Everywhere in the world, foreign policy toward Ukraine seems to be controlled by domestic political considerations

In the United States the conservatives so much want Obama to fail, that they criticize everything he does.  This of course includes his policy on Ukraine. With regards to potential help from the United States, Ukraine is between a rock and a hard place. Obama does nothing but empty posturing, making himself increasingly a laughingstock.  Many conservative opponents want to send armaments and maybe even troops, which would only get a lot of people – mainly Ukrainians – killed. 

Neither side especially wants to respect the new Ukrainian government.  Several web sites I usually respect, zerohedge, Paul Craig Roberts and Mish Shedlock, put forth the claim that the ouster of Putin’s widely despised puppet, Yanukovych, was illegal.  He wasn’t ousted – he left of his own accord because he had lost the support of the people.  Using Putin’s methods, tools and even people to violently suppress Ukraine’s peaceful demonstrators resulted in the quiet resolve of Maidan that he did not have the strength to face down.

The new government has not yet had time to come together, much less prove itself feckless or powerless.  It is a hodgepodge confederation… It includes the right-wing party, Svoboda, a handful of politicians from the moderate centralist parties, and a few members of splinter groups, militants who came to the fore during Maidan. It also includes some oligarchs whose holdings are in the East, people who have an interest in maintaining some stability there and also have some administrative experience.

Given the corrupt nature of Ukrainian governments for all of the 23 years of its existence, it is entirely natural that every experienced member of the new government is somewhat tainted.  Expecting otherwise would be like expecting a kid raised in the barrios of East Los Angeles to have no experience with gangs, or an old-time politician from the American South (Robert Byrd, Strom Thurmond) to have no experience with segregation and the Ku Klux Klan.  There are clear signs that the times are changing.  One can only hope that the politicians will change with them.

Europe’s interest is in keeping Russian gas flowing.  They depend on trade with Russia far more than does America.  Given their exposure, the Europeans, especially the Germans, appear to have been quite brave.  Timing is on their side – it will be seven months until they again need Russian gas for heating.

Russia’s domestic policy interest is quite clear. Putin wants to destabilize Ukraine and exercise an atavistic desire to recreate a Russian Empire by annexing Russian speaking parts of Ukraine.  Claims that he feels a need for buffer states to protect Russia against foreign aggression are far-fetched.  A more real need is to insulate the Russian people from other peoples with freer and richer societies.  The autocratic Putin has been careful to surround himself with similar martinets in Belarus and Kazakhstan.  Russia lost control of the Caucasus, and went to war with Georgia in 2008 to reassert its interests there.  The prospect of a democratic Ukraine, closer, more central to Europe, and with ten times the population of Georgia has to be a bigger threat. 

It appears, however, that Merkel had it right when she observed that Putin has “lost it.”  There is no small element of vainglory in Putin’s aggression.  It stirs the same nationalistic passions as (very temporarily) boosted the standing of Argentina’s dictatorship during the Falklands war.  Domestic politics are certainly key to Putin’s calculations.

Putin uses exactly the same kind of lies about “protecting Russian speakers” to justify meddling in Ukraine’s business that Hitler did about German speakers in the Sudetenland.  Borders have been fluid and Russian speaking populations have lived in Ukraine since the time of the Mongols.  Ukraine was situated in between the Ottoman and Russian empires.  About the time of the American Revolution, Catherine the Great cemented its Russification by founding cities on the lands captured from the Turks.  Changing a population’s language is easier than changing the population itself.  As part of the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union, eastern Ukrainians increasingly spoke Russian.  It is still a patchwork – there are pockets of Ukrainian speakers everywhere.

Americans, with Spanish as their frame of reference, are inclined to blow the language issue out of proportion.  Ukraine is a thoroughly bilingual country.  Aside from the border regions, almost everybody speaks both languages adequately.  The two are no more different than Spanish and Portuguese.  Knowing one, it is possible to make sense out of a document written in the other.  I write as a Russian speaker studying Ukrainian that learning to talk and understand the other takes only a bit of practice. 

Educated people in Kiev speak Russian as a matter of convenience.  It is a world language.  Even here more books are published in Russian than Ukrainian.  Serious books, those on business, science and medicine, are overwhelmingly in Russian.  However, to assume that because people want to join Russia just because they speak Russian would be as foolish as to assume that the Irish or the Americans want to join the United Kingdom because English originated there.

While the West may assume that Russophone Ukrainians are pro-Russian, the Russians themselves are under no such illusion. The referendum in Crimea was a complete farce, sprung with only two weeks’ notice, and no opportunity for any sort of electoral campaign.  They presented only two options, neither of which was for Crimea to remain part of Ukraine.   Both the reported turnout and the reported results are higher than would be statistically possible if one assumes that native Ukrainians and Tatars voted their self-interest.  This seems to be the model for the referendums Russia wants to impose in eastern Ukraine as well.  Stalin said “It’s not who votes that counts, it’s who counts the votes.” 

