Ukraine: A Tale of Two Hemispheres?
The Ukrainian crisis that publicly unfolded a year-and-a-half ago is commonly conceived as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s exploitation of Ukraine’s borderland characteristic. Mainstream summary of the conflict is such: Ukraine is wedged between Russia on the east, and Europe on the west and its history between the two left it culturally and politically divided. However, up until 2013 there was never public contention or even general public knowledge about a split between Ukraine’s East and West. It was in 2013 when Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych rejected an economic offer from the EU that the nation’s political interests were publicly throttled between the West and Russia. When protests broke out against the rejection, the conflict was immediately defined as a manifestation of tensions between an east-west divide. This was followed with a Russian intervention which President Vladimir Putin justified as aiming to counter the threat to the Ukrainian people from what he considers an illegal coup against the legitimate government of President Viktor Yanukovych. Putin used a false justification here; the vast majority of Ukrainians who came out to protest in Kyiv were peaceful and the Ukrainian parliament legally impeached Yanukovych.
Ukrainians are a group united by their own political identity and interests. Russia has purposefully exploited a perceived division that suggests Eastern Ukrainians have a desire to be Russian. This exertion of pressure stems from Russia’s desire to further her own interests. Reducing the conflict to cultural geography is tragic to the underlying implications of the current crisis: Putin’s attempt to a construct a proper rival against the west—a Eurasian Union—with Ukraine as a staple foundation.
The linguistic divide between Eastern and Western Ukraine is factually present, but it is stereotypically summarized in a poor light. The first language of an individual does not necessarily dictate what their political allegiances are. In his Diaries, Kurkov writes: “I am a Russian myself, after all, an ethnically Russian citizen of Ukraine. But I am not ‘a Russian,’ because I have nothing in common with Russia and its politics. I do not have Russian citizenship and I do not want it.” Despite this clear logic, the vehicle of language is continuously being addressed as a method to declare the conflict as one between east-west differences.
Russia represents its attachment to Ukraine through bonds that are historical, contemporary, and personal. Russian history is embedded in Ukraine, tracing back to roots in the first East Slavic state which stretch from the Baltic to the Black Sea from the 9th century to the mid-13th century. The capital was established in Kiev and the kingdom converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in 988, laying the foundation of the modern Russian church. Yet in the last two centuries the Russian fixation on Ukraine rises above historical sentiment. Years of territory carving by competing powers followed due to Russia’s lack of natural borders such as rivers and mountains along its western frontier. David Clark, a chairman of the Russia Foundation Think Tank, states that ‘[Russia’s] leaders have traditionally seen the maintenance of a sphere of influence over the countries around it as a source of security’. Russian interests in Ukraine in the past 200 years have been less attributable to a historical connection between peoples than to a calculated strategy of national security.
There are clear and strategic reasons for Putin’s refusal to give up hold over the nation. Ukraine provides Russia access to the Black Sea by hosting its warm water fleet in Sevastopol; a location crucial to the mainly land-powered state. Key pipelines which transport Russia’s oil and gas to Europe—the staple of Russia’s economy—lie in Ukraine. These geographical properties of Ukraine make it essential to Putin’s potential Eurasian Union. Yet Putin’s use of his Russian media monopoly has allowed him to depict Eastern Ukrainian desire of independence as a factor of Ukraine’s status as mere pawn of Western hegemony. By narrowing the scope of Russian and eastern Ukrainian populations and framing Ukraine as a mere puppet to Washington, London, and Berlin, he has managed to conceal his own economic and hegemonic interests. It is no secret that Russian leaders have adamantly opposed NATO enlargement into the Baltic states and in recent years have made it clear they would not be bystanders to their strategically important neighbour’s transformation into a Western bastion. Putin has used the linguistic and cultural discrepancies to frame Ukraine’s political desires in favour of his own geo-political interest. Yet instead of feeling threatened by Yanukovych’s departure—or celebrating the Russian intervention which followed—the majority of eastern Ukrainians shared westerners’ reactions to these developments. A March poll by GfK Ukraine found two-thirds of eastern Ukrainians backed Yanukovych’s impeachment after he fled from office and his massive corruption was revealed. It also reported that under one-fourth of them thought Russia’s annexation of Crimea was justified. Regardless of being Eastern or Western Ukrainian, the majority simply wants to maintain their Ukrainian sovereignty. “The population of Ukraine clearly has no great desire that Ukraine should be part of Russia,” says KIIS CEO Vladimir Paniotto.
