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The Tangled Remnants of an Empire

by Jeff Cox, published
If one wants to get a slight taste -- just a slight taste -- of those worried, hopeful days of 1989 when the Berlin Wall was coming down, murderous communist leaders like Nicolae Ceausescu finally got their just desserts from the people they had tortured for so long, and we all wondered when these leaders’ patrons in Soviet Russia would put an end to it all with the hammer of the Red Army, as they had in Hungary and Czechoslovakia before, just watch the unfolding events in Ukraine.

The dispute in Ukraine is, on its face, a fairly simple one. Russia has always considered Ukraine to be in its sphere of influence. The eastern section of Ukraine, centered on the industrial city of Kharkiv (formerly Kharkov, a major center of fighting between the Germans and the Russians in World War II), is dominated by ethnic Russians. They form the power base for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who has been heavily backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The western section of Ukraine, centered on Kiev and Lviv (formerly Lvov, Lwow, Lemberg, or somesuch), is dominated by Ukrainians. The Russians, not surprisingly, want closer ties and perhaps even reunification with Russia. The Ukrainians want closer ties with the West, even membership in the European Union. They remember the genocidal famine engineered against them by Josef Stalin in the 1930s, and resent Russian interference in their affairs – including the presence of the ethnic Russians, many of whom were sent by Moscow in the Soviet era as colonists – and want some protection from Russia.

History Professor Orlando Figes of the University of London, writing in Foreign Affairs, gives a vivid illustration of the division:

Above all, the country is divided between those who look to Europe for their values and ideals -- mainly young Ukrainian speakers in the west and central regions -- and those older Russian speakers in the industrial eastern regions and Crimea who prefer to retain the old connections with Russia. Consider a November 2013 poll conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology. It showed high levels of support in eastern Ukraine (64 percent) for a customs union between Ukraine and Russia, modest levels of support in central Ukraine (29 percent), and lower levels in the west (16 percent). Support for a referendum on whether the country ought to join the European Union followed the reverse pattern: 66 percent in favor in the west, 43 percent in the center, and only 18 percent in the east.

Foreign affairs analyst David P. Goldman, blogging as Spengler, argues that such differences suggest Ukraine should be divided:

I’ve argued for years that partition is the best solution for Ukraine, which never was a country but an amalgam of provinces left over from failed empires–Russian, Austrian, Lithuanian, Ottoman–cobbled together into a Soviet “republic” and cast adrift after the collapse of Communism. Lviv (Lemberg) was a German-speaking city, part of Silesia; before World War II a quarter of its people were Jews. Jews were two-fifths of the population of Odessa.   A fifth of the population, mainly in the East, are ethnic Russians; a tenth, mainly in the West, are Uniate Catholics, who have a special place in Catholic policy since the papacy of John Paul II. Ukrainian nationality is as dubious as Byelorussian nationality: neither of them had a dictionary of their language until 1918.

Alexander J. Motyl, writing in Foreign Policy, says the real division is not between Ukrainian and Russian, or between East and West, but something more fundamental:

In sum, the image of two competing blocs is just dead wrong. Ukraine happens to be an extremely diverse place, with a range of languages, cultures, identities, and political preferences throughout the country. In that respect, Ukraine's diversity is pretty much on par with that found in just about any country of the world: the United States, Canada, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Brazil, India, and so on. Diversity can sometimes spell trouble (as in Great Britain with Scotland and in Spain with Catalonia) and it can sometimes mean vitality (as in the United States and Canada), but we rarely assume, a priori, that it must lead to ungovernability and partition -- except, apparently, in Ukraine, where what is business as usual elsewhere is assumed to be a fatal flaw. There are many reasons for such a flawed perception, but the central one may be the inability of Russian elites and their sympathizers in the West to concede that Ukraine is a real country and that Ukrainians are a complex people.   The real divide in Ukraine is not between East and West, but between the democratic forces on the one hand and the Party of Regions on the other. The latter is strongest in the southeast, mostly because its cadres (who are mostly former communists) have controlled the region's information networks and economic resources since Soviet times and continue to do so to this day. Their domination since Ukraine's independence rests on their having constructed alliances with organized crime and the country's oligarchs[.]

The former communist Vladimir Putin, not surprisingly, does not like the idea of a country on his border looking to Western Europe and not Russia, and so has done everything he can by hook and by crook to drive Ukraine back into the Soviet … er, Russian orbit and keep it there:

When the protests started back in November they were about a trade deal with the EU. Russia was ecstatic that it had persuaded Ukraine to walk away from that deal, and was picking off the other states in the EU’s “Eastern Partnership” programme (Armenia caved in September, Georgia and Moldova were expected to come under enormous pressure in 2014). Russia hoped to drag them into its alternative Eurasian Union instead, which is due to be launched in January 2015. […] Russia tied Ukraine to a $15bn bailout deal in December, which is parcelled out by the month to maximise leverage, and periodically suspended whenever the opposition looked like getting the upper hand. But Russia’s real aim was to provide just enough money to support the old semi-authoritarian system (helping Viktor Yanukovych pay the police) and keep Ukrainian society post-Soviet, that is, still dependent on government.

