As violence and mayhem surge in Ukraine’s capitol, Kiev, fear is growing that Europe, the United States and Russia may be on a collision course.
Ukraine’s latest crisis began last November after Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an economic cooperation/integration pact with the European Union. Instead, near bankrupt Kiev accepted a Russian offer to supply heavily discounted natural gas and a pledge to buy billions worth of its shaky bonds.
Demonstrations erupted in Kiev and, later, Lvov. The Russian-backed Yanukovich government reacted with brutal police repression. Violence has mounted in recent days, with at least two demonstrators killed and scores injured on both sides. Moscow is making warnings.
This spreading crisis is of utmost geopolitical importance. It will determine the fate of 46 million Ukrainians, Russia’s future, and the stability of Eastern Europe.
Ukrainians are bitterly divided: western Ukraine, which mostly speaks Ukrainian, looks to the west and borders on Poland, a member of the EU. Predominantly Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine looks east to neighboring Russia. The Crimea was Russian until Nikita Khrushchev gave it in 1954 on a whim (some say fuelled by vodka) to Ukraine. Crimea’s large Muslim population was destroyed or exiled by Stalin.
Ukrainian and Russian speakers understand one another’s tongue. The problem is more about economic and mentality than language, ethnicity or religion.
Western Ukraine championed the EU deal that would have begun integrating their nation with the rich EU and cast off the heavy hand of Russian political and economic influence. The example of booming EU member Poland inspired Ukraine’s western partisans. Ukraine’s ardent nationalists yearned to make a final break from Russia, which has never really accepted their nation’s 1991 independence from Moscow and has battled Ukrainian nationalists since the 1920’s.
The EU saw the trade pact with Ukraine as part of its grand strategy to keep pushing its borders east, a campaign that deeply alarms Russia.
But eastern Ukraine, notably its industrial Donetsk basin, feared that growing integration with the EU would wipe out their region’s antiquated manufacturing industry, mining, steel firms, commodity companies and chemical plants, causing high unemployment.
Ukraine’s inefficient, post-Soviet companies could not compete with the EU’s powerhouse integrated producers. The same phenomena was seen in former East Germany, where reunion with West Germany doomed most of the East’s rust-belt industries.
Eastern Ukrainians traditionally look to Russia as their cultural foundation. Most Russians regard Ukraine as their historic heartland, the cradle of Russian civilization and ethos.
When Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said that the fall of the Soviet Union was modern history’s greatest tragedy, he was clearly thinking of the loss of heartland Ukraine, Russia’s breadbasket and gateway to the West. For many Russians, sunny, easy-going southern Ukraine is their region’s version of Italy.
Outsiders have been pouring gasoline on Ukraine’s fires. European and American politicians beat a path to Kiev to denounce the Yanukovich government, which first took power in 2004-05 by fraudulent elections.
US Senator John McCain and high-ranking US officials have gone to Kiev and called for the ouster of its government. Interestingly, they did not go to Cairo to denounce the increasingly brutal fascist dictatorship of Egypt’s US and Saudi-financed military junta.
Western intelligence services have been stirring Ukraine’s pot, using covert funding and advanced social media techniques to rally opposition to the government. Russia’s intelligence services have also been active, but more discreetly. Opponents of the government have been poisoned, abducted, tortured and even murdered by pro-Yanukovich thugs.
As Ukraine boils, the US has been turning up the heat on Russia and leader Putin, who is being vilified and attacked by the tame western media. The Sochi winter games have also become a target.
How dare those Ruskis use money and gas to bribe Ukraine to stay in Moscow’s orbit? The West is supposed to have a monopoly on such strong-arm tactics.
If violence continues to rend Ukraine, the inevitable question of partition will arise. Just like Czechs and Slovaks, Ukrainians may decide to go separate ways. Unless the hot-headed Ukrainians can reach some stable compromise, divorce may be their only option. Bad, of course, but not as bad as a truly scary confrontation between NATO and Russia over Ukraine.
Unimaginable? Well, few thought about Sarajevo or Bosnia in 1914.