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Explainer: What Just Happened with Russia and Ukraine?

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ukraine-soldiersNote: This is an update and addition to a previous post, “Explainer: What’s Going on in Ukraine?

What just happened with Russia and Ukraine?

Last week, pro-EU protesters in Ukraine took control of Ukraine’s government after President Viktor Yanukovych left Kiev for his support base in the country’s Russian-speaking east. The country’s parliament sought to oust him and form a new government. They named Oleksandr Turchynov, a well-known Baptist pastor and top opposition politician in Ukraine, as acting president.

In the southern part of the country, Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov, elected in an emergency session last week, said he asserted sole control over Crimea’s security forces and appealed to Russia “for assistance in guaranteeing peace and calmness” on the peninsula. On Saturday, Russian president Vladimir Putin asked his own parliament for approval to use the country’s military in Ukraine. The request comes after Putin has already sent as many as 6,000 troops into Crimea.

Why would Russia want to invade Crimea?

In 1997, Crimea and Russia signed a treaty allowing Russia to maintain their naval base at Sevastopol, on Crimea’s southwestern tip (the lease is good through 2042). The base is Russia’s primary means of extending military force through the Mediterranean. (The Black Sea is connected to the Mediterranean Sea through the Bosphorus Straits.) Without a military base in Crimea, Russia would be weakened as a global military power.

But Putin didn’t just ask permission to use the military on Crimea. Russia’s parliament authorized Russia’s military forces to enter “Ukraine,” giving themselves a legal cloak to target more than Crimea.


Where (and what) exactly is Crimea?

Crimea is a semi-autonomous region located on a peninsula of the Black Sea in southern Ukraine. The Autonomous Republic of Crimea is an autonomous parliamentary republic within Ukraine and is governed by the Constitution of Crimea in accordance with the laws of Ukraine. The region chose to become part of Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

How does this affect the United States?

In 1994, the U.S., the U.K., and Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum, an international treaty providing security assurances by its signatories in connection to Ukraine’s accession to give up its nuclear weapons. The deal included security assurances against threats or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine. As a result Ukraine gave up the world’s third largest nuclear weapons stockpile. The Obama Administration “reconfirmed” these security assurances in 2010.

Does the Budapest Memorandum require the U.S. to protect Ukraine?

Not really. The treaty is brief and rather vague, saying only that the signatories “reaffirm” their commitment to Ukraine and “respect” their independence and existing borders. The Russians have broken that commitment, but the U.S. (and, for that matter, the U.K.) is unlikely to take any military action against Russia because of this treaty.

President Obama has said, “Any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing.” But there isn’t much President Obama – or anyone else in the West – can really do to prevent Russia from harassing Ukraine.


Other posts in this series:

What’s Going on in Ukraine

What You Should Know About the Jobs Report

The Hobby Lobby Amicus Briefs

What is Net Neutrality?

What is Common Core?

What’s Going on in Syria?

What’s Going on in Egypt?

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • davidiwilliams

    Quick geography lesson. The Black Sea is connected to the Mediterranean by the Bosphorus Straits. The Suez Canal links the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and from there to the Indian Ocean.

    • Oops, you’re right. I got the Black Sea confused with the Red Sea.

      Thanks for the correction. I’ve updated the post with that information.

  • Adam C. Kolasinski

    I disagree with statement that there’s nothing the US can do.There’s plenty. For instance, we could, in a manner of minutes, send the entire Russian Black Sea fleet to the bottom and make their Sevastopol base look like Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Russia’s military is no match for NATO, and perhaps it is time we put Putin in his place. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but the option is always there.

    Failing to enforce the Budapest memorandum potentially has an extremely high cost. Convincing countries not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for security agreements with the US will be very difficult if we set a precedent of reneging in the Ukraine. In other words, if we fail to get Putin out of Ukraine, say hello to a nuclear Saudi Arabia.

    • Rabbi

      So … hello Nuclear Saudi Arabia?

      I’m not sure though… Saudi Arabia certainly isn’t the kind of country you’re thinking. As a matter of fact, it’s an “anti-Iran” and “pro-American” country as far as I know.

      And then you wonder why “us, the rest of the world” doubt so much about the US capacity of judging when it comes to foreign affairs… Hopefully your political leaders know better, though! At least they should know better than this: “Hey guys let’s take military action against Russia and start World War III, what ye say?”.

  • Roger McKinney

    Don’t forget that the ousted government was elected in 2010 in elections certified by Western observers. What were the protestor’s gripes? From the lazy Western media we heard that they wanted closer ties with Europe and fight corruption. Are those legit reasons for a coup? Why not use the ballot box as civilized countries do? The ex-president offered early elections but the opposition refused.

    Evidence from non-US news sources show that the demonstrators were not peaceful and were using fire bombs and AK-47’s.

    The demonstrators overthrew by force a legitimately elected government. That is an illegal coup. The thugs occupying Kiev are not a legit government.

    The US set bad precedents by invading Iraq, bombing Serbia, invading Iraq again and then Afghanistan. Many in the world thought those invasion illegit, too. But those countries did not border the US. Ukraine borders Russia.

    I think Russia should take over Ukraine as the government until it can organize elections again. Maybe then the opposition would think twice about overthrowing an elected government.

    • Rabbi

      I may be wrong, but I think it’s all because both sides (Russia / US and UK) have their geo political agenda that goes against each other. In this case it’s the US and EU that have been pushing against Russia for too many years, hence the consequences. Russia is doing what seems the best course of action now. I used to have more hope in the US, but now I have a little (albeit very little) more hope in Russia (at least they aren’t communist anymore), maybe because they haven’t destroyed countries “just because” in the last decade, like the US did with Irak. But then there’s much corruption in Russia too….

      It seems that the world is just like a chess table for them, and now they’ve restarted the Cold War chapter all over again.

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  • Croatia

    “harassing Ukraine”

    EU/NATO are two faces of the same coin, they harass Ukraine and Russia.

  • Sas Conradie

    Joe, the mistake that many people make is to think that the protests in Ukraine were geo-political in nature. Yes, there were some nationalistic forces but in essence the Ukrainian people are tired of economic, political, legal and security corruption. That is what they want to get free from and why they want closer ties with Europe which they see as an example of those freedoms they long for. Ordinary Ukrainians are not against Russians and Russia as such. They are against corruption and autocratic rule which they see in Russia and what they saw in the Yanukovich government. That is why it seems as if many if not most Russian speakers in Ukraine (perhaps outside Crimea) actually support the new government in Kiev. Just read the responses from Russian speaking Ukrainians on BBC Live Update. What is happening in Ukraine should therefore be of interest and importance to Acton Institute. Acton should support this move to greater economic and political freedom in Ukraine.

    As far as the Budapest Memorandum is concerned, it seems as if there are different linguistic interpretations. In Russian and German the wording is much more of a guarantee than a respect of Ukraine’s territory. That is how most Ukrainians interpret the Memorandum. This is understandable in view of the security of nuclear protection that they sacrificed. I therefore believe believe that the UK and the USA have a responsibility in the protection of Ukraine. As a British citizen I am disappointed that the UK government seems to shy away from this responsibility.

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