Western policymakers were initially shocked by the seizure of Crimea in late February 2014 and the realization of not only Putin’s intentions but his capabilities. Now that he owns Crimea and influences two rebellious provinces in the southeast Donbas region, he has what one journalist called ‘managed instability’. A large portion of Russia’s current messy economic situation is stemming from Western economic sanctions. Given the current political climate, however, these sanctions have minimal leverage on Putin’s decision to leave and grant Ukraine full sovereignty. The possibility of Ukrainian economic collapse combined with the heavy presence of pro-separatist Russians, creates a plausible situation for Ukraine slipping further away from being a European Westernized state. Whether or not Putin will widen the war in Ukraine —there are clear implications for his current position there. For as long as he remains involved in the conflict there, Ukraine will remain a war-ridden, divided state with a much smaller prospect of securing ties with NATO and the EU alike. President Obama made promises last year during a visit to the Baltics that the United States would honour NATO Article V in the event of a launched hybrid attack into the Baltics. Obama’s decision to make that promise is an direct threat to Putin, pointing to evidence that Western leaders realize the Ukrainian crisis is truly more than a product of a cultural divide.
Nation wide, Ukrainians currently value their independence as revealed by the majority vote in Ukraine on May 25th for President Petro Poroshenko; a man committed to European integration while smoothing ties with Russia. Despite the majority’s desire, pro-Russian separatists are blocking the democratic efforts ensued by the Minsk Protocol I and II. Poroshenko met Putin in Minsk on August 26, 2014, which followed the proposal of twelve provisions of the Minsk I Protocol with the purpose of establishing a ceasefire agreement. Yet even under Minsk I, military, political, economic, and humanitarian dimensions of the conflict continued to deteriorate into 2015. The persistent violence and Russian interference also stymied OSCE border-monitoring efforts which were required under Minsk I. This led to the subsequent creation of Minsk II which combined and reflected the fundamental interests of all stakeholders (the Ukrainian majority represented by Poroshenko, the Separatists, and Russia). Minsk II proposes decentralization for rebel groups instead of secession. Protocol for the representation of all interests is currently ambiguous which is reflective of the fact that sides could not agree on terms. It gives no clarity on questions of how constitutional amendments are to be executed or who the Ukrainian Parliament is required to coordinate with. The challenge persists in that Minsk II protocol cannot succeed until a more explicit definition of decentralization is established within it.
Russia-Ukraine talks in Paris ended October 2 with sub-optimal results concerning an election that would be taken under Ukrainian law, but no date has been given. Samuel Greene, an expert of Russian affairs at King’s College in London, also cast doubt on Russia’s new “commitments”.“The thing about Vladimir Putin is, it really doesn’t matter what he says”, Greene wrote in The Atlantic on Friday. “While we don’t yet understand Putin’s plan in Syria, we do know what he’s after in Ukraine: A permanently frozen conflict that leaves the Ukrainian government in Kiev eternally less than sovereign, depriving a country of 45 million people of any real purchase on its own political or economic future”.
The majority of citizens agree that their Ukraine should remain a single entity. But as Putin continues to provide sub-optimal definitions within the Minsk Protocol II with a lack of credibility to satisfy the conditions of the second Protocol after having defied the first, little optimism exists for the majority of Ukrainians and their political desires. What persists instead is Putin’s stubborn stance of a Russian regional hegemony and the prospect of a Eurasian Union.
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