David Marples

The tragic events in Odesa indicate the escalating war in Ukraine: from separatists, to ultras, football fans, or the Right Sector, the groups involved are fanatical and determined, though it is not always clear what their respective desired outcomes would be. Nor is it clear what the goals of Vladimir Putin are or when they will be revealed.

If we analyze the complaints and grievances of the separatists and their Russian patrons, the following spring most readily to mind:

  1. The takeover of power in Kyiv through a coup allegedly conducted by a right-wing paramilitary group that brought about the ouster of the elected president, Viktor Yanukovych.
  2. The establishment of an interim government that largely excludes representatives from the Donbas and the south.
  3. Threats to the rights of Russian-speakers throughout Ukraine and their right to use their native language.
  4. Intrusions into Ukrainian politics both financially and personally by leaders of the United States and the European Union.
  5. Fear that Ukraine will join not only European structures, but also, importantly, the NATO alliance. A subtext here is the post-2004 eastward expansion of NATO and its threat to the interests and territory of the Russian Federation.

All five of these points have been cited at various junctures as reasons why separatists have taken over East Ukrainian towns, established their own local leaderships, fought battles against Ukrainian government forces, and now plan referenda on their future; and why Russia opted to annex Crimea, following a contentious referendum.

Taking the points in turn, none can be described as obviously valid. No doubt Euromaidan, at its peak a peaceful and sincere demonstration against the government and presidency of Yanukovych, the most corrupt leader in Europe, ultimately turned violent with clashes against Berkut riot police. But, while not condoning the violence and the policies of leaders of some right-wing forces (Dmytro Yarosh, Oleh Tyahnybok, etc.), simply to allege that the whole civic protest constituted a right-wing coup, led by neo-Nazis, is outright propaganda.

Moreover, as the British analyst J.V. Koshiw has convincingly argued (!Why-President-Yanukovych-fled-Ukraine/ck8a/F4D49016-F69F-45D6-AE4A-027C10E02B79), former president Yanukovych was not overthrown; rather he abandoned his office, and ironically at a time when according to an agreement brokered with EU leaders and observed by Russia, he could have remained in power until the end of his legal term.

The interim government was elected from within the parliament. With the departure of Yanukovych, the assembly naturally assumed leadership of the country pending new presidential elections. Though some parties chose not to take part, most obviously Regions Party and the Communists—but also the opposition party Udar, led by Vitaly Klitschko—it is hardly surprising that they lack representatives in the interim Cabinet.

In fact, Batkivshchyna Party, whose members hold the positions both of Acting President and Prime Minister, has gained most. Prior to the Euromaidan, it was the second-largest political party in Ukraine. Yet even with the release of its leader Yulia Tymoshenko, there are few indications that in the event of a free and fair election, its representative will be the next president. It is, somewhat ironically given that Euromaidan was in part a protest against corruption and oligarchs, the chocolate manufacturer Petro Poroshenko who leads convincingly in opinion polls (

Turning to the third question, namely the interim government established to conduct new presidential elections, it quickly rescinded an initial decision to abrogate the controversial language law guaranteeing citizens’ right to use their language if they constituted more than 10% of the population. Aside from that instance, there have been no threats to Russian-language speakers anywhere in Ukraine. On the contrary, they made up a substantial number of those who took part in the Euromaidan.

The fourth question is not so easily dismissed, at least in terms of perception. The taped conversations of Geoffrey Pyatt and Victoria Nuland (, and the public appearances in central Kyiv by John McCain did indeed signal that the United States supported the civic protests. Similarly in my own country of Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who visited Kyiv on March 22, supported the Ukrainian position unequivocally—even before the invasion of Crimea (

Western leaders perceived the situation last November as one in which Ukrainians were deprived of their keen desire to sign the Association Agreement with the EU. And that may well be true, though there was also significant opposition. But their open involvement without doubt incited in part the Russian response.

It is also true (question 5), that the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO incensed Russia. Yet the idea was virtually inconceivable in Ukraine too, prior to the annexation of Crimea. And nothing Western leaders did merited the violent confrontations that have ensued. They are a result, it seems, of two factors: first, the innate fears of Russian president Vladimir Putin that once again, his country seemed to be in full-scale retreat before the onslaught of the liberal West; and second, the alienation of many parts of eastern and southern Ukraine from the changes in Kyiv.

The Putin issue has been analyzed ad nauseam for several weeks in the Western media. He has his supporters (see, for example, and more frequently his detractors ( ). Both sides in turn have accused the other of being pro-Nazi (, causing Toronto political scientist Lucan Way to respond on Facebook to one such analogy: “I think there should be a BAN on all Nazi analogies for the next 10 years. We will all be the better for it.”

