What The Ukrainian Conflict Means For Human Rights


Events in Ukraine are the culmination of five years of political instability, due to divided allegiances between Russia and the European Union. As a former satellite state of the USSR, Ukraine was one of a small number of countries that did not implement the glasnost policies of the Gorbachev leadership in the late 1990s which saw the beginning of the end for Communist rule in Eastern Europe. Presently, the country remains divided between an old Cold War era allegiance to the East and a newly emerging allegiance to the West. This divided loyalty became common knowledge throughout the world when Russia annexed Crimea in early 2014. It has been under the control of Russia ever since coupled with a spate of violence and conflict in the Eastern-most regions of Ukraine. A closer look at the situation in Ukraine reveals a trend in Russian grand strategy, the ever-expanding nature of the EU and the political reality for Ukraine. As such, the situation presents a complexity for the international human rights situation.

In balancing its political and strategic links with the European Union, Ukraine has had to manoeuvre in a post-Cold War Europe characterized by economic and political division. With economic opportunity largely in the East, Ukraine’s history betrays its newly formed economic links with Western Europe. In late 2013, then President Viktor Yanukovych reneged on an agreement for Ukraine’s integration into the EU that promised extensive political and economic reform. As well as this, Yanukovych took up a renewed commitment towards Russia.

This change sparked mass protests in the nation’s capital where rallies to show support for integration into the EU and demands for Yanukovych to cancel the U-turn fell on deaf ears. After the actions of Yanukovych, a series of counter-protests followed by the introduction of anti-protest laws and a snap-election in June 2014 lead to the victory of Petro Poroshenko. Largely on a pro-EU platform, Poroshenko’s victory sealed the hopes of many pro-EU pundits who had previously moved to depose Yanukovych from office in January of that year. In February of the same year Russia had already begun to make moves to seize control of Crimea through the use of unmarked Russian soldiers.

The complete annexation of the Crimean Peninsula through the control of government buildings and other strategic sites meant Russian-Crimea could declare its independence from Ukraine on the 18th March 2014. In an act widely condemned by the international community – seen largely as an act of Russian aggression – Russia installed a loyalist government under the jurisdiction of Sergey Aksyonov. Crimea has since been controlled by this new Russia-friendly jurisdiction while the Ukrainian government also deals with the ongoing struggles throughout the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine.

While this shock twist served as a surprise for much of the international community, a lesson from history shows why the shock is actually misplaced. Although modern day Russia and Communist Russia are not the same; the old satellite states of the USSR existed in a limbo-state between the old Communism of the USSR and the newly emerging liberal capitalism of the West. When the USSR collapsed, The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic – largely untouched by the glasnost restructuring that took place across the USSR under Mikhail Gorbachev – faced a radical change in its economic, governmental and political structure. Although Gorbachev’s policies are the subject of historical debate, the mere attempt to restructure soviet society and governance – namely the dissemination of information and consultative government – did not take place in Ukraine. The fact that Ukraine kept operating under the auspices of Communism despite Gorbachev’s attempts to change Soviet society owes to the actions of one man.

The allegiance to autocratic Communism, despite the changes imposed by Gorbachev came from then President of the Ukrainian Communist Party  – Volodymyr Shcherbytsky. As a hardliner, Shcerbytsky enacted repressive laws on journalists, shut down activist cells and oversaw the implementation of “russification”. A crippling economy, high levels of poverty and a repressive state all ended with the collapse of the USSR. Ukraine then went on to institute parliamentary democracy and an economic revival started.

Entering into the 2000s saw Ukrainian allegiances to the EU emerge, but without a separation from Russian economic integration. For much of recent history, a key difference between the countries that integrated into the Western economic model and those of the former USSR has started to emerge. With the ousting of Yanukovych in early 2014, who having won an election in 2010 with a margin predominately made up of Eastern support, there was enough anger to spark a response to the Poroshenko victory. It is no coincidence then that the Eastern-most states of Ukraine have, since 2010, had a warmer disposition towards Russia that their Western counterparts.

An understanding of Ukrainian history is therefore essential in understanding the present situation in Ukraine. Without this historical narrative, the current conflict in Ukraine would seem totally abnormal and out of character for a Western-friendly nation.

Presently, the situation in Ukraine is not as bad as what it was in 2013/14. The current death toll of the events dating back to 2014 sits at 13000, according to UN estimates. What really made the situation worse was the shooting of MH17 in July 2014 that affected countries which have nothing to do with the political division within Ukraine. But the mere fact that 238 civilians from countries like Australia, Holland, Indonesia and Malaysia were now victims of a conflict that was decades in the making added a layer of complexity to the entire situation.

Attributing blame in situations like this does very little in renewing the international dialogue of human rights and the ability of states to uphold the values, ethics and responsibilities associated with them. However, it is clear that Russian grand strategy – at least in the Ukrainian case – has gotten to a point where countries in far-flung parts of the world are affected by the Ukrainian situation with its complex history and culture.

A joint investigation team headed by the Dutch government, in association with investigators from affected countries determined that Russia was responsible for the downing of MH17. While it won’t alter the past, a tribunal like this that exists independent of the EU (though headed by a member-state) with the backing of other countries has the potential to alter the international dialogue around protections for civilians and non-military personnel. The conflict itself has impacted Ukrainian citizens in the east of the country with around 3,300 killed and a further 30000 wounded or injured.

As of October 2018, insurgents and separatists have discussed conflict resolution to end fighting and instigate elections in the Donbas region. While this would lead to an end of the war itself, it would set a dangerous precedent in international politics. States that can subversively take territory owned by other states and impose violence until such time as the international community is left little choice but to negotiate undermines the architecture of the rules-based international order. While this negotiation would end violence and the conflict itself, the impetus for aggressive rogue states to impose similar measures elsewhere throughout the world would undermine the legitimacy of international institutions. This is the last thing the international human rights dialogue needs at this point.

Furthermore, the ascension of Ukraine into the EU (put on hold by Yanukovych in 2013) was a core foreign policy goal of the previous Tymoshenko government from as early as 2009. The real reason this process has taken so long is the lack of economic performance on the part of Ukraine. Presently, the likelihood of Ukraine joining the EU with the Donbas region and Crimea is highly unlikely.

As the world watched Russia annex Crimea, there was very little that other states could do to prevent it. This is due to both the pro-Russian sentiment within eastern Ukraine and the timely, subversive nature of the annexation of Crimea.

The discourse for human rights was undermined when Russia annexed Crimea and the international community failed to respond to the situation adequately. The humanitarian values that the European Enlightenment of the 18th Century characterized are now the subject of unwarranted scrutiny. The very things that threaten the sanctity of these humanitarian values have been left unchecked in the region where they were founded which sets a dangerous precedent for the future of human rights globally.