(Refer to my previous article about the long term geopolitical history of Ukraine first in case you’re new).
In the past week, Ukraine’s government has gone nuts on its protest movement that just won’t take a hint. The resulting bloodshed is pretty ugly and hardly the image people had of Ukraine, which prior to this mostly had to do with its stunning women.
Let’s go big and end small as we take a closer look at why the headlines are so nasty these days.
Ukraine, as a borderland, is a bit schizophrenic
The more you go towards the west, the more European things start to feel – and are reflected accordingly in election results. The further east, the more Russian – and the more Russian itself is spoken. That’s geography in play. From an economic perspective, it was cheaper for the western regions to trade with Central Europe and for the eastern regions to trade with Russia, creating links that are right now pulling the country in two directions.
Under pre-modern circumstances (that is, when you’ve got no phone, no lights, no motorcar), culture takes a long time to shift because transport and communication is slow. But today cultures change much faster. The Soviet Union was able, for a while, to freeze Ukrainian culture in place because it restricted transport and communication (Papers please is a fine example of that). But when the USSR fell, open communications and unrestricted trade links flooded Ukraine with modern European culture and mentalities. Naturally, because the western regions were closer, they were affected the most.
Thus the divide is between the European-leaning western provinces against the Russian-leaning eastern provinces. There’s also the linguistic divide – half of Ukraine speaks or uses only Ukrainian while the other half speaks or uses only Russian. That, again, falls along an east/west line.
Ukraine is a deeply flawed democracy, and that hardly helps
The end of the Soviet Union was done as cleanly as such a thing was possible, but it’s important to remember Ukraine was one of the last republics to decide it was time to leave the Soviet Union. Unlike other states where most or all of the elites were unified in wanting to get the hell out of the USSR, Ukraine had politicians right up until the very end who thought they might have been better off under the hammer and sickle.
These people caused the Soviet hangover of mismanagement and corruption that made economic growth in the 90s quite slow. With GDP per capita less than $4,000 a year (that is, on average people earn less than $4,000 a year), Ukraine is not a middle class country. Watching nearby former Soviet clients and states surpass it and get absorbed into NATO and the European Union caused those who were most dependent on European trade to get quite angry. Eventually, this coalesced into the Orange Revolution of 2004, when the Russian-backed government fell and was replaced by a more European-leaning one.
In the years that followed growth took off. But Ukrainian leaders were still stuck with a set of elites under them that had some really rotten apples. Corruption remained rife. Politicians played dirty with one another and it’s not likely many of them were above it.
Manly man President Putin was not thrilled with these developments
All of this scared the hell out of Russia’s Vladamir Putin, who, like the Ukrainian shit that had been tossed out of office, also ran a government that was notable for its corruption. With NATO floating the idea of bringing Ukraine into its camp, Putin understood the gloves were coming off. If Ukraine joined NATO, it would become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for Russia to bully them into better trade and strategic deals. And if NATO ever came under the sway of an anti-Russia faction, Russia itself could be fucked if they ever used Ukraine as a base.
Putin set about getting his kind of people back into power. Meanwhile, within Ukraine, divisions between east and west were growing. With the exception of Kiev, the east, near Russia, was getting rich and the west, near Europe, was getting poor. Much of this had to do with the fact that the Russian-speaking east could do business more readily and more cheaply in Russia than the Ukrainian-speaking west because they both spoke the language and were closer (and the Soviets had also built up the east more than the west). For westerners, cooperation with Russia had gotten them dick. For easterners, it was the main path to success.
Hence why the west was pissed their president decided to shut them out of the European Union
The initial argument wasn’t over joining the EU, but merely opening doors that would give the west the kind of trade links with Europe that the Russian-speaking eastern half of the country enjoys with Russia. On the face of it, a Ukraine with doors open to both sides would be just about perfect for everyone – except, of course, the elites in Moscow, Kiev, Brussels, and Washington.
And that’s the problem.
The EU seeks another place to sell stuff, as the EU does, while America seeks to weaken Russia and the Russians hope to keep their happy-go-lucky corrupt business and defense partnerships going
Nobody – and I mean nobody – wants to go to war for Ukraine. That’s fucking insane. But everyone would like to see Ukraine in their camp. It’s just too tempting not to try to grab. The EU is not making a strategic play but an economic one. From an EU perspective Russia’s touchiness is just about as backwards as one can imagine, but then again, the EU is not a traditional nation-state with all the hangups of having to worry about security and war.
For the U.S., pushing Ukraine towards Europe weakens Russia’s hand in Eastern Europe. That’s fantastic news for the Americans. But the U.S. won’t go to war or even play hard for Ukraine. American leaders prefer to let democracy slowly work its way towards cooperation with its way of doing business. That’s cheaper, more permanent, and way less risky than spy ops and other covert shit that tends to blow up in their big dumb faces. So far, the only evidence of U.S. involvement has been faked.
Russian, meanwhile, wants to ensure no U.S. or NATO base is ever built in Ukraine and that when trade deals are penned, Russian interests come first. That won’t happen if the door is opened to Europe – suddenly Russian companies would have to compete based on efficiency rather than cronyism or having a fuckton of natural gas. That doesn’t sit well with the current elite in power in Moscow, who got there because they were corrupt assholes and not because they were particularly good at anything.
Why’s the government cracking heads now? Because if they don’t, the government will fall
In 2004-5, the sitting Ukrainian government had tried to weather the protests and hoped everyone would just go home. They didn’t and the government fell. This time, President Viktor Yanukovych knows that if they hang out much longer, he’ll lose control. The precedent of taking down the government by revolution is already in play and with no elections due until next year, there’s no way to get a president out unless you throw him out.
But he can’t crack too many skulls, lest he invite a civil war (and then open the door to a Russian or NATO invasion). So he’s got to crack just enough while looking reasonable. That’s a hard act when he’s such a dick and so are his allies in the Kremlin.
The space for cooperation is rapidly running out
With each escalation, violence becomes more likely on both sides, spiralling and spinning further and further along. Doomsday for Ukraine is a civil war, but there are many shades of evil in between, including Yanykovych following the tried-and-proven dictatorship tactics of nearby Belarus. It’s hard to say, without being in a room with listening devices, to know what will happen next. But bet on it not being pretty.