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Cross-posted from Consortium News
Did Russia's annexation of Crimea in March violate the 1994 Budapest agreement among Ukraine, Russia, Great Britain and the U.S.? Specifically, in Paragraph One, Ukraine agreed to remove all nuclear weapons from its territory in return for a commitment by Russia, Britain and the U.S. "to respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine?"
I'm no lawyer, but I can read the words. And, taken literally, the answer seems to be Yes -- despite a host of extenuating circumstances that can be adduced to explain why Crimea rejoined Russia, including the alarm among Crimean leaders over the unconstitutional ouster of Ukraine's elected president and the Russian government's fear about the possible berthing of NATO's nuclear-missile warships at the naval base at Sebastopol.
Might the EU's take-it-or-leave-it proposal last fall offering Ukraine "associate" status in return for draconian economic austerity imposed on the Ukrainian people come under the rubric of the "economic coercion" prohibited at Budapest? An arguable Yes, it seems to me.
Some will try to dismiss President Viktor Yanukovych's ill-fated rejection of these International Monetary Fund demands to make the hard lives of average Ukrainians even harder as "history," now that the EU and Ukraine's replacement President Petro Poroshenko signed on June 27 that "associate" status agreement -- the same agreement that Yanukovich rejected in favor of what appeared to be a better deal from Russia.
Was Yanukovich also under pressure from Moscow to maintain Ukraine's historic, cultural and economic ties to Russia? Of course. Putin reportedly weighed in heavily with Yanukovich last October and early November when U.S. and EU diplomats were pressuring the Ukrainian president as well.
But did Yanukovich expect to be overthrown if he opted for Moscow's offer? If he did not, he sorely underestimated what $5 billion in U.S. "democracy promotion" can buy. After Yanukovych's decision, American neoconservatives -- the likes of National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland -- pulled out all the stops to enable Ukraine to fulfill what Nuland called its "European aspirations."
The central problem confronting Ukraine, however, was not whether it leaned toward Europe or toward Russia. It was that after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, some ruthless businessmen used their insider connections to snap up (or "privatize") the natural and industrial resources of the country. This handful of "oligarchs" then corrupted the political process, buying off politicians from both pro-EU and pro-Moscow perspectives.
Last fall, Yanukovych, who was elected from a political base in the more industrial Russian-ethnic east, was looking for how to bail Ukraine out of the financial and economic crisis that it was facing amid widespread unemployment and the hangover from the Great Recession.
In a layman's way of understanding what happened in Ukraine, Yanukovych issued what in the consulting world is called a Request for Proposal (RFP), i.e., a feeler to see who could offer the most promising plan for helping Ukraine escape insolvency. After initially tilting toward the EU proposal (before he learned of its draconian IMF small print), he later shifted to the less onerous offer from Russia.
In the world of contractors and RFPs, there are orderly procedures for firms whose bids are turned down to contest the selection of the eventual winner. But I know of no case where one of the losing firms turned around and violently removed the leadership of the RFP-issuing institution, installed new leadership and got the contract.
Abortive Feb. 21 Agreement
And, in assessing which side -- the U.S./EU or Russia -- is in the wrong on Ukraine, there was also the agreement, facilitated on Feb. 21 by the foreign ministers of Poland, Germany and France, in which then-President Yanukovich acceded to demands from the opposition by accepting limits on his powers and agreeing to early elections to vote him out of office.
Yanukovych also fatefully agreed to pull back the police, opening the way for right-wing militias, including neo-Nazis, to seize government buildings and force Yanukovych and his government officials to flee for their lives. With these paramilitary forces patrolling government offices, what was left of the Parliament voted to replace Yanukovych and install a new regime, giving four ministries to the far right and the neo-Nazis in recognition of their crucial role.
As the U.S. and the EU hailed the "legitimacy" of this new regime -- with Nuland's hand-picked leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk appointed as the new prime minister -- the Western "mainstream media" quickly forgot the Feb. 21 agreement (surprise, surprise!). But Russian President Vladimir Putin had a personal representative there, Russian Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin.
Yet, because the MSM was already parading Putin (and Yanukovych) around the op-ed pages and talks shows as the black-hatted villains of the Ukraine saga, few Americans got to hear Putin's perception of what happened, as he explained at a Moscow press conference 10 days after Yanukovich was overthrown:
"First of all, my assessment of what happened in Kiev and in Ukraine in general. ... This was an unconstitutional takeover, an armed seizure of power. Does anyone question this? Nobody does. ... The question is why this was done? ...
"President Yanukovich, through the mediation of the foreign ministers of three European countries -- Poland, Germany and France -- and in the presence of my representative signed an agreement with the opposition on Feb. 21. I would like to stress that under that agreement (I am not saying this was good or bad, just stating the fact) Mr. Yanukovich actually handed over power. He agreed to all the opposition's demands: he agreed to early parliamentary elections, to early presidential elections, and to return to the 2004 Constitution, as demanded by the opposition.