Friday, February 21, 2014
What 's Really Going On In The Ukraine
The Ukraine is in the news as violent protests shake the country.What's going on, and why is it important? Here's what you really need to know, as opposed to a lot of what you may be hearing.
Russia and the Ukraine have a history that goes back centuries, and it's pretty much all bad. Like Poland and the Baltic countries, the Ukraine marks the borderline between the Russian culture and western European culture, and to an extent the borderline between Catholicism and Othrodox Christianity, although the Ukraine is mixed in this regard.
Poland, the Ukraine and Lithuania in the Baltic Sea area were all once world powers, and a Polish/Lithuanian alliance actually invaded and took over Russia in the early 17th century. The Russians never forgot it.
The three countries made several attempts over the years to unite as one kingdom, which would have substantially changed the history of Europe and guaranteed their independence, but the underlying suspicions between the three, language and cultural differences and the inherent difficulties in how Poland's Sejm (a gathering of powerful nobles that was one of the first parliaments in Europe) was set up to make real consensus difficult all contributed to the failure of those attempts, and gradually all of these countries wound up under Russia's thumb.
After a brief period of independence after the Russian Revolution, the Ukraine again became part of the Russian Empire in 1919, this time a Soviet one.
The Soviets treated the Ukraine as a colony and essentially plundered it. They severely repressed the Ukraine's language, religion and culture and instituted forced collective farming, and when the Ukrainians were rebellious and continued to resist, Stalin literally seized every bit of food inside the Ukraine including the livestock and seed grain, removed it, sealed the borders and left the population to starve. Anywhere from three to seven million people were starved to death in an atrocity known as the Holodomor.
When the Nazis invaded, for the most part the Ukrainians were avid collaborators, partly because they understandably hated the Russians and saw Hitler's troops as liberators and partly because many Ukrainians shared their ideas about Jews. For all the Ukrainian rhetoric through the years about freedom and human dignity, historically some of the worst and most brutal pogroms against Jews were in the Ukraine. Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who is still a national hero in the Ukraine destroyed over 300 Jewish communities in the country. And in the early 20th century, vicious pogroms in the Ukraine and elsewhere in Russia were an impetus both for Jewish emigration to America and to Palestine.There are indications even today that not much has changed when it comes to Jews for a number of Ukrainians.
Many Ukrainians fought for Hitler in his SS against the Russians, and they were among the perpetrators of something that occurred at a place in the Ukraine called Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kiev where literally thousands of Jewish men, women and children were machine gunned to death, with the assistance and cooperation of the Ukrainians who participated in the carnage while people from the surrounding area watched, brought picnic lunches and applauded.
Needless to say, when the Red Army retook the area, the Ukrainians were not exactly very high in their esteem, and Soviet policy towards the Ukraine again returned to treating it as a colony and as a vital border area that needed to be held to prevent Russia from being invaded by outside forces again.The Ukrainian SSR was also turned into a major Soviet military outpost and arms manufacturing center in the cold war, and was home to a number of important and strategic military bases. packed with the best weapons systems the Soviets could make.
When the Soviet Empire crashed and burned, the Ukraine went their own way and declared their independence in 1991,but the country still maintained close ties to Russia and remained under Russian influence out of economic necessity.
The first real move towards independence from Russia occurred in 1994, when a rigged election and the subsequent outrage and unrest led to Victor Yushchenko becoming president,who favored closer ties to Europe and EU membership. This strained relations with the Russians (who actually tried to poison Yushchenko to stop him), and led to Russia attempting to blackmail the Ukraine by shutting off natural gas supplies to both the Ukraine and the EU, a must for heating due to the climate.
That ended up finally being settled more or less amicably, but due to political infighting a pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was elected in 2010, allegedly with covert Russian assistance. Yanukovych turned the Ukraine's focus back towards Russia, arresting politicians who favored closer alliance with the west and in November of 2013, refusing to sign the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement.
I recount this brief history in order to give you a bit of necessary background so that you understand the dynamics of what's happening now.
Yanukovych's failure to bring the Ukraine into the EU sparked massive protests, which have come to a head now. The majority of the Ukrainian people do not want to be a client state of Russia, and want EU membership.
The Russians, on the other hand, see a Europeanized Ukraine as a threat to their security, which is why Russian leader Vladimir Putin is so exercised about it. His carrot-and-stick performance includes the offer of a badly needed $15 billion aid package if the Ukraine stays out of the EU, and the threat of once again shutting off the gas in the middle of the European winter if the Ukrainians toss out Yanukovych and join the EU.
Yanukovych made a major error with a particularly brutal response to the protests, which involved a number of deaths and included snipers picking off people in the crowds. Many of Yanukovych's police refused to be a part of this and actually joined the protesters, or at least turned over their arms and equipment.
Yanukovych was forced to make a deal with the leaders of the opposition today, which commits him to early elections and reduces his presidential authority, along with granting amnesty to all protesters and firing the minister of the interior, who ordered the brutal response to the protesters and was a major security tool of Yanukovych.
Significantly, it also mandated the release of opposition politician and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been imprisoned for more than two years, and could very well be the next Ukrainian leader.
Simply put, those are the issues.
The Russians understandably want the Ukraine as a secure border area and checkpoint. While the Russians participated in today's negotiations along with EU diplomats that were designed to calm things down and forestall more bloodshed, the Russians are not endorsing the deal and Putin is almost certainly willing to go to some lengths to retain the Ukraine in Russia's sphere of influence. That might include 'influencing' the next elections,or literally just about anything.
The Ukrainian opposition understandably want to join the EU and obtain a divorce from Russia, and while they were apparently willing to fight for the privilege, it remains an open question of how far the EU is willing to go to support them.
President Obama has essentially been AWOL on the issue.
And that's where things stand. While I agree with erring on the side of freedom, it's vitally important not to get taken in by rhetoric and look at the whole picture when figuring out how to proceed, where our best interests lie and what to do about it.
This, after all, is essentially an ethnic conflict that has been going on for centuries.