Now, all of Putin’s plans are collapsing in Kiev. Yanukovich has fled Kiev for Kharkiv, where he has called the protestors a “coup” and compared them to the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. Yanukovich had no choice, but to flee: his police had refused to support him and switched sides. The pro-Yanukovich speaker of Parliament resigned and was replaced by a supporter of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Then, the Ukrainian parliament, minus many of Yanukovich’s supporters who fled to Kharhiv, voted to remove Yaunkovich from power.

None of which will please Putin:

[T]his is 10 times worse than Brussels expanding its bureaucracy to Russia’s borders. A real democracy in Ukraine is an existential threat to the entire system that Vladimir Putin has built since 2000. Ironically because Putin is right – most Russians regard Ukraine as a kin state, or not really a different state at all. They are used to stepping in tandem; so if something changes in Ukraine, why not in Russia too? And now the dominoes might fall in the other direction. Other Maidans might appear in other neighbouring states – maybe first in Moldova where the Russia-backed Communist Party was hoping to return to power in elections due in November.   Putin marginalised his own protest movement after the last Russian election cycle. He does not want to see that flare up again. So far, the Russian opposition has been quiet. Few have supported the Ukrainian Maidan, even fewer sound inspired to copy it – for now. But Putin will need to come up with something more convincing than the scattergun propaganda the Russian media has pumped out to date.   None of the favourite Russian myths – the protesters are all crazy nationalists, which is why they are also backed by the Americans, the young guys throwing rocks are really only interested in promoting gay rights – make much sense in the long run.

Walter Russell Mead agrees:

Putin would have grave difficulties surviving the loss of all Ukraine. The example of a popular revolution against a Moscow-leaning government is horrifying and destabilizing enough. Hatches are being battened down from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok as the FSB (ex-KGB) does its best to prevent any kind of contagion. The consequence of a united Ukraine joining the West would be infinitely worse. Putin’s dream of a Eurasian Union would suffer an irrevocable and decisive defeat. The loss of Crimea would infuriate Russian nationalists beyond endurance, and Putin would look helpless and weak in a political culture that worships only strength and success.

So what’s next for Ukraine? Anshel Pfeffer, writing in Haaretz, notes the weapons  –- figuratively speaking, for now -- that Putin has at his disposal:

Putin will use all his levers – the Russian army and navy stationed on Ukrainian soil; his control of the country’s economy and its energy supplies; the Russian television channels that are popular also in Ukraine; and historical memories. The 2008 precedent of Georgia, where Putin took advantage of the Abkhazian region’s independence demands to launch a war and humiliate the recalcitrant Georgians by advancing without opposition to within 40 kilometers of Tbilisi, has not been forgotten.   [...] The Kremlin has suffered a setback with the (at least temporary) loss of Kiev, but Putin cannot allow himself to give up on Ukraine. If his allies lose there, the downtrodden opposition within Russia will receive a massive boost and once again take to the streets challenging his rule.

Rick Moran notes the unlikelihood that Putin sends in the army. He doesn’t need to:

Putin would suffer tremendous consequences abroad if he loosed the Russian army on Ukraine. His recent successes in Syria, Iran, and the Olympics would be washed away and Russia would lose some of the prestige that Putin has so carefully amassed over the past few years. Dare he risk it? The Russian Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol, and yesterday, thousands of pro-Moscow protestors poured into the streets to demonstrate against the events in Kiev. What with the other levers Putin has at his disposal — including the energy card he has shown no reluctance to use in the past — it seems likely that Putin won’t have to invade to get what he wants.

And Mead is not optimistic:

The problem for the outsiders interested in Ukraine’s fate is a simple one, and it is shared by both Russia and the West. There are lots of intelligent, hard working people in Ukraine, but the country’s deep divisions and weak institutions make it impossible for any government to carry out the kinds of policy changes that could attach the country firmly either to Brussels or Moscow. The ‘westerners’ in Ukrainian politics cannot comply with EU demands to cleanse the state and political institutions from the shady influence of corrupt oligarchs; the ‘easterners’ cannot suppress or control the violent revulsion against the Kremlin and its methods that dominates the politics and culture of half the country.   […] There are three possible futures for Ukraine. In the short term some kind of continuation of the status quo of indecision and drift seems the most likely alternative, but such a volatile and unsatisfactory status quo is unlikely to endure into the indefinite future. When and if the status quo finally ends, Ukraine can go one of two ways. One is partition: the east and the west go their separate ways, as the eastern portion returns to the Kremlin’s embrace, and the west prepares for the EU. The alternative is that either Moscow or the West succeeds in drawing the whole country to its side.

But as we sit largely on the sidelines and watch these developments, unlike 1989, we may wonder for whom we should be rooting. David Burge, who blogs as Iowahawk, gives a handy rule of thumb. As last count, Ukrainian protestors have toppled at least 50 statutes of Lenin.

As Burge tweeted, “If you want to know who the good guys are in Ukraine, they're the ones pulling down Lenin statues”

If you want to know who the good guys are in Ukraine, they're the ones pulling down Lenin statues. — David Burge (@iowahawkblog) February 22, 2014


Photo credit: Snamess / Flickr

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