Small World: Ukraine and You

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

In a discussion a few weeks back I raised the question why we Americans didn’t flood out on the streets when we were unhappy with our government. I overlooked one, perhaps critical, factor: We are too smart to put our country at risk of collapse.

These words are intended as an introduction to the folly of Ukrainians who have just — for the second time — brought down their government and hope to put another, more perfect regime, in its place, and thus — the hopes continue — to bring in an era of stability and prosperity.

Dreams. The sort of imaginative analysis that one expects from Western ideologues, not from people who actually grew up in Ukraine, people who know (or should know) its history, geography and economy. The reality is that the country is really two nations: one in the west oriented towards Europe and envious of its post-Cold War period neighbors (e.g., Poland, Hungary, Slovakia) which have joined the European Union and are doing rather nicely. These western Ukrainians led the protests last November in the capital Kiev and in other western cities.

The second “nation” of Ukraine lies in the south and east up against Russia with which they have been joined throughout history minus the last 20 years or so. One-third of all Ukrainians speak Russian as their native tongue. A good chunk of these inhabit the Crimean peninsular which was given by Khrushchev in 1954 to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic and where is to be found Sevastopol, homeport for the Russian Black Sea fleet.

Russia, to put it mildly, would not be happy to see Ukraine seduced by the EU and, who knows, NATO membership. Would Moscow use force to prevent that shift? Doubtful.* Moscow’s leadership surely recalls the disaster of trying that tactic in Afghanistan. But there are other means of persuasion (pressure in favor of favored minorities as in Georgia) which might seem more appealing. Russia and a couple of its ex-USSR states are Ukraine’s biggest trading partners and Russia is Ukraine’s virtually sole source of natural gas for industry and home heating. As well as offering ready cash ($15 billion) for covering debts.

The EU, with heaps of economic problems of its own, can hardly match Russia’s potential generosity. Never mind the $35 billion over two years, which the new leadership in Kiev says it needs. Would Washington come to the rescue? Would you want it to?

Returning to the origins of the present troubles, back in 2004 the “Orange Revolution” tuned out the first post-Soviet regime and replaced it with one that did well for a while. Then, the world economic crisis of 2008 sent Ukraine downhill. In fact, the present demonstrations began after President Yanukovych blocked a move towards a closer connection with the EU, meaning a more distant linkage with Russia. He did this after the International Monetary Fund offered to help save the economy with a loan, but only on condition of budget cuts and a 40-cent rise in the price of gas. That was the original spark for protestors.

Do the demonstrators still in the squares think economic difficulties can be overcome, cost-free by outside help? Do they think Russian speakers will dutifully acquiesce in a new law to ban their language for official purposes? There seems little doubt that they and their fellow countrymen face hard times ahead. It doesn’t help that a significant segment of the victorious opposition is said to be neo-fascist nationalist thugs, hardly likely to compromise with the pro-Russian half.

So far, Washington has been playing it cool, keeping hands off and out of our pockets, trying to hold down the rhetoric (except for the nasty words eavesdropped from an assistant secretary’s cell phone.) Standing aside will be no easy task for President Obama. Bashing Russia and Putin earn Republicans and much of the punditocracy gold medals and complicate the president’s task of working together with Moscow and Europe (especially Germany).

Real cooperation is essential if Ukraine’s friends and neighbors are to find a way out of the mess that the stone throwers in the square have left behind. In the final analysis, there is little positive that outsiders can or should do. Resolving Ukraine’s internal difficulties must be left to Ukrainians.

*I wrote this a week ago. I’m not so confident a few days later that Russia won’t use its military muscle.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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