March 13, 2014

Without context, Ukraine crisis is a puzzle

Posted by WARREN PERLEY – Editor,
Writing from Montreal

In journalism, there is a difference between knowing and understanding. When we watch Western media coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, we “know” that Russian military forces recently invaded Crimea, where a majority of the population has been calling for secession from Ukraine in favour of reunification with Russia.

But to “understand” why this is happening and whether a Crimean referendum vote in favour of rejoining Russia is logical, legitimate and, ultimately, legal, readers and viewers need context – historical, political and social.

Unfortunately, such context has been in short supply in Western media reports. So as Editor of, I was looking for a knowledgeable writer with a profound understanding of Ukraine, Crimea and Russia in order to analyze for our readers the circumstances underlying the headlines.

I found such a man in Dmitry Tamoikin, a writer and businessman of Russian and Ukrainian heritage born in Crimea in 1984, who now calls Halifax, Nova Scotia home. He is in touch daily, via email and phone, with colleagues and friends in Ukraine, discussing the economic and political crisis in that country, as well as the prospects for Crimea to reunify with Russia.

His 7,351-word analysis, for which you can find the teaser on our home page, is a masterful summary of the long, turbulent history and cultural ties which both bind and divide the Russian and Ukrainian ethnicities, helping us to understand the current crisis and what the future likely holds. I respect that Dmitry’s analysis appears well balanced in respect to the positions of both Russia and Ukraine, as befits an analyst with blood ties to both countries.

You can learn more about Dmitry by reading his profile at Later in this memo, I’ll reveal a few additional nuggets about Dmitry’s personal life.

But first, allow me to share with you five facts about the Ukraine, courtesy of Cam Ross, a retired major-general with the Canadian Forces who is an Executive Fellow at the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary.

  1. Ukraine is approximately the size of Saskatchewan with a population of 46 million.
  2. It’s bordered on the north with Russia, on the east with Crimea, with the Black Sea to its south.
  3. The eastern Crimean port city of Kerch is connected to the Russian port of Kavkaz by a 4 km ferry service which takes about 25 minutes one way.
  4. Ukraine obtains more than half its natural gas from Russia and owed that country’s Gazprom $1.6 billion as of March 2014. At the same time, Ukraine was negotiating a $15 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
  5. There are more than 1 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent, with 337,000 in Ontario, 333,000 in Alberta and 198,000 in British Columbia.

Ukraine, with a land mass of 233,062 square miles, is the largest country lying entirely within Europe. Its biggest city and capital is Kiev, with a population of 2.8 million. About 78 percent of its population is ethnic Ukrainian and 17 percent is ethnic Russian. The remaining 5 percent is made up of Belarusians, Romanians and Tatars.

The country is composed of 24 oblasts (provinces) and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, whose 2 million citizens – most ethnic Russians – are now in the eye of a storm concerning efforts to secede from Ukraine in favour of becoming part of Russia. The dominant religion in Ukraine is Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Since the Middle Ages, Ukraine’s fertile farmland, which has earned it the reputation of being the breadbasket of Europe for its abundant grain crops, has been fought over by powers including Cossacks, Tatars, Lithuanians, Poles, Austrians, Russians, Turks and Germans.

Russia went to war against the Turks in 1768 [Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774], leading to its annexation of Crimea from the Ottoman Empire and its Tatar allies in 1773.

The Russian Empire collapsed during the Russian Revolution of 1917, which brought into being the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). In March 1921, three years after the First World War ended, the U.S.S.R. and Poland signed the Peace of Riga dividing the Ukraine between them.

Following Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, Germany and the U.S.S.R. [allies at the time, but enemies two years later when Germany turned on the U.S.S.R. and invaded it] divided Poland between them, with Eastern Galicia and Volhynia with their Ukrainian populations being reunited with the rest of Ukraine under Soviet control, where it remained until 1991 when the U.S.S.R. collapsed and the Ukraine became independent for the first time in its history.

Meanwhile, in 1954, when Ukraine was still part of the U.S.S.R., Nikita Khrushchev, who was then First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, gave Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as a good-will gesture, where it has remained pending the ramifications which will occur as a result of the March 16, 2014 referendum. For more than 200 years, Russia has had, and continues to have, a large naval base in the warm-water, Crimean port city of Sevastopol on the Black Sea.

