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Reflections on the Revolution in Ukraine

March 6, 2014

by J. Andrew Zalucky

Ukraine Protest

(Photo: Reuters)

After holding off to see how things went, here are my thoughts about the events in Ukraine.

On Taking Things Personally

Ok, so a lot has happened over the past couple of months, so there’s plenty of things to talk about. But, just to get this out of the way: yes, I’m half-Ukrainian, second generation. Yes, that part of my family comes from Lviv and other areas in western Ukraine. And yes, my view is that further integration with the west  along with the political, economic and social implications that would come with it  would be good for Ukraine. But beyond that, my views on the subject are complicated. Because the way I feel about Ukraine is similar to how I feel about Russia. With the right mix of reforms and care for cultural nuances, I think any nation would benefit from being a secular, democratic republic with robust constitutional protections of individual liberties, along with a market-based economy coupled with a practical welfare state.

So in that sense, I would feel the same way about this even if I wasn’t Ukrainian. I have no innate animosity toward individual Russians or that country in general. After all, my Irish heritage gives me no inborn resentment towards the English, just as my Sicilian roots give me no animosity toward…you know, the entire Mediterranean. I am first and foremost, an American citizen. So when it comes to judging foreign affairs, it makes more sense for me to set my criticism against my own country, because as Noam Chomsky once said:

My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it.

That said, I have some thoughts and reflections on what’s happened in Kyiv, The Crimea and elsewhere. But first, a word on things back home.

“I told you so.”

I’ve been following the news coming out of Ukraine very closely, mostly through the news-wire services of The Guardian and the BBC. Why use British news outlets you say? The reactions coming from the mainstream press in the United States has (with exceptions) been almost unbearable. It’s true that in one of the presidential debates in 2012, Mitt Romney spoke with more testosterone-fueled bluster than Obama by calling Russia our “number one geopolitical foe.” Apparently this makes him some kind of prescient hero with the powers that other people just could never fathom! And of course, former Alaska governor and political-celebrity extraordinaire Sarah Palin accuses Obama of wearing “mom jeans” and that Russia is taking “advantage of that weakness in America at this point, because our commander-in-chief does not understand the peace through strength that so many of us want to get back to.” So in relation to Ukraine, we’ve decided to focus on who uttered the more aggressive form of rhetoric during a political campaign.

Spare me.

I guarantee you, no one on the streets of Kyiv (or Kharkiv or Donetsk for that matter) gives a damn about what one hollow US politician said to the other in 2012. And these same people have the nerve to say that “if we had only intervened in Syria, things would have been different.” But as Reason‘s John Glaser notes:

if Obama had gone through with his promise to bomb Syria, the action would have had no international legitimacy and no Congressional consent. In fact, it would have been a war crime according to international law, which prohibits the use of force against another state without the approval of the UN Security Council or unless it preempts an imminent threat.

If anything, America’s utter disregard for international law gives license to other powerful countries, like Russia, to behave similarly.

I was against American intervention in Syria in 2013 and wrote about it here and here. And I think President Obama made the right choice not to unilaterally flout American and international law by launching an attack. And I also think it was right for Obama not to take Romney’s bait to lob harsh words at Russia during the 2012 debates. Romney was merely a candidate and could say whatever he wanted under the pretense of running for office. But Obama’s words carry economic and diplomatic weight it would have been irresponsible to tear into Russia at that moment. No amount of chest-beating jingoism will help the citizens of Ukraine in their current predicament (and it doesn’t help us either).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of Obama’s Presidency. In terms of press freedoms, civil liberties and the war on whistle-blowers, he’s arguably the worst president since Richard Nixon. But I think his administration (i.e. The State Department) has done what it reasonably can to act as a mediator in this situation. It was right for the February 21st agreement to be brokered by France, Germany and Poland, as the situation pertains much closer to their strategic interests than it does to ours. And its right for the administration to emphasize economics and diplomacy in trying to put pressure on the Russian Government. Even Senator John McCain (R- AZ) has admitted that there is currently “no military option” in Ukraine. George Will once said of McCain that “if it doesn’t fly or explode, John doesn’t care about it,” something which should give McCain’s fellow interventionists at least a moment of pause.

