5 Things You Should Know About Crisis In Ukraine
When President Obama declared support for Ukraine his State of the Union address, most Americans were probably only vaguely aware of what he was referring to.
What is Ukraine? What’s really going on there? After more than a decade of war and more than our share of problems at home, why should we care? And what, if anything, can we do about it?
I lived in Ukraine for almost a decade and ran its most prominent news organization. In 2004, when the Orange Revolution broke out, I was in the streets with just about everybody else in Kiev. I still retain close ties to the country and speak to people there every day, including journalists, protesters and business people.
So, based on my experience in the country and the region, news reports and those conversations, here’s a simple guide to the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine.
1. What It’s About
Ukraine is a country of nearly 50 million people—about the size of Spain or Italy— that sits between Poland and Russia. In the past two decades, it’s seen its neighbors to the west ascend to the EU and become vibrant, prosperous democracies, while its former master to the east has descended into the morass of a declining, corrupt petrostate.
The country has had a rough ride since its independence in 1991. It struggled in the 90’s, with a corrupt and inept government and then saw its economy pummeled by the ruble crisis in 1998.
After a brief respite of prosperity in the early years of the last decade, its people rose up in 2004—the Orange Revolution mentioned above—only to see its new government descend into discord and chaos.
But it’s gotten even worse since 2009, whenPresident Yanukovich was elected. Even in the sad history of Ukraine, he stands out as a paragon of corruption and ineptitude.
Twice convicted of violent crimes in his younger years, he has used his office to make his family and friends rich while the country has descended into massive debt and lawlessness.
So when Yanukovich backed out of an EU Trade agreement, one that he had previously pledged to seek, it was the final blow in a long series of insults and the country erupted once again. The protesters want what their neighbors to the West have already attained: the greater transparency and prosperity that EU integration will bring.
So that’s what the revolution in Ukraine is about. This is not a new Cold War, just a country of people that wants its government to work for them instead of against them.
2. Why It Matters To Us
Besides the obvious moral issues, Ukraine has a lot to offer us. It is a country of extraordinary talents which Elance ranks third in the world for high skilled outsourcing. If you use the Internet, you’ve already benefited from the work and ingenuity of Ukrainian people. Closer integration with the West will be a good thing not only for Ukraine, but for the world as well.
We’ve seen this story before. Two decades ago Eastern Europe lay ensconced in the Soviet Bloc. Many thought we should leave things as they were, keep the balance of power intact and not meddle. But we didn’t and the world is much better for it.
The Visegrad countries of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic and the former Soviet states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are not only beacons of freedom, but engines of prosperity. Estonia especially has become a tech hub. When you free the minds of 100 million people, good things happen. The same will be true of Ukraine’s 50 million.
And European integration will be an enormous step forward. While full EU membership remains a remote possibility for Ukraine—a decade away if it ever happens—the integration process itself is valuable.
Legislating reforms—as we well know in the US—is a confusing, cumbersome affair. Meeting EU requirements for law and transparency gives the populace a useful gauge to ensure that their government stays on track.
3. What We Can Do About It
Ukraine is not Russia and Yanukovich is not Putin. His power is far from absolute. In reality, he depends on a network of oligarchs, especially Rinat Akhmetov— Yanukovich’s principal patron—to rule the country. They, in turn, have abundant financial assets and business ambitions in the West.
As I suggested earlier, targeted sanctions would be enormously effective in altering the political calculus of those who hold the true power in Ukraine. Revoking travel visas, freezing assets and denying use of western financial institutions would be a serious blow. Reuters recently reported that Congress is in the process of preparing these sanctions.
They should follow through. There’s strong precedent for this type of action. At the end of 2012, Congress enacted the Magnitsky sanctions against Russian officials responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing Russian accountant who died while in prison on trumped up charges.
4. The Role Of Putin’s Russia
Putin’s main objective is to get Ukraine to join the Eurasian Customs Unionthat he has formed with Kazakhstan and Belarus. However, most Ukrainians are cool to the prospect of joining a union of failing klepto-states, especially when integration with the EU—the world’s largest economy—is far more likely to result in prosperity and modernization.
In many ways, bringing Ukraine under his grasp is Putin’s last chance to revive the former glory of the Soviet Union. Russia’s economy, weakened by falling gas prices, has slowed significantly in recent years. The upcoming Sochi Olympics, once a source of pride, have become an embarrassmentbecause of rampant corruption and poor security.
Russia and Ukraine also share deep and historic cultural ties, and manyobservers have pointed out that the country is split between Russian and Ukrainian speaking regions. These divisions are real and important, but also overblown. Active protests have broken out in many Eastern cities that traditionally supported the Yanukovich regime.
Most of all, Ukraine is in many ways key to Putin’s greater ambitions. With Ukraine, Russia is an empire, without Ukraine it is just another country, and a failing one at that.
5. What To Expect
As of now, the protesters appear to be gaining ground. Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, one of the figures most reviled by the opposition, has resigned and anti-protest laws have been mostly rescinded. President Yanukovich has taken sick leave, which many suspect to be a “diplomatic illness.”
Still, the political leaders of the opposition often seem hapless and ineffective. Most of the time, they appear to be reacting to, rather than leading, events. They are, in effect, beneficiaries of the protests rather than drivers of them. So, for the moment at least, things are at a standstill.
But they won’t stay that way. The protesters have shown that they have no plans to leave until their demands are met. They are willing to brave the bitter cold and police brutality to achieve their goals. At this point, as Bishop Boris Gudziak noted, it is less a matter of politics than it is a matter of dignity.
So, in all likelihood, the protesters will win out in the end. The will of the people can only be denied for so long. The only question is how much damage will be done before that happens.
Update: A group of Ukraine’s most respected journalists just released this video. If you click the “CC” button in the bottom of the player, you can choose to have English subtitles appear and you can see, in their own words, what the crises in Ukraine is about.