It is against this complicated backdrop of history that Dmitry Tamoikin has taken us inside the hearts and minds of both Russians and Ukrainians for an astute political analysis from his unique vantage point of having long-held and current ties with Ukrainian citizens both inside and outside Crimea.

The issue of the legitimacy and legality of a referendum vote such as that undertaken by Crimea on March 16, 2014 deserves further analysis here, especially in light of the Canadian experience whereby the province of Quebec held two such referendums – one in 1980 and another in 1995 – with the avowed purpose to secede from Canada.

First, let’s look at the positions recently enunciated by key NATO allies on this matter:

  • On March 6, 2014, President Barack Obama said the Crimean referendum violates international law and the constitution of the Ukraine.
  • The same day, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement: “Canada will not recognize a referendum held in a region currently under illegal military occupation.”
  • On March 10, 2014, British Prime Minister David Cameron told the British House of Commons: “We are all clear that any referendum vote in Crimea this week will be illegal, illegitimate and will not be recognized by the international community.”
  • On March 9, 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman issued a statement quoting Merkel as telling Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Crimean referendum was “illegal.” The statement went on to say that the referendum was “against the Ukrainian constitution and international law."
  • On March 1, 2014, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius tweeted that the Crimean referendum was illegal and would result in sanctions against Russia.

Interestingly, the People’s Republic of China has declined to jump on the bandwagon in opposition to the referendum. China’s official news agency issued a release on March 10, 2014 in which it quoted President Xi Jinping as saying China “hoped that all parties concerned would tackle their differences through communication and coordination,” adding that “his country maintains an objective and fair stance on the Ukrainian situation.”

At a news conference in early March in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked about the “legitimacy” of sending Russian troops into Ukraine. He replied that Viktor Yanukovych, whom he still considers to be the legal president of Ukraine, asked “us to use the Armed Forces to protect the lives, freedom and health of the citizens of Ukraine.”

When asked his biggest concern as a result of the Euromaidan demonstrations, he replied: “We see the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.” He went on to call it “uncontrolled crime” which could spread to the eastern portions of Ukraine where most ethnic Russians reside.

So what is an “objective and fair stance”, as Chinese President Xi Jinping phrases it from a legal point of view? In a March 7, 2014 interview with the BBC, Professor Marc Weller of the University of Cambridge’s department of politics and international studies, acknowledged that “the autonomous Crimean territory may indeed be legally entitled to argue for a change in its status.”

However, Weller went on to say that under international precedent even if a referendum supports separation, the local government (Crimea) must still negotiate such terms of separation with the central government in Kiev.

What Weller failed to point out is that there is no legally constituted central government in Kiev with which to negotiate since militants overthrew Ukraine’s legally elected president Viktor Yanukovych on February 22, 2014, leading him to flee to Russia over safety concerns.

Constitutionally, the Ukrainian parliament could have undertaken impeachment proceedings against Yanukovych to remove him from office legally. They failed to do so, which in turn makes the interim presidency of Oleksandr Turchynov illegal. In his analysis, Dmitry Tamoikin goes into more detail on this point.

To add emphasis to the illegal status of Ukraine’s interim government, Yanukovych issued a statement from Russia on March 11, 2014, stating that he remains Ukraine’s legitimate president and commander-in-chief, adding he plans to return to Kiev shortly.

In his BBC article, Marc Weller also questioned the right of Russia to send its forces into Crimea under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians from violence even though there was no such evidence. However, those on the ground in Crimea, with whom our writer Dmitry Tamoikin has been in daily contact, say that such violence was threatened by right-wing extremists from Kiev who have subsequently been dissuaded solely by the presence of Russian troops, who have not yet fired a shot in anger.

And let’s not forget that the Crimean parliament voted in favour of asking the Russians to intervene on their territory, even though Weller claims the Crimean authorities lack the legal power to make such a request. However, when anarchy reigns at the federal level in Kiev, surely it is the responsibility of an autonomous territory such as Crimea to fill the vacuum and take steps for the protection of its citizens that federal authorities either can’t or won’t do.