But the situation in Crimea and East Ukrainian cities merits a thorough analysis. Their disaffection was noted by then Chair of Parliament Leonid Kravchuk following Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991. He visited Simferopol in the latter part of that year (Pravda Ukrainy, October 12, 1991, p. 1; heading off calls for a referendum on independence. In Donbas there were calls for the introduction of a federative system and a secessionist initiative (Pravda Ukrainy, October 3, 1991, p. 3). Both regions ultimately supported the referendum for an independent Ukraine and to postpone their grievances.

A crisis nonetheless quickly emerged in Crimea in the early 1990s, when Republican Party of Crimea leader Yury Meshkov became president of the ASSR. It was “resolved” only by Kyiv’s firmness and the abolition of the position of Crimean president ( On the other hand, subsequently, there had been no major calls for independence on the peninsula or for joining Russia, other than from members of the Russian Duma and the then mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov.

The Donbas is a complex case. As Patricia Herlihy remarked recently ( with regard to Putin’s New Russia conception, its major towns, Donetsk and Luhansk, owed their founding to a Welshman and Englishman respectively. Putin’s historical understanding exhibits a peculiar, if not completely ignorant knowledge of the past. The Donbas, however, was an important industrial region of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. And perhaps most significantly, worker protests there have continued intermittently since the late 1980s, largely due to the economic downturn and dire situation in the Ukrainian coalmines.

It is critical that the Ukrainian government address the needs of industrial centers in the east of the country. These towns are run down and decrepit—Horlivka, which I visited a decade ago, is among the starkest examples. Coal miners and steelworkers are only too aware that in Russia, including in that part of the Donbas coalfield that runs into Rostov Oblast, their salaries could be up to six times higher overnight. They resent most bitterly the avarice, greed, and selfishness of regional self-made billionaire businessmen who have exploited their labor.

Still, taken overall, the claims of separatists and their supporters over the border regarding Euromaidan are largely specious. Though Western leaders may have encouraged the association with the EU, full membership for Ukraine was never on the table. In fact, most EU members are wary of further expansion. The violence that has ensued since March is the result of the actions of a militant minority that has conducted kidnappings, carried out assaults on locals, and resisted government forces with the sort of weaponry of which most terrorists could only dream. Its actions have the covert and formidable backing of a substantial Russian army parked around borders of Ukraine in three directions and the open support of a belligerent Russian president.

Again, none of the above is to suggest that the temporary leaders of Ukraine have always acted wisely, but that reflects their predicament. They face a situation that changes daily, as they encounter yet another government takeover in eastern towns, led by self-appointed mayors and military leaders who act like local satraps in the manner of Chechnya president Ramzan Kadyrov (lacking only their pet tigers). Ukrainians see their country disintegrating about them, one that has struggled economically for twenty-three years, but has never questioned its own existence or territorial integrity. And nothing Ukraine has done merits such destruction.

A solution amenable to Putin would be to elect as president another Aleksandr Lukashenko (Belarus), i.e. a hardline leader who may stabilize the country, offer some token national rhetoric, but ultimately be loyal and subservient to Moscow. A second option, which seems inconceivable, is the division of the country, entailing the loss of its industrial heartland and Black Sea ports.

The third option is the one that has been chosen: new presidential elections, which should be followed closely by new parliamentary elections. All parts of Ukraine would then be represented in the new government. The separatists and their patron seem determined to prevent such an outcome, decrying neo-Nazis and juntas that supposedly threaten them from Kyiv. Eliminating the separatists carries the threat of a full-scale Russian invasion. Doing nothing results in the proliferation of city takeovers. And the longer the conflict continues, the more polarized the sides become.



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta


  1. A studious effort to bring objectivity to issues in a land much needing the same!

  2. Jorp

    Excellent piece! One more argument that Yanukovych’s ouster was not a coup here:

