France passed a law on the Annexation of Montreal, closed the borders and bridges, prohibited observers, shut down independent TV stations, severed key internet connections, took over government buildings and trumped up a referendum for Montreal to join France? Yes, this is all happening in Crimea, Ukraine, right now. Just as Montrealers, Quebecers and Canadians generally would not stand for that here, we cannot as a civilized people support that there. Ukrainians deserve the right to sort out their own internal affairs without guns being pointed at them by their Russian neighbors.

        • Vadim says:

          Terry, there is an ocean of difference between Russian and Ukrainian and situation in Quebec – don’t even mention it. Just dig in the history better, and try to learn more for local i.e. Russian and Ukrainian sources, not Munich or NY :)

          • Terry says:

            Hi Vadim,

            Of course the historical contexts are different, however, some of the parallels are quite interesting and worthy of development. Here we go…

            Ukrainian speakers in Ukraine and francophone Quebecers in Quebec both live next door to cultural juggernauts that could easily subsume them, from a linguistic and cultural perspective. They both feel an affinity for their language and culture and seek to preserve and protect it. Quebec’s approach has been to enact French language laws (e.g. Bill 101), to require children to learn French in schools, including in some cases as the primary language of instruction, and to require French in the civil service etc.

            One of the pretexts of Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s borders has been to protect Russian language speakers. First, there has been no credible evidence that Russian language speakers in Ukraine are in any danger — either physically or otherwise. Second, even if, for example, the government of Ukraine chose to require children in Crimea or Donetsk to learn Ukrainian in school, how would that be any different than Pauline Marois requiring the children of English speaking families in Montreal to learn French? There is no difference.

            It seems that most Quebecers have gotten comfortable that such language laws or requirements are a reasonable accommodation here (after all it is Quebec, right?), yet similar government actions in Ukraine get labelled as “fascist” by (likely Kremlin-funded) Russian media intending to demonize Ukrainian speakers and to spin Russian speakers into a frenzy. The social conversation about language laws, rules and accommodations is a conversation for Ukrainians to have *internally* among the Ukrainian and Russian speaking citizens of Ukraine.

            The military actions of Russia are inexcuseable in any modern, civilized society. Their propaganda machine is obfuscating the issues and some people are falling for it, which is quite unfortunate. Canadians know better than to fall for this propaganda and obfuscation.

  3. Oleg Pohotsky says:

    To reinforce his case, such as it is, Boris asserts that Crimea has been part of Russia for 300 years. The fact is that it was conquered by Russia in 1783. It was part of the Russian Empire for 134 years; in limbo between 1917 and 1921 during the Civil War; part of the Russian FSSR for 32 years and part of of Ukraine, Soviet and independent, for 60 years. That history does not resolve anything in itself. It only points to how complicated it is and the answer is not might makes right.

    Oleg Pohotsky

  4. Nikolaos Gryspolakis says:

    May I add that she is avoiding to answer the question about the extreme right taking power in Ukraine? Also, the fact that an openly nazi party with antisemetic, antihomosexual, antiminorities agenda (and multiple recorded attacks) is participating in the new regime of Ukraine does not seem to worry her at all.

    The blindness and partiality of such “scientists” is really unbelievable. The interventions, occupations, invasions and bombings of other countries are just fine and wonderful as long as the West is doing it.

    The Ukrainian people do not need either the Russian dictatorship, nor the EU-IMF-NATO-USA protectors. They don’t need the extreme right fascists who usurped power either of course. Such “interviews” misinform and amplify the “Cold-War” spirit that is being built by both sides.

  5. Roman W. says:

    Boris, judging by his name, should probably be aware of many interesting facts, two of which are that:
    - if the population of Crimea is 60% ethnic Russians today, it is in large part due to Stalin’s ethnic cleansing (ie genocide) of Crimean tatars
    - if the polulation of eastern Ukraine is mostly Russian speaking today, it is large due to Stalin’s engineered artifical famine and his destruction of the Ukrainian intelligentsia and of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and the ethnocidal policies of the Soviet Union

    Putin’s Russia has yet to come to terms with such facts and people like Boris tend to conveniently “forget” them.

  6. Lois says:

    The above replies to the issue do nothing more then emphasize the complicated nature of the problem but I would say the Ukrainians forgetting the Holodomor would be wise to remember what happened under Soviet rule. Enlightened comments are very much appreciated.

  7. Very interesting article which triggered an even more interesting dialogue.
    What is missing is a discussion about the aggressive attitude of our minister of External Affairs, John Baird, participating in a demonstration against an elected government to achieve a finally violent and nationalistic upheaval of that elected governement, which our Prime Minister will condone by his visit this week: the present governement in Ukraine has not been democratically elected, fact!
    It is also true of the present government of Crimea. Two wrongs do not make a right and if we condemn Putin’s manoeuvers, we should also condemn NATO’s ambitions, that were also present in Georgia four years ago..
    Please read my thoughts on the subject on

    • Vadim says:

      Thank you Pierre. Russia had learned from the recent past that many thing can be taken easy, discussed , negotiated, but not security..