[For those who wish to read Weller’s entire BBC article, it can be found here.]

It’s instructive to look back at the two referendums held by the Quebec government in 1980 and 1995 by which they sought to separate from the Canadian federation. It should be noted that there were no negotiations between the two levels of government – federal and provincial – before Quebec held either referendum, both losing causes for the side which wished to separate.

Prior to both votes, no world leaders outside Canada expressed the view that such a referendum was illegal, despite the fact that neither the Canadian nor Quebec government had negotiated a common set of rules for the referendums. Nor had they discussed how assets and liabilities would be divided if Quebec did separate. In fact in 1995, the Canadian and Quebec governments didn’t even agree on whether a unilateral declaration of independence by Quebec in the event of the separatists winning the referendum would be supported by international law.

So why now are world leaders saying that the referendum being held by Crimea must be negotiated ahead of time with the Ukrainian government? The terms of separation could be negotiated after the results are known and if they favour secession. Perhaps by then, a legally constituted federal government will be in place in Kiev, meaning the Crimean government would have a legitimate partner with whom to negotiate.

Prior to the 1995 Quebec referendum, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appointed constitutional law professor Stéphane Dion to challenge the legal validity of the vote. One of the arguments made by Dion was that the vast majority of international law experts "believe that the right to declare secession unilaterally does not belong to constituent entities of a democratic country such as Canada."

In light of Dion’s assertion and considering that Ukraine is not “a democratic country such as Canada,” a moral and legal argument could be made that an autonomous territory such as Crimea which holds a referendum vote to separate could then have the right to declare unilateral secession from a failed state such as Ukraine, which is in the throes of anarchy, corruption and near-bankruptcy.

Keep in mind that it was only after the whisker-thin victory to keep Canada together in the 1995 referendum [49.42 percent in favour of separation, compared with 50.58 percent against breaking up the country] that the federal government, through Dion, submitted a reference case to the Supreme Court of Canada on September 30, 1996 in which they asked, among other questions, about a province’s right to self-determination under international law.

On August 20, 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that Quebec could not secede unilaterally under Canadian or international law. However, it also ruled that the Government of Canada would have an obligation to negotiate in good faith with the Quebec government if Quebecers expressed a clear will to secede.

Again, if we apply this principle to the current situation in Crimea, one could extrapolate that if President Viktor Yanukovych, corrupt as he may be, were to re-assume his legitimate powers as president of Ukraine, then Crimea would have an obligation to negotiate with his government the terms of any secession approved in the March 16, 2014 referendum.

We can also assume, given Yanukovych’s pro-Russian stance and the protection afforded him by that country, that he would be more than willing to oblige his Russian patrons by negotiating the release of Crimea into their jurisdiction.

For those of you interested in delving further into this contentious issue, I urge you to read Dmitry Tamoikin’s in-depth analysis, which you can access on our home page. I have just scratched the surface here to give you an idea of the multi-layered nature of this political hot potato.

Aside from the analysis he provided, Dmitry has also made available to us photos from Crimea taken by himself and colleagues Ekaterina Groznaya and Dmitry Szamrej. We thank them for their photographic contributions.

For those of you wondering how Dmitry Tamoikin passes his time when he’s not writing or working in the family business trading collectibles and art, he is a fitness fanatic who works out at the gym, scuba dives, runs 10 km outside, even in winter, and swims the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Compared with his regular routine, writing a 7,351-word analysis of the Ukrainian crisis is a piece of cake for our Man from Sevastopol.

[See teaser below]

Published: MARCH 2014
The real view from inside Crimea: Let my people go…back to Russia

Writing from Halifax, Nova Scotia

Western politicians, such as President Barack Obama, say Russia is on the wrong side of history in its support of the Crimean people deciding through a referendum whether they wish to separate from the Ukraine and rejoin Russia, their ancestral homeland. But those living inside Crimea tell a different story, demanding that the Ukraine and the world respect their wishes as expressed in the referendum of March 16, 2014. Now a Soviet-born citizen from Crimea with both Ukrainian and Russian bloodlines and a Canadian passport shares his unique historical, political, social and religious insights into the Ukrainian crisis.