  3. Nellya Minas

    Interesting perspective and overview of the situation in Ukraine. I do wonder if Dr. Marples has close friends and family in Donetsk Oblast, because if he did then he should spend some time talking with them directly about how they feel about the situation; including, the long standing conflict between Western Ukrainians and Eastern Ukrainians over language rights. This is NOT a new conflict- for the past 25 years, many western Ukrainians (and the diaspora in North America) have labelled any Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine as not truly Ukrainian. Eastern Ukrainians have heard the anti-Russian rhetoric and Ukrainian ultra-nationalist slogans for years: Ukraine for Ukrainians, etc; and watched western Ukrainians literally spit in their faces when they find out that they are from the so-called Russian regions of Eastern Ukraine. They have experienced the hatred and prejudice against anyone with a Russian sounding last name. When it first came to power, the new government in Kiev was referring to the citizens of Donbas as ‘Russians’… rather than actively identifying them as Ukrainians- who speak Russian. The people in Donbas, and those in Southern and Central Ukraine, who speak Russian as their first language, have long been labelled as ‘idioti’ by the elite in Kiev and western Ukraine, and they have experienced the extreme prejudice and even hatred from some very vocal Ukrainian nationalists- and they’ve had enough! Most of the citizens of Ukraine who speak Russian as their first language continue to identify themselves as Ukrainians– but if this prejudice against them continues to be tolerated (and dare I say propogated by the Ukrainian diaspora) then Ukraine will continue to be divided and their citizens will continue to suffer.

    • To say Eastern Ukraine has been discriminated against by Kyiv is ridiculous. Who was in power for the last four years and where was he from? Simple question requiring a very simple answer.

    • Oleg

      @Nelly Minas:

      I will start by saying that, in general, I agree with you that, probably over the last 25 years, your characterization of the relatively poor treatment of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine seems accurate. I further think that equal status for Russian speakers, and greater tolerance generally, is a policy solution that should be actively promoted.

      However, I would note that your speaking only of “the last 25 years” paints a decidedly one-sided picture.Although I condemn the contempt directed at Russian speakers today, and further maintain it cannot be justified by anyone who espouses liberal and democratic values, it also cannot be said that it sprang up out of nowhere.

      One need only reflect on the relative positions of native Ukrainian and Russian speakers in Ukraine PRIOR TO 1991. To describe this earlier situation, one could almost re-write your paragraph by substituting Russian for Ukrainian, and Ukrainian for Russian, and it would be an equally accurate description of the historical state of affairs. A native Ukrainian speaker who did not speak Russian was, up until 1991, “tolerated,” but in many ways, those who did not speak Russian were effectively second class citizens in their own country. Lets say nothing of the fact that Russian speakers experienced nothing like the active and ruthless suppression of the Ukrainian language which lasted for decades under Stalin.

      Two wrongs do not make a right, and I reiterate that denigration of Russian speakers today cannot be justified by reference to past historical injustices. Nevertheless, Russian speakers should not pretend that the current animus against them simply sprang up out of the blue.

  4. One can go back even further. In 1894 my great-grandfather was one of the nine founders of Prosvita in his village near Borschiv in the Ternopil region under Austrian rule. The issue in the village was for Ukrainians to rise up from under Polish domination. In 1903 my great-grandfather emigrated to Manitoba where a hall was soon built on his homestead quarter. It was named Don Hall. They built a school called Don School. The post office was named Volga. Go figure!

  5. Pingback: Russian separatists continue rampage | Ukraine Scholars of North America

  6. Yuri Mencinsky

    The plight, as you put it, of Russian language speakers in the east is as nothing compared to the repression of the Ukrainian language for the last 150 years.

    Ever since Alexander II allowed his Prime Minster Valuev to apply progressive step by step state pressure in the 1870’s, to try to stem the revival of the Ukrainian language as a literary language it
    was suppressed, The ban became an issue in the Czarist domain.

    Ukrainian had made its modern debut in the middle of the 1840’s,
    in the writings of Taras Shevchenko, Ivan , Kotlyarevsky and others between 1709 in the 1850’s , For 150 years, following that defeat of the Ukrainian Kozak leader Ivan Mazepa ( of Byron fame) by Czarist general Menshikov, use of the language had declined, even in the villages.

    This decline was arrested, amid other factors, by Shevchenko,s Kobzar ( a collection of his powerful poetry). A former serf, he is still revered today by all, as a national treasure. Use of it ballooned in spite of the ban of the time..

    Then came the 1917.revolution in Czarist Russia. The Ukrainians
    attempted to form a new democratic state in 1918, only to lose it in the early 1920’s to the Soviet system.

    The Russian language became obligatory. Most schooling was carried out in Russian and in the villages (Ukraine was then largely rural), a hybrid language known as “surzhyk” – half Russian half Ukrainian dominated as well. Ukrainian had only revived in the short period of 1925-1930 and in the Brezhnev “stagnant” 1980’s.

