In Ukraine’s two decades as an independent state, the prospect of disintegration has never looked so real. On Wednesday night, during talks with opposition leaders, President Viktor Yanukovych offered a truce in the clashes between police and protesters; it failed almost immediately after it was announced. More than twenty new civilian casualties were reported, just as European foreign ministers arrived to meet with Yanukovych in Kiev.Yanukovych has lost credibility, not just with the street protesters who are demanding his resignation but with those who voted for him four years ago as well. He has also lost it with Western leaders, who are considering sanctions against his country, and, probably, with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, his crucial supporter.
Ukraine is balancing on the brink of a large-scale armed conflict. The announcement of the truce on the Presidential Web site cited “the start to negotiations with the aim of ending bloodshed, and stabilizing the situation in the state in the interests of social peace.” But it was preceded, a bit earlier, by the alarming announcement of a nationwide “anti-terrorist operation” and the replacement of the chief of the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces, who was reported to have raised his voice in opposition to the use of the military against the people.
Yanukovych, from his perspective, has to stay in power at any cost. He had his most serious political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, jailed. If he loses power, he can expect that the same will happen to him, especially after he has brought his country to a bloody political crisis in which several dozen people have already been killed and hundreds wounded. His circle of cronies, his son among them, many of whom have enriched themselves through corruption during his tenure, may face the same fate.
He is also desperate for cash. Ukraine is poor (a large number of migrant workers come to Russia looking for jobs), and its economy is in shambles. Until late last year, Yanukovych was negotiating an association agreement with Europe, but then he abruptly changed his mind. Loans from European and international organizations were available only with strings attached, dependent on the implementation of reforms that mandated more transparency and thus were bound to weaken Yanukovych’s grip on power. In the meantime, Russia was threatening to make things very hard for Ukraine if it opted for a rapprochement with the European Union—and those threats were very real. Putin was promising fifteen billion dollars on the condition that Ukraine stay away from Europe. Yanukovych opted for Russia, and this caused the first wave of street protests (the Euromaidan), which—after a series of ugly attacks on protesters and the passage of Draconian laws in full contempt of normal legal procedure—evolved into a demand that the President step down. Another demand was for a revision of the constitution that would turn Ukraine back into a parliamentary republic. (Yanukovych had earlier orchestrated amendments that significantly expanded his Presidential powers.) Demonstrations escalated far beyond the capital, especially in the western regions of Ukraine, where protesters seized government buildings and, in some places, set them on fire.
President Putin is just as anxious to keep Ukraine in his orbit as Yanukovych is to stay in power. For Putin, the stakes are very high, obviously higher than they are for the European Union or the United States. Putin is generally disinclined to compromise, particularly on matters of Russia’s stature vis-à-vis the West. He is ready to pay a lot (his pledge of fifteen billion dollars is a good illustration) to keep Ukraine away from Europe. But, now that Yanukovych has proved incapable of controlling his own country, Putin, after committing the initial tranche of three billion dollars, seems to have suspended the payments. (As with many aspects of the crisis, there is a lack of clarity on this point.) Regaining control is vital for Yanukovych, and the only way he now sees to accomplish this is by use of force.
The European Union and the United States may be concerned and alarmed, but the West has not been able to do much in the past months to prevent the unravelling in Ukraine. Early on, Europe allowed itself to be pulled into Putin’s zero-sum game. Putin’s policies may be risky and unwise, but he has a clear goal; he is determined and relentless, and has taken advantage of Yanukovych’s desperate situation. Western policies with regard to Ukraine have not looked especially efficient or wise, either, and they lack the sort of focussed vision that Putin has. Ukrainian’s economy and geography, its history and culture, and its people’s sentiments make it impossible for Ukraine to become either fully pro-European or pro-Russian.
Ukraine is a nation divided, and this dramatically exacerbates its other problems. During the two decades since it gained independence, it has struggled to build a nation but has not got far. Ukraine’s divide is commonly described as being between, on one side, its east and south, which are linguistically and culturally closer to Russia, and its west, which has strong ties with Poland and historical roots in Austria-Hungary.
In fact, the divisions are more diverse and complex, but Ukraine’s eastern regions are indeed more similar to Russia and share its decades of Soviet history and memories, including pride in defeating Nazi Germany, in the Second World War, which is a key event in holding the Russian nation together. The western parts were annexed to the Soviet Union in the course of and following the Second World War, and had a history of resistance to the Soviet occupation; nationalistic, anti-Russian sentiments are fairly common there. Western Ukrainians have long loathed Yanukovych, whom they see as an unambiguously pro-Russian figure, dragging Ukraine “back under Russian occupation.” From that perspective, it is no wonder that Ukrainians of the western regions have actively joined the Kiev protests. And yet the western parts are also less urban and less industrialized than the eastern territories. Kiev, which has increasingly turned into a battlefield, is not part of Ukraine’s west, either geographically or historically; it’s a cosmopolitan and European city, and this defines its culture and politics. To give an idea—still a fairly superficial one—of the dangerous diversity of Ukraine, there’s the problem of the Crimean Peninsula, a mostly pro-Russian region with formal autonomy, where existing separatist sentiments appear to be furtherincited by Russian emissaries.
Ukraine’s brittle nationhood (or its disunited nation, however one looks at it), and the related risk of disintegration, calls for wise, broad-minded, and tolerant leadership. But none of Ukraine’s post-Soviet Presidents (Yanukovych is the fourth) has risen to this challenge. His immediate predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, was committed to the idea of Ukrainian nationalism and strongly emphasized the country’s victimhood at the hands of Moscow’s Communist government. His Presidency was marked by multiple political crises, early parliamentary elections, and economic decline. When Yanukovych came to power, he pulled in the opposite direction, using the industrial east as his power base and recently falling under Putin’s influence.
The anti-Yanukovych opposition in Kiev is amazingly strong-spirited and self-sacrificial; protesters in Independence Square are driven by love for Ukraine and a desire to make it a better place. But, all through these dramatic past three months, they have been mostly oblivious of their compatriots in the east. “The political corpse of … Yanukovych cannot lead the country for much longer…. There will emerge new ideas and new heroes. If only (Ukraine) will manage to solve the main problem of this protest—its inability to raise the larger part of the nation, the second act will be fantastic and will transform … the lives of Ukrainians,” a sympathetic Russian liberal wrote in late January. The second act, as it played out this week, has so far brought mayhem and bloodshed.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he still shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."