At this very moment, in plain view of the entire world, the final demise of the Soviet empire is unfolding. The plan for its resurrection, long in the works at the Kremlin, has failed: Ukraine has proved that it has matured into an independent state that will determine its own domestic and foreign policy.
It was when Viktor F. Yanukovych, then president, refused to listen to the pro-European yearnings of Ukrainians that the mass protests erupted in Kiev in the fall of 2013. It was when Mr. Yanukovych decided, with the active support of Russia, to resort to force that he lost control of the situation. And it was when Mr. Yanukovych crossed the line and unleashed gunfire against his own people that he lost his legitimacy as the president.
The Kremlin had a strategy designed to weaken Ukraine and its government by prying some regions away from Kiev’s control and establishing enclaves in the south and east similar to Transnistria in Moldova and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Russia needs these frozen conflicts in order to prevent the normal development of the post-Soviet republics and to impede their integration into European and NATO structures.
Moscow’s plan has been foiled. The people of Ukraine proved stronger than a dictator who had been groomed for the role of a puppet ruler. The opposition quickly gained control of the situation, consolidating the authority of Parliament and legitimately appointing a new government. This prompt action calmed the protests within the country, yet it also prompted foreign aggression.
The chronology of events is telling: On Feb. 21, the Ukrainian Constitution of 2004 was reinstated; on Feb. 27, we formed a national unity government; and on Feb. 28, Russian troops moved outside their bases to occupy the Crimean Peninsula. At the same time, Russian forces have massed along the Ukrainian border.
This brazen and unjustified aggression, thinly veiled as “protecting Russian speakers,” pursues an obvious goal: to weaken and dismember Ukraine, to create another zone of instability in Europe and to arrest the process of European integration. Moscow’s purpose, in other words, is to prevent the final demise of the Soviet empire.
In Crimea, Russian troops have blockaded our government buildings, taken over our communications infrastructure and seized our military bases and weapons depots — all the while provoking Ukraine to respond with force and provide a pretext for a full-scale military invasion by Russia. These tactics bear a close resemblance to those deployed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.
The Ukrainian military and government have done everything possible to avoid this trap and keep the peace. No one should doubt that Ukrainians are prepared to defend their country. But the memory of our people’s terrible losses during the protests in Kiev is still fresh; we cannot permit more bloodshed.
We are fully aware that, should force be used, containing the situation would be impossible. The resolve of Ukrainians to die defending their country, the large stockpiles of weapons, the country’s nuclear power stations and the strategic gas pipelines all point to the potential magnitude of a disaster.
In 1994, Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees from the United States, Russia and Britain, and for their pledge to respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. If this agreement is violated, it may lead to nuclear proliferation around the world. The rule of law and the credibility of international institutions would also be severely undermined as deterrents to military aggression.
An escalation of conflict would be catastrophic for the whole of Western Europe. It would put an end to the global security system, breaching its very foundation. These are very real risks. Yet Russia’s reckless actions would be unbecoming of Somali pirates.
Today, the people of Ukraine are united as never before in the idea of collective security and European values. We choose Western standards and reject this neo-Soviet imperialism. We will no longer play the game of “older and younger brothers.”
Moscow must understand what we discovered at the Maidan in Kiev: The use of force will backfire and, more often than not, yield the opposite of what was intended. Ukraine and Russia are two sovereign states, and the Ukrainian people will determine their path independently. The refusal to accept this fact will lead, at the very least, to a new Cold War.
Ukraine is open to any constructive dialogue with the Russian Federation that is rooted in partnership. We wish to develop fair and mutually beneficial relations. Russia must choose how it will respond.
The Soviet Union is no more. We must all come to terms with that fact and begin a new era of cooperation based on equality and the right of the Ukrainian people to choose their own government and their own destiny.
Oleksandr V. Turchynov is the acting president of Ukraine.