To the world, the Russian occupation of Crimea is a geopolitical and military problem. To the people of Ukraine and all of Europe it is about something even more fundamental.
On Nov. 21, 2013, protesters gathered in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine. There had been many protests against the government there over the years, but this one quickly filled the square
Within days, it became a bloody confrontation, and it eventually led to the flight of President Viktor Yanukovych to Russia for assistance. An interim Ukrainian government would subsequently remove him from office, and Russian troops would later occupy Crimea.
This protest and all subsequent events started that day, when Yanukovych rejected a treaty with the European Union. To understand the passion and fire that propelled us to where we are today, it is important to understand what was at stake at the core of it.
The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) was more than a connection to Western Europe for Ukraine. It was the culmination of the Eastern Partnership between the EU and the former Soviet Republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The main purpose, as spelled out in conferences in Warsaw in September and Vilnius earlier in November, “focused on fight against corruption; fight against organized and transnational crime; cybercrime; and migration and mobility.”
Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s equivalent of a foreign minister, was blunt about the intent. “In the case of Ukraine, we received positive indications that it will meet the EU’s expectations so that we can to sign the Association Agreement in Vilnius.”
She elaborated further, saying, “Delivery on three issues will be a crucial sign of Ukraine’s determination: improved legislation on electoral process, a move to adopt ambitious reform of the General Prosecutor’s Office and get rid of selective justice.”
The urgency of the agreement came as Ukraine was increasingly seen as a haven for organized crime.
Ukraine has been described as the “largest exporter of women to the international sex industry.” Approximately 400,000 women have been taken from Ukraine to work as prostitutes in the last decade, mostly in Western Europe. It is an epidemic in Ukraine, where the International Organization for Migration found in a 2013 survey that “9 percent of Ukrainians claim that they, their relatives or friends were facing situations or attempts of trafficking in human beings. Two years ago, when a previous survey was conducted with the same methodology, 7 percent claimed encountering such situations.”
The criminal syndicates that operate this trade are led at least in part from Russia. The head of the largest organization based in Moscow is Semion Mogilevich, born in Kiev. He has enjoyed the protection of Russia to operate freely, despite being on the FBI’s list of its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives.
This is not the only criminal activity from Ukraine, however. The recent theft of credit card information from Target was ultimately traced to Andrew Hoderevski in Odessa, though he has not been charged.
The situation is so dire that the Organized Crime Observatory in Switzerland has been conducting an investigation into Ukraine specifically. Their report issued on Nov. 12, days before the treaty rejection, concluded, “European agencies could provide useful support for their colleagues in Ukraine. This would be good news for Ukrainians, but it would also help citizens across the EU, too, by preventing Ukrainian criminal activity spreading across the continent.”
How did Ukraine descend so far into this abyss? Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, another treaty signer, claimed in an interview that Yanukovych openly bragged about his role
“He would talk very loudly about how he had corrupted senior officials, in the supreme court and the constitutional court,” Saakashvili said during an interview in the Ukrainian capital, where he met with opposition leaders after Yanukovych’s downfall. “He didn’t care who he was talking to; the guy did not have any idea about morality.”
The opposition in Ukraine is led by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed on corruption charges in 2011. Catherine Ashton has been steadfast in her support of Tymoshenko since then. “The European Union has stated its firm stance in regard to Yulia Tymoshenko — we are against the selective use of justice,” a spokesperson for Ashton said the day before a verdict was given in Tymoshenko’s trial
In an emotional letter decrying the dozens of video cameras trained on her in captivity, even in the shower and on the toilet, Tymoshenko concluded by calling for revolt against Yanukovych. “I hope the European Court of Human Rights makes a judgment that will make Ukrainians understand who you are and will remove you as president along with your mafia.”
Luke Harding, Russian correspondent for the Guardian and author of the book “Mafia State” on Russia today, saw the descent of Ukraine as tied to Russia – but still was hopeful. “The mafia model is more entrenched in Russia. I think it is different in Ukraine. Yanukovych is not Putin. He does not have the same intellectual capacity and he does not have oil or economic resources.”
The despair of this situation explains the high emotion of the protesters, who were willing to give their lives to change the direction of Ukraine. It also puts the treaty, which brought international cooperation to end organized crime in Ukraine, as the centerpiece of their hope for the future. It was not simply an economic cooperation treaty.
Amid the protests, Yanukovych turned eastward, seeking support from Russia. On Dec. 17, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Ukraine a deal for $15 billion in immediate aid and slashed the price of Russian natural gas by one-third. Turning Ukraine away from the EU and the pledge to establish the rule of law was clearly being favored by Russia, which did what it could to support Yanukovych.
It was ultimately too little, too late. On Feb. 21, 2014, the opposition took Kiev and Yanukovych fled to Russia for protection.
Since that time, Yanukovych has not played an important role in this conflict, as Putin himself has stepped up to be the main actor against the Ukrainian opposition. On March 1, he sent troops to occupy Crimea and the world has been waiting to see what further escalation is to come.
What is ultimately at stake here, at least from a Ukrainian and European perspective, is an end to organized crime that has gripped Ukraine since independence and has, if anything, become worse over time. Young women are openly kidnapped on the street to be sold into slavery and cybercriminals operate with impunity. The protests that toppled the regime laid bare the connection to Russia, which has — at the very least — tolerated a large degree of organized crime.
With the arrival of Russian troops in Ukraine, however, the presence of organized crime is no longer a matter of corruption but a matter of Russian foreign and military policy. While we cannot be sure of Putin’s intent to invade and conquer all of Ukraine, there is little doubt that organized crime benefits from destabilization and continuing chaos.
What the people of Ukraine have clearly stated, however, is not simply that they want to join the EU. Looking to the West is to look away from Russia, something that has become a matter of necessity if they are going to develop the rule of law. That is at the heart of the treaty that was rejected and set off the series of events that got us to where we stand today.