The big lie has been part of Russia’s toolkit for more than a century, at least since they annexed a free and unwilling Ukraine in 1922.  The Soviets adorned Kiev with a huge arch dedicated to “Druzhbi Narodi,” or friendship between peoples.  It is also the name of a major boulevard.  But the friendship has never been one of equals, a fact strongly underscored by Putin’s behavior since his protégée/puppet Yanukovych chose to scoot out of town.  Never a great intellect, the exiled Yanukovych gave the lie to Putin’s claims in an April 3 interview.  He confessed to having invited Putin’s soldiers into Crimea, whereas Putin still refuses to acknowledge either that they were soldiers, or Russian.

Putin echoes some of the kinds of ineptitude that brought Yanukovych down.  Yanukovych hired goons from the countryside, his “tituchi,” to foment trouble in Kiev.  They only reinforced the resolve of Kievyans, who scorned and despised them. 

Russia has exploited its long, unprotected border with Ukraine to infiltrate troublemakers such as those who took over government buildings in Kharkiv, Lugansk and Donetsk.  The troublemakers, however, seem at times not up to the task.  They unfurled a sign in Donetsk, the capital of Donbas, proclaiming “Free Dombas.”  It is a spelling error no Ukrainian would make.  In another incident, insurgents were videotaped as they tore down and burned two flags from over a building in Donetsk.  One was the flag of Ukraine, the other – that of the highly popular local soccer team, Shakhtar.  Locals would never have been so stupid.  In yet another incident, insurgents storming government buildings chose – a library.  Any local would have known better.

Ukraine has managed to arrest the 60 insurgents who took over government buildings in Kharkiv.  That leaves only Donetsk and Lugansk.  Ukraine has been highly successful in not rising to Russian provocations, avoiding giving Russia the excuse it so desperately wants to send troops across the border.  It will be interesting to learn the identities of the insurgents. 

The best Ukraine can hope for is that the world continues to pay attention to their plight, and, recognizing the depth of the hole they are trying to climb out of, allows them some time.  Just to be left out of other countries’ domestic political considerations would be the greatest of blessings.

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5 thoughts on “Everywhere in the world, foreign policy toward Ukraine seems to be controlled by domestic political considerations

  1. Help me out here. I thought eastern Ukraine wanted to be reunited with Russia. Are you saying that both the Ukrainian and Russian speaking parts of Ukraine see themselves as Ukrainian and support an autonomous, independent Ukraine? I am not arguing; I am just trying to get my facts straight.

    When Putin took over the Crimea, the media made it sound like the locals were ok with it because they were Russian and had historically been part of Russia. Is that not true either?

    You are saying that the Russian speaking parts of Ukraine do not want to be absorbed into Russia, correct? It is all coming from outside infiltrators trying to stir up trouble.

    Please excuse my naïvete on this issue because all I know about Ukraine is what I hear on TV.

    • Most of Ukraine speaks both languages, My wife’s family, right on the Dnieper river in the center of the country, speaks Russian at home. They greatly fear the Russians, and are encouraging our family to get out of Kiev.

      I’m probably the best litmus. I am just now, after seven years, starting to learn Ukrainian. I simply haven’t needed it. Taxi drivers everywhere, car rental people, train conductors, bus drivers, the people who built our house, the bureaucrats I dealt with to get residency, the people who registered my son’s birth, my doctors — everybody speaks Russian. Many of them vented their anger and disgust about the former government, just as they now vent about the Russians. Yesterday the checkout clerk at the grocery persisted in speaking Ukrainian even after I answered twice in Russian. I was surprised, but switched to my wobbly Ukrainian and won a smile. Today I had lunch in renown hangout for diehard diaspora Ukrainians. They understood my Russian just fine, but again rewarded me with a smile when I asked them to remind me how to ask for the check in Ukrainian.

      Crimea had a party which supported unification with Russia. It got about 4% of the vote in the last free election. Reunification is an idea which had been around for many years and never gotten too much traction. Kind of like “free Quebec” and other irredentist notions of reversion to prior borders and political orders.

      There are a couple of blogs worth following. This one is quite pro-Ukraine
      http://www.kyivpost.com/opinion/op-ed/dmitry-tymchuks-military-blog-threat-recedes-of-imminent-russian-military-invasion-341452.html

      and this one equally factual, informative but more neutral.
      http://www.forbes.com/sites/markadomanis/

      • Ok, I got it now: Ukrainians are for Ukraine regardless of the language. Thanks, Lloyd. That language stuff was confusing me. I will check out the blogs.

  2. Good, solid writing and summary of events… and the intricacies of language. I remember my surprise during first travels in the country how people overwhelmingly spoke Russian to each other, without bias or offense.

    I guess that’s changing now.Several years ago, I noticed when arriving at Boryspil Airport that all the formerly Russian language signs had been changed to Ukrainian. The English signs remained.

    I commented on such to the uniformed customs agent, who, with a youthful streak of smartass, smirked, “Yes, I’ve been very busy since you were here last.” I chuckled.

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