However, that does not mean it is “none of our business.”

Under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum (emphasis my own):

1. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine;

2. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations;

This of course, was in exchange for Ukraine relinquishing its entire nuclear weapons stockpile. This means that we, along with Russia and The United Kingdom, have an obligation to respect Ukrainian sovereignty. And though the units currently occupying the Crimean peninsula are not wearing their insignia, they are undoubtedly soldiers of the Russian military (unless the “local Crimean defense forces” suddenly acquired a bunch of modern Russian jeeps by coincidence…amazing!). This would indicate a clear violation of the 1994 agreement. But then again, what about the Crimea?

A Question of Borders

It’s true that, even though the peninsula was within Ukrainian borders under its 1994 borders, it was never traditionally part of Ukraine. In fact, what actually constitutes Ukraine tends to be a slippery subject in the first place. For most of its history, its been within the sphere of influence of several nations, ones which shaped much of the cultural divisions within the country today. But in the case of the Crimea specifically, it was “given” to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954. Since the entire Soviet Union was really governed by Moscow anyway, what territory was “given” to one of the other states didn’t really matter, even with diverse populations taken into account.

So when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine retained the peninsula as part of its territory, with a Russian naval base remaining at Sevastopol. Still, the majority of the population is ethnically Russian. And then there is the question of the nearly 300,000 Muslim Tatars who live there as well (most of them loyal to the new government by the way). So if you think about it in the abstract, why not let Russia take it back after all this time? Trade it for loan forgiveness of natural gas, or an additional purchase of government bonds, or some other economic trade off. If it defuses the situation and allows the rest of the country to orient itself as it pleases, why not?

The problem is, where does it end? After all, Donetsk has a sizable Russian-speaking population, why not let Russia take that as well? Oh, and back to the Crimea, with the Tatar population and the peninsula’s history under the Ottoman Empire, why not just give it to Turkey instead? I’m sure Kyiv and Moscow would both be absolutely thrilled at that prospect! Come to think of it, why stop there? Perhaps we should give Lviv back to Poland or Lithuania. Oh wait, maybe it should go to Austria or Hungary instead. In fact, let’s just carve out the territories of multiple countries to create Galicia all over again!

Wait! I’ve got it! Let’s just give all of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and southern Russia back to Mongolia!

See what I mean?

And the argument for splitting the country up doesn’t seem very helpful either. As I’m sure anyone from the British Foreign Office will tell you, splitting a country in two across cultural/ethnic lines will hardly be a guarantee of peace (e.g. Kasmir, Israel/Palestine, Sudan, Northern Ireland). How would the border even be decided on? How would you determine who would be a citizen of which version of Ukraine? How would the military be divided up? How would Ukraine’s sovereign debt be distributed? Do we really want to go down this road?

The problem with Putin’s argument for “protecting” ethnic Russians in the Crimea is that they did not ask for his protection. And though there are reactionary and neo-fascist elements among the revolutionaries in western Ukraine (and westerners had better be ready to acknowledge this and confront it accordingly), there has been no evidence of systematic discrimination of ethnic Russians. Many Russian-speakers in Ukraine are suspicious of the US and EU, and would prefer to retain stronger ties with Moscow. But most of them don’t want Russian soldiers marching into Ukrainian territory either. There are enough negative stereotypes about Russians spinning through the western world already. All Putin’s intervention has done is to make that perception even worse. If you’re pretense is to protect civilians, why take an action which could only provoke violence anyway? Luckily the provisional government in Ukraine hasn’t taken the bait. It saw how Georgia was embarrassed in 2008 and is not eager to have history repeat itself.

