Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Will Ukraine Continue to Exist as a Sovereign State?

For many years I've said a terrible thing to my Ukrainian friends in private conversations:

"I don't even know if Ukraine will exist in twenty years." 

The country has only been independent for a little over two decades and suffers from deep — though hardly insurmountable — political, cultural, and linguistic divisions. It has historically not remained independent for lengthy periods of time, and regional wars tend to rewrite its boundaries. Even though a whole generation has grown up accustomed to the idea of an independent Ukraine, a sense of fragility has always lingered in the air.

It appears that Ukraine's moment of truth has arrived. The country currently known as Ukraine is now at a historical crossroads. The range of possible near-term scenarios is more or less clear, but there is absolutely no certainty as to which path the country will take.

The same could have been said about Maidan a month or two ago. Nobody was sure which side would win, and there were many moments of near-despair among Maidan supporters. The failure of Berkut riot police to clear Maidan by brute force and Yanukovich's sudden flight to Russia caught most people by surprise — apparently even Putin.

Back then most people outside of politics (me included) thought that the struggle was about standing up for basic human rights and freedoms and getting rid of a regime that systematically trampled those rights and busied itself with self-enrichment. Since then a major paradigm shift has taken place among large numbers of Ukrainians as it has become plainly evident that the real game is not an internal, domestic struggle against the oligarchic regime of Yanukovich and his family, but a much shrewder long-term geopolitical game planned out some years ago in the Kremlin and well-known to Western diplomats.

The game revolves around the Kremlin's desire to reestablish the former sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, increase its territory where possible by adding areas with large numbers of ethnic Russians, and surround its borders with non-threatening states.

I tried to write that as neutrally as possible. I could restate it in a way that would make most Westerners shudder. But ultimately, is the Kremlin's desire that much different from what any major world power strives to do?

I don't feel I can rightfully condemn Russia's leaders, or tell people whom Crimea should belong to, or what Ukraine's borders should be, or whether it should try to join the E.U. and/or NATO. These are questions that don't have unequivocal right or wrong answers, and it's up to more impassioned people than I to figure that out.

If you take a really long view, such matters are of less importance than preserving and improving soil fertility and biodiversity, the loss of which would throw human civilization back to a much more primitive stage of development and permanently limit humanity's options. Compared to preserving the basic ecology upon which civilization depends, the problem of Ukraine is relatively trivial.

And yet it's one of the most important geopolitical moments of the past decade, and it will affect tens of millions of people and cause long-lasting global repercussions.

I'd like to refer readers to two interviews with political analyst and former Putin aide Andrey Illarionov which provide, arguably, the greatest clarity as to what is going on in Ukraine. The interviews are both in Russian and can be Google translated to a fair level of readability.

1. "Putin Believes that Part of Ukraine Should Belong to Russia" (10.10.2013)

2. "No One Will Help the Victim of Agression If the Victim Himself Does Not Resist" (17.03.2014)

If Illarionov's understanding of the situation is correct (it makes a lot of sense and is gaining traction in Ukraine), then it appears that the new government of Ukraine is currently pursuing a strategy of non-resistance and reliance upon foreign powers that will likely lead to the eventual loss of national sovereignty. Somewhat surprisingly, some western powers, such as the United States, are urging Ukraine to continue showing restraint and not react to provocation. And yet if Maidan protesters had pursued such a risk-averse course of action, Yanukovich would still be in power today.

There is a whole list of practical steps that the new government could have taken in the past 20 days to safeguard Ukraine's borders and critical infrastructure and make it much more difficult for the Kremlin to carry out its plans in Crimea and eastern and southern Ukraine. I remember Illarionov listing these actions about two weeks ago.

It is unclear (to me) whether this failure is due to new leaders simply lacking the courage to take responsibility for decisions that could cost the lives of Ukrainian troops, because of organizational chaos following their sudden rise to power, or because of an actual behind-the-scenes agreement with Moscow, western countries, and/or competing political and business groups who have their own stakes in the situation. In any case, Illarionov describes how such a strategy of appeasement is likely to lead both to a loss of sovereignty and loss of life, mainly among Ukrainian nationalists, Crimean Tatars, and Maidan supporters who risk being targeted as threats to the new status quo.

It is conceivable that there could be more Maidans in the near future if Ukrainians become upset with the new government's lack of decisiveness in defending Ukraine's sovereignty. There seems to be both a growing awareness of these issues (news and viewpoints spread very fast these days) and a growing readiness for war among much of the population of Kiev and likely elsewhere around Ukraine. These Maidans could bring more decisive, hawkish, and nationalistic leaders to power, as often happens durings times of war. That would probably not be good news for the Kremlin; I don't know what their plan is for that scenario, but their risks would grow substantially.

