This article originally appeared at www.worldview.co.nz
Although situated 17,000km away from New Zealand, events in Crimea could have a significant impact on our country. As evident during a recent panel discussion on the crisis in Ukraine organised by Diplosphere, the situation is not straight forward. We need to consider a complicated web of history, ethnicity, politics, economics, security and international perspectives before reaching a view on the best way forward for New Zealand.
Sixty years later, the Crimean crisis unfolded in late February 2014 in the aftermath of the Ukrainian Revolution. President Yanukovich was impeached by the Ukrainian parliament, and while Russia viewed the impeachment as illegal and the new Yatsenyuk government as illegitimate, a number of western countries recognised the Yatsenyuk government. Pro-Russian forces gradually took control of the Crimean peninsula. A referendum was held which resulted in a 96% affirmative vote for secession, and on March 17 the Crimean parliament declared independence from Ukraine and asked to join the Russian Federation. In response, Russia’s parliament voted to make the peninsula a part of the Russian Federation.
While many countries view Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine as a violation of international law, President Vladimir Putin has asserted that Russia’s actions were in line with international law, reflecting Crimea’s right for self-determination. Putin maintains that Krushchev’s decision to transfer Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 was unconstitutional.
As a university student at the Diplosphere discussion noted, surely the people living in Crimea deserve to have their voices heard. The majority of Crimea’s population (58%) are ethnic Russians, and 24% are ethnic Ukrainians. However, as one Ukrainian academic noted, the region contains a mix of ethnicities, languages and affiliations – the population includes ethnic Russians, whose mother tongue is Ukrainian, who support remaining with Ukraine, as well as ethnic Ukrainians, whose mother tongue is Russian, who support secession to join Russia.
Given the rise of international tension, particularly between Russia and NATO, there is a concern about a return to the Cold War. A number of commentators have argued that isolation and containment of the Soviet Union didn’t work during the Cold War, and it makes no sense today.
New Zealand’s stance on Crimea is being formed against the backdrop of our United Nations Security Council candidature, with elections for a non-permanent seat to be held at the UN General Assembly in October 2014. The other two countries seeking the ‘Western European and Others’ seat are Spain and Turkey – both members of NATO.
Given that Russia holds one of the five permanent seats on the UN Security Council, with the power of veto, there is little that the UN Security Council can do to limit Russia’s actions. This was illustrated last month when thirteen of the Council’s fifteen members voted in favour of a resolution which declared that Crimea’s referendum had no validity, Russia voted against and China abstained. As a result, the resolution was not adopted by the UNSC.
However, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on 27 March affirming the UN commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, political independence, unity and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders.
Of particular note is that two of New Zealand’s major trading partners, China and India, abstained in the UNGA vote, and as a result were praised by Russia for supportive positions on Ukraine.
To date, New Zealand’s response has been relatively low-key. In addition to not recognising the outcome of the referendum, New Zealand has announced travel sanctions. New Zealand’s Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Russia has been put on hold, and the Trade Minister was withdrawn from Moscow in early March during the final stages of negotiating the FTA.
As well as putting aside the FTA, any escalation of the conflict or imposition of economic sanctions could jeopardise bilateral trade with our 28th largest trading partner, valued at several hundred million dollars. Conflict in Europe would also undoubtedly affect international security and the global economy.
New Zealand is not a central player in the Crimean crisis, but we have stepped up our international engagement in the lead up to the UNSC elections in October, and our position on Crimea will be keenly noted. The situation in Ukraine is complex, and we need to tread carefully when deciding future actions.
Amy Prebble is a former New Zealand diplomat and founder of www.worldview.co.nz
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Diplosphere's views.