If the Crimea really wants to separate, fine- but it should be done via a referendum, or an increased level of decentralization or federalism like that among the member states of The United Kingdom (the upcoming Scottish referendum notwithstanding). And the fact that certain ethnic or linguistic minorities live within a certain country doesn’t mean the neighboring state suddenly has a case for grabbing some of its land. There are certainly more English- than Gaelic-speakers in Ireland, but you wouldn’t try and advocate Britain taking the remaining counties of Ulster would you?

I didn’t think so.

Hoping for the Best

Despite the alarm-bells going off in American and Russian media circles, I actually feel somewhat optimistic about the situation. If the provisional government can keep its cool, it should ride out the period from now until May 25th (when elections are to be held), with international support and at least a cautious amount of confidence from the population. The Russian government is dealing with a situation of its own, as the country is a difficult place to govern even in the best of times. Like any country concerned with the security of its periphery, it feels the need to protect its interests and is loath to look weak in the face of the international community particularly onlookers in places like Beijing and Ankara. But even with the utmost fairness given on all these counts, sending in Russian infantry and blockading Ukrainian ports only serves to inflame the tension, and I think (and I have a feeling most Russians would agree) that incursions into eastern Ukraine would be an absolute disaster. Why tarnish the reputation you worked so hard to advance at the Olympics? Why give the Poles, the Czechs and especially the Turks a reason to put their military forces on alert? Do you really think the Turks (or the Chechens for that matter) will stand idly by if a Muslim minority feels threatened? And while it’s not as powerful as Russia’s, Ukraine’s military is still big enough to cause heavy casualties should things really escalate. There’s also the not-too-distant possibility this will cause rumblings in Berlin as well.

Speaking of Germany, Angela Merkel’s caution on the situation is worth noting. It shows that western economic interests are at stake and shouldn’t be sacrificed just so we can “look tough.” And when thinking about the cultural, political and linguistic ties that Ukraine and Russia undeniably share and what those ties mean for the future of the two nations perhaps Germany’s post-war relationship with one of its neighbors can serve as a helpful example to follow. I am of course talking about Austria. Yes, the history between the two countries is different, but not as much as you might think. Remember, through the history of the Holy Roman Empire, Prussia, and the Austrian Hapsburgs, the nations were often rivals or at war with each other (mostly over Silesia, now part of Poland). And when they became united, it was only due to the threat of Napoleonic conquest. With the onset of pan-Germanism, the two became very close and were eventually united under The Third Reich in 1938. But since the end of The Second World War, the two countries have lived in peace  with a common heritage and language  but with a respect for each others separate political authority and national identity. Anyone who would even joke about a renewed “Anschluss” would be dismissed as either a neo-fascist or an idiot. Oh, and it’s also forbidden by the Austrian constitution.

I realize the example of Germany and Austria does not exactly fit the profile of Russia and Ukraine, but it should at least illustrate the possibility for two countries with both a troubled past and a common heritage to live in peace. Austria’s official neutrality wouldn’t be so bad an example to follow either.

Russia needs to respect Ukrainian sovereignty and the right of the nation to pursue its interests, in whatever direction they may go. The troops that Putin and his authorities have sent into the Crimea should leave. The provisional government in Kyiv should issue through either a law or a unified statement the protection all ethnic and cultural minorities living in Ukraine, and should issue a forceful condemnation of all reactionary strains within the ranks of the Maidan protesters. Only then can the new order in Ukraine be taken seriously by the international community, not just by the west.

Any sane politician in Ukraine knows his or her country will always have significant economic and cultural ties with Russia, even if the country were to one day join the EU. In equal measure, Russia should be honest about the past when the subject does come up. But more nationalistic Ukrainians should bear in mind that anyone who was in the NKVD in the 1930’s is now dead (…I think), and constantly stirring up the ghosts of those days will only deter a meaningful basis of respect from ever emerging. A mutual agreement that Russia be governed from Moscow and Ukraine be governed from Kyiv always seemed like a reasonable place to start the process of reconciliation.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait several generations before we can finish it.


(Photo Credit: Link)


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