Here at the Center for the Study of Former Soviet Socialist Republics, we generally leave the Ukraine reporting to our own Matt Lina. We have asked Matt not to get too close to the violence currently occupying Kiev, but we appreciate his ground-level view of what’s happening there. This post will however break from our usual practice and offer a joint statement on the events in Ukraine currently dominating the news; each of our currently-active scholars has signed off on it (we have not asked our emeritus and inactive scholars to comment on it, and so it should not be taken for their views or imputed to them).
Ukraine today is in chaos because the West is clumsily trying out inept Realpolitik against Russia. When President Viktor Yanukovych was elected to office, the West could hardly contain its dismay; it had loved the corrupt and incompetent administration of President Viktor Yushchenko, and the corrupt, incompetent, and Russia-leaning government of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Whether this is because Mrs. Tymoshenko is quite lovely or because they harbored now-dated memories of the Orange Revolution is anyone’s guess.
As any political observer of Ukraine knows, political positions and alignments are incredibly fluid. In the late 1990s, Tymoshenko was an up-and-coming star in the then-quasi-dictator Leonid Kuchma’s administration. She held herself out to the West as a neo-liberal lover of free markets, a believer in a new Ukraine, and a way for the West to understand a country it still called the Ukraine. By the time of the Orange Revolution, she was riding Yushchenko’s coattails, a brave and beautiful believer in liberty and a staunch opponent of Russia. In 2009, she was the once-sacked (for corruption) property-nationalizing Prime Minister who was warming ties with Russia to secure a gas deal in advance of her Presidential run. Today, she is simply the anti-Yanukovych.
This is not to pick on Tymoshenko but to note that her movement, even if extreme by Ukrainian standards, is still representative of how Ukrainian politics shifts over time. Many in the West tend to think Viktor Yanukovych is Russia’s pawn because he was perceived that way in 2004. Yet after taking office in 2010, he undertook a massive set of center-right economic and government reforms design to increase Ukrainian economic growth, reduce government bloat, rationalize pensions and taxes, and bring Ukraine’s laws in line with Europe’s in advance of the Association Agreement to which he committed his administration.
When Moscow brought political, economic, and cultural pressure to bear to stop him, he turned to Europe, to the United States, to the International Monetary Fund … and was ignored. With his country on the brink of economic collapse, with his pro-Europe policy rejected by the incompetents who run major governments today, he had one choice only: to turn back to the Russian proto-Empire he had spent years trying to escape.
Europe and the United States reacted like spurned lovers. Rather than provide the assistance needed to help Ukraine continue on a European path, they simply demanded more. When protests began — protests that were marked by violence from the beginning, as the nationalist/fascist groups at the head of the protests attacked government buildings and police — the West sent prominent leaders to Kiev to support the protesters against the democratically-elected government. As the protests worsened, the West decided to achieve with this leverage what mere elections could not, and demanded that Yanukovych form a coalition government with the opposition. When the opposition rejected that coalition government and ramped up the protests and violence, the West started suggesting that perhaps a government formed of the people who lost the last elections would be the only thing stopping sanctions.
Today, as Ukraine is in chaos and the government does what any government would do to bring peace to the streets, the West threatens sanctions and the opposition demands more and more. Vladimir Putin is rapidly approaching the conclusion that he must take a stronger hand in his near abroad because the West is clearly doing so to turn Ukrainian policy and government explicitly against him. A free Ukraine that chooses the West as Yanukovych tried is one thing; a Ukraine that chooses the West because its government exists at a Western whim is a dangerous threat to the Russian view of the world.
These games are fun to play on a game board or on a computer or gaming console. When real lives and national futures are at stake, they are no longer fun, they are no longer play, they are deadly serious.
Someone should tell the children who run the governments of the West this, before too many of their toys are broken.
Image Copyright Wikimedia Commons