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:
- 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.
- The establishment of an interim government that largely excludes representatives from the Donbas and the south.
- Threats to the rights of Russian-speakers throughout Ukraine and their right to use their native language.
- Intrusions into Ukrainian politics both financially and personally by leaders of the United States and the European Union.
- 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 (http://www.jvkoshiw.com/#!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 (http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2014/05/02/Billionaire-Poroshenko-leads-field-in-Ukraines-May-25-presidential-election/3451399054225/).
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 (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26079957), 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 (http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/stephen-harper-pledges-continued-support-for-ukraine-1.2582669).
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, http://www.thenation.com/blog/176189/chance-putin-has-given-obama-diplomacy#) and more frequently his detractors (http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/timothy-snyder-about-europe-and-ukraine-putin-s-project-12898389-p11.html ). Both sides in turn have accused the other of being pro-Nazi (http://lb.ua/news/2014/05/03/265204_ostanovite_fashizm.html), 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 (http://gazeta.zn.ua/POLITICS/zvezda_i_politicheskaya_smert_yuriya_meshkova.html). 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 (http://www.latimes.com/opinion/commentary/la-oe-herlihy-russia-ukraine-odessa-20140501%2c0%2c1564808.story#axzz30Z862jQU) 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.