It's possible the new government will become more decisive as time goes on, but it's hard to imagine that happening without sustained popular pressure (i.e. demonstrations). It's probably safe to assume that the Kremlin and western powers have their representatives inside Ukraine who convey certain messages (offers, guarantees, threats, etc.) to national politicians. In the absence of popular pressure at home, Ukrainian leaders often end up serving other masters.

It's pretty clear now what those masters want. The West wants to see Ukraine gradually integrate into Europe, harmonize legislation and political culture, and open up its markets. The Kremlin wants to see Ukraine back in the fold or at least politically benign with minimal risk of popular uprisings.

The only real unknown is the popular self-organizing force that has come to be known as "Maidan." Will Ukrainians come together to force their leaders to protect national interests? Will they decide that it is all the same to them and not resist the scenario that is unfolding? Will only the more politically active western and central parts of Ukraine rise up, and will they fail to gain political influence over the east and south, leading to a possible split of the country? Will popular resistance appear only after Ukraine has effectively been split up and occupied?

Honestly, I have no idea what will happen. But what seems clear now is that Maidan is the unknown variable with the most power to drastically change the outcome for Ukraine.


  1. Interesting article Rick thanks for sharing your insight. I guess the only thing I can say is that when Ukriane broke free they had a huge nuclear arsenal. They agreed to dismantle all nukes with the agreement if a nuclear power attacked them they would be supported. Even Russia agreed to this. So now that this has happened how do countries that encouraged disarmament not support Ukraine without telling other countries not to build nukes and we (western countries) will come to your aid if need be. Iran comes to mind as they are being pressured to not pursue nukes. Anyway... it is a tough situation and there are no easy answers.

    1. I agree, Kim. I hope to write a post soon explaining how the Russians view the situation and the current mood in Russia surrounding these events.

  2. Is it true that the west and eastern parts of Ukraine are bitterly divided? Conversely, as some western media reports, is it true that the western and eastern parts of Ukraine are "one people" that easily transition back and forth between speaking Russian and Ukrainian and harbor no ill will to each other? Or is something in between these extremes more true?

    All of the news media is suggesting that the referendum in Crimea to vote to join Russia is a complete sham, and that most of the current government of Crimea is a sham propped up by fringe but violent separatist movements. The first one of these things seems like it is clearly true, but overall it is difficult for me, as an observer to determine whether the people of Crimea really feel the Russian nationalism that is being reported (I lean towards, no).

    1. Aestrivex, "bitterly divided" would be a gross overstatement, but so is "one people." There is a political divide and a linguistic divide, and to some degree a religious divide, however, one must consider that: 1) most Ukrainians are politically passive, particularly in the east and south; 2) most Ukrainians speak both Russian and Ukrainian, often fluently, and almost everyone understands both languages; 3) most Ukrainians are not terribly religious.

      There is occasional annoyance in parts of western and central Ukraine when Ukrainian visitors do not speak/understand Ukrainian at all, and vice versa in the east and south. But the real ill will is directed towards specific groups of people: 1) among Ukrainians in the west and center — towards politicians seen as supporting "anti-Ukrainian" policies and towards visitors from Russia who have a superpower mentality and feel that they should own the place; and 2) among Russians in the far east and south — towards radical Ukrainian nationalists who they see as threatening their right to use Russian.

      Unfortunately, the second category is totally blown out of proportion by Russian media.

      On one hand the referendum was conducted improperly and the current leadership of Crimea came to power through extremely suspicious circumstances, but on the other hand support for joining Russia was probably in the range of 40-45% according to recent legitimate polls (the one in March was highly suspect and showed 77%). But it almost doesn't matter now, because people who disagree with the situation are starting to leave Crimea. Also, much of the population just wants "stability" and is essentially politically passive.

      There is more Russian nationalism in Crimea than in almost all other parts of Ukraine, though we're seeing quite a bit in the east now, too. But many of the provocateurs are actually Russian citizens.

  3. If Russians living in other countries decide they don't like it there, why don't they move to Russia rather than encouraging the Russian government to usurp the land they have squatted on?

    1. In many cases they actually have moved back to Russia since the fall of the USSR. But in some regions like parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, ethnic Russians constitute a local majority of the population, and they have a long history in those lands and can't be considered "squatters."