    Since independence in 1991, Ukrainian has been the official state language.and had been introduced into the school system as a universal subject. Political and social resistance to acquire it within
    the family, has led to “All-Russia” fervour – with agitators refusing to learn Ukrainian in the local Donbas and Luhansk regions.

    .All the above applied mostly in the east and south. In the west,
    after Shevchenko and Kotlyarevsky, Ukrainian flourished despite
    half hearted attempts by the Polish administration to suppress.

  7. Morris Ilyniak

    Three points I would like to add to David Marples’ analysis and responses:

    1. The legitimacy of the current interim government is underscored by the fact that the previous administration headed by Mykola Azarov resigned on January 28, and that it technically remained in a “caretaker” state until a new cabinet was appointed.

    2. I agree with the point that Yanukovych abandoned the presidency, and that he was not formally impeached by the Verkhovna Rada as required by the constitution. However, it should also be noted that the constitution did not foresee a sitting President go into hiding.

    A sidebar: Its been said that Yanukovych’s departure was rather hasty. Not sure about that. He certainly had time to load up his helicopter, and there is evidence (people in Mezhihirya packing things that he had plans to escape in advance of the Feb 21 meeting.

    Another sidebar: We focus too much on Yanucovych’s departure. However, many others also flew the coop (Zakarchenko, Azarov, etc.); and, there was a general retreat of the security forces only a couple days after a mass killing. Eyewitness testimony from the maidan attests to the quiet on the streets. This suggests to me that Yanukovych’s “surrender” was in fact a coordinated action. Furthermore, my theory is that this was a coordinated action directed by Putin as a strategic retreat to draw in the Maidan movement. It would set the stage for the next stage of Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine viz. the regional separatist movements. I don’t have any evidence for this theory, but I think it is worth considering it as the story unfolds

    3. With respect to the contempt for “Russian speakers” point: Even in the Western Ukrainian citieis I have not observed what Nellya is saying, although I’m sure it does exist. Definitely in Kyiv, I find it hard to believe that Russian-speakers are held in contempt as not “true” Ukrainians. In fact, listening to the blogs and live streaming from the Maidan, I would say that Russian was still the dominant language.

    • David Mandel

      Just wondering what Marples thinks about the government in Kiev tarring the militants in Donbass as “terrorists” and sending in armed forces to kill them. They are, after all citizens of Ukraine (albeit Russian-speakers) who are have learnt from Maidan the tactics one can use against a governement they consider illegitimate.

      If Ukraine does break up or descend into civil war, the nationalists, who purport to love and defend Ukraine, and their apologists in the West, will bear a good share of the responsibility.

      • Oleg

        The FLQ in Canada are (were) regarded as an organization of terrorists. There membership, as far as I’m aware, was made up entirely of Canadian citizens. In Canada, however, the fact that the FLQ demanded Quebec independence, and in some instances were willing to give their lives for it (and to kill for it), was not seen as good grounds to begin a direct dialogue with them to negotiate the separation of Quebec from Canada.

        Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a US citizen.

      • Oleg

        To add to my earlier response, you can contrast Canada’s reaction to the FLQ with its response to the political movement for Quebec sovereignty. The latter did not act by force of arms, but through the ballot box. They are an accepted part of political life in Canada.

        As he arrived in Odessa on Sunday, Yatseniuk espoused a similar view. He said that the government was prepared to enter into a dialogue for greater regional autonomy with “anyone who would listen.” He quickly added, however, that “people carrying AK-74s are not interested in dialogue.”

        I imagine (in fact, I’m sure) that electoral candidates from the East that campaign on a platform of greater autonomy for the region would be permitted to run in elections to the Verkhovna Rada. It betrays a lack of confidence in the popularity of separatism in Donbass that the current self-appointed heads of the Donetsk Republic seem reluctant to engage in the established political process.

  8. Pingback: Marples: Separatists’ grievances | UKR-TAZ

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  10. I am saddened and angered this is taking place. There are bullies and greedy people everywhere, and often, they are the best armed. It takes much self restraint and generosity to develop a truly multicultural country, or world.

  11. Americans are weary. Our politicians, driven by the need to keep the military and their contractors employed, have tried to be the policeman of the world. It has bankrupted our economy, and corrupted our political system to the point that it no longer works at all. Americans are focusing inward now, trying to fix our broken roads, bridges, and schools. If you have a job in America, you consider yourself lucky. Forget about getting ahead. Survival is success now. The American political system is dead, broken beyond repair. Apathy reigns now. We look at Ukraine and hope that the people there will fight their own battles. We cannot afford to support any other countries now. We need to tend to our own wounds.

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