Op-Ed

Independence Square, Kiev
Independence Square, Kiev

The Struggle for Ukraine.

By Probir Kumar Sarkar.

Less than ten years later, Ukraine is again in turmoil. On November 30 in the early hours of the morning, Ukrainian riot police responded violently to hundreds of peaceful protesters in Independence Square. The country is divided—pulled to the west by supporters of European Union ascension and pulled to the east by Russian loyalists. This time no help is in sight. Russia like always is working behind the scenes, and neither the United States nor European Union is ready to take the onus.

In 2004, the Orange Revolution pushed Ukrainians to the streets. The E.U. and the U.S. lent support to protests against elections rigged in favor of pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych and ultimately brokered a deal for the Ukrainian people. Pro-Western President Viktor Andriyovych Yushchenko took the reins instead. But in the years since 2004, Vladimir Putin has worked hard to reverse the outcome, and in 2010, pro-Russian Yanukovych was voted back into the presidency. Since independence, Ukraine’s only respite from pro-Russian governments was the brief period of 2004-2010.

The same slogans, demonstrations, and protests, however, now lack clear direction. The opposition politicians who themselves are furious over the corrupt and thuggish government of Yanukovych have no control over the crowds. Unlike the Orange Revolution in 2004, the latest discontent is not driven by politicians but by students and civil right activists. And unlike last time, Brussels is preoccupied by its own problems and the U.S. has no appetite to extend itself by meddling in Russia’s sphere.

The fate of Ukraine has often been decided by the fact that it lies along western Russia’s soft underbelly. It has fundamental strategic importance to Russia, and the lands in the foothold of the Carpathian Mountains have never been a casual matter after 1941 when the Soviet Union was dealt a painful blow by Nazi Germany.

It is obvious that Ukraine is as important to Russia as Scotland is to the United Kingdom or Texas to the United States. It’s lands give Russia easier access to the Black Sea, and as Putin says, “We just want to defend our gates.” Russia is no longer inclined to push its federal border, however, and so must lean on Yanukovych to manipulate Ukraine in its interests. Moscow wants to keep the European Union at arm’s length and secure a critical pipeline to sell energy to its nations—something that is both a strategic and commercial desire for Russia and its state energy company.

Ukraine has been in the hands of foreign powers throughout much of history; taking cues from another capital is nothing new. The two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union has been the longest period in Ukrainian history that the nation has tasted the freedom of independence. Nestled between massive Russia and the E.U. conglomeration, it is still defining its own sovereignty as the largest country entirely within the continent.

Of the 46 million Ukrainians, 17 percent are ethnic Russians, and Russian is an official second language spoken by many Ukrainians after Soviet rule. It was with the backing of the older generation and much of the eastern regions that Yanukovych returned to power. In western Ukraine, however, people lean towards European principles, favoring the Ukrainian language primarily and English as a second language. These regional politics shape Ukraine’s national government and foreign policy.

Ukraine’s economic barometer has recently plummeted. Though the country is on the verge of bankruptcy, its corrupt politicians and oligarchs are not. Yanukovych is understandably turning to his old ally to alleviate the nation’s economic difficulties.

The conservative voter base favors this close partnership with Russia and the promise of economic stability that comes with it. The younger generations, however, are willing to take on the risks of joining the European Union for the benefits of transparent governance and greater rights and freedoms.  In order to pacify the turmoil of  his split nation, Yanukovych was trying to play a shrewd  game of balancing Ukraine between Russian and Europe.

When Yanukovych at the behest of Putin rejected a proposed free-trade arrangement with Brussels, however, protesters from all over the country gathered in Kiev by the hundreds of thousands. Putin responded to the protests by issuing Yanukovych a stark warning about the consequences if he ignores Russian’s concerns over trade deals with the E.U. and suggested  instead that Ukraine could adopt parts of Russia’s recently founded Customs Union with other former Soviet republics.

This kind of arrangement with Russia is not without its supporters in Ukraine, but the protesters on the streets are sick of the Putin’s influence corrupting their national government. The struggle for Ukraine will depend largely on the ability of the younger generation to find a common voice for their nation.

In Kiev’s Independence Square, the police have responded occasionally with violence and tear gas. The people may retreat, but they seem unlikely to give up until President Yanukovych concedes. Thus  the political situation in Keiv today is both volatile and unpredictable.

Mr. Sarkar is a senior international journalist who studied U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at Cambridge. He is the Executive Editor of The Global Intelligence.

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