Ukraine: Great power tug of war

The US and the EU are on one side, Russia is on the other; the human victims are the Ukrainian population, writes Eddie Ford

Over recent months Ukraine has been thrown into crisis following the decision by president Viktor Yanukovych not to pursue closer integration with the European Union. Kiev and other cities have been hit by massive street demonstrations and physical confrontations between anti-government forces, which range from fascist to liberal democratic, and the tooled-up police force of the increasingly authoritarian Yanukovych. Oppositionalists have been arrested and in some cases severely beaten, one particular example being that of Dmytro Bulatov - the leader of a group called AutoMaidan, mainly made-up of drivers, who vanished without trace for eight days.1 When he finally reappeared on the outskirts of Kiev he said he had been kidnapped and tortured (“crucified”) by captors who spoke with “Russian accents”.

The turmoil has revealed deep divisions within the country, which seems to be disintegrating before our very eyes. The primary fissure, regrettably, appears to be an ethnic, linguistic and cultural one between Ukrainian and Russian speakers - which in turn is reflected in the aggressive tug of war over the country between the European Union/United States and Russia. This division first flared up during the so-called Orange Revolution of 2004, which saw a bitter presidential battle pitching Yanukovych against Viktor Yushchenko with their contrasting and competing pro-European and pro- Russian orientations - evidenced by the fact that president Vladimir Putin made two visits to Kiev to congratulate Yanukovych on his initial electoral victory, which was promptly annulled by the Ukrainian supreme court. Yushchenko, leader of the Our Ukraine party, won the rerun by 52% to 44%.

Showing the often ugly nature of Ukrainian-Russian politics, Yushchenko was the target of an assassination attempt by ‘dark forces’ at the height of the election campaign - it being later confirmed that he had ingested hazardous amounts of TCDD, the most potent dioxin in Agent Orange. Poisoning, of course, is well known to be a Russian/Soviet secret service favourite. Yushchenko suffered permanent disfigurement and despite massive sympathy for his condition lost the 2010 presidential election badly. He garnered only 5.45% of the vote.

Needless to say, the Orange Revolution further acted to polarise the two populations. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Yushchenko’s victory there was intense speculation regarding the possible secession of Russian-dominated areas. This talk may have been exaggerated, but it demonstrates how the Ukrainophone and Russophone populations imagine Ukrainian identity in sharply different ways - and now the threat of dismemberment appears only too real again.

According to official data from the 2001 Ukrainian census, 67.5% of the population declared Ukrainian as their native language and 29.3% (over 14 million) gave Russian. But only just over half of these are actual Russians - amongst those who also say their first language is Russian are Belarusians, Greeks, Bulgarians, Moldavians, Tartars, Armenians, Poles and Germans.2

Furthermore, according to a 2004 public opinion poll by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, the number of people using Russian considerably exceeds the number of those who declared Russian as their native language in the census. Hence the survey says Russian is used at home by 43-46% of the population and Russophones constitute a majority in eastern and southern regions (and an overwhelming 97% in Crimea).


The larger historical origins of this split are beyond the scope of such a short article. In many ways, Ukraine is one of those countries which is a victim of history, surrounded by predatory expansionist powers - especially to the east in the shape of Russia. Going further back in history, Kiev was actually the first capital of Rus - not Moscow, let alone Petrograd.3 But it has always been prey to the territorial ambitions of Poland, Germany, Russia and other powers.

After the Russian Revolution, Ukraine became an enormous battlefield between a bewildering array of revolutionary and nationalist groups - and endless subdivisions and factions thereof. Between 1917 and 1921 numerous ‘governments’ backed by this or that power or alliance were set up - the Central Rada of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, Hetmanate of the Ukrainian State, Ukrainian National Council of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, Directorate of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, Hutsul Republic ...

Ukraine became formally independent in March 1919 with the setting up of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. In December 1922 it became a founding member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Giving you an insight into the volatile state of Ukrainian politics, or the national psyche, Stalin’s favourite novel was The white guard - written in 1926 by Mikhail Bulgakov and later adapted by him as a play. Set at the time of the civil war, the main characters are whites who hate the reds, Jews, etc. But during the course of the play some of the characters start going over to the communists, not because any ideological affinity or political conversion, but just because the whites are so abominable. The play brilliantly depicts the class contradictions and moral turmoil of these individuals and society as a whole.

Beyond any doubt, Ukraine is still traumatised by the legacy of Stalinism - which was brutal and overwhelming. Forced collectivisation, which was irrational and anti-Marxist to the core, was tantamount to a war against the Ukrainian peasantry, and helped to create the conditions for the appalling famine of 1932-33 in which millions died. Foully, the mass starvation was always denied by the regime and alibied by fellow travellers looking for their ‘new civilisation’, such as the Webbs, Bernard Shaw, etc. Though not absolutely conclusive, there is enough credible evidence to suggest that Stalin deliberately engineered the famine to punish the Ukrainians for being insufficiently loyal to the Soviet Union (ie, JV Stalin). Indeed, the famine is now known as the Holodomor (“extermination by hunger”) and has been ‘officially’ classified as an act of genocide by 13 countries.

The ghastly experience of forced collectivisation and famine goes a long way to explaining how in World War II huge numbers of Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis, despite the fact that Hitler had made more than clear what his plans for the Slavic people were in Mein Kampf and elsewhere. Sometimes whole regiments would go over to the German side. You cannot just attribute this to traditional, atavistic peasant anti-Semitism, though that was certainly present. Rather, by a terrible logic, Stalinist oppression drove so many desperate Ukrainians into the hands of the Nazis - even if only temporarily.

After Stalin died, Khrushchev redrew the borders in 1954 by giving Crimea to the Ukrainians as part of the celebrations surrounding the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav.4 It is fair to suggest that Khrushchev’s motivation may not have been entirely altruistic - perhaps more a desire to build a Russian-speaking majority in Ukraine and perhaps also an attempt to end the inconvenience resulting from the fact that the Tavriya Military District was situated in the territory of two separate republics - the Crimea and the Ukrainian SSR5. Anyway, as a result of this transfer there was a predictable surge in Russian immigration. Between 1959 and 1989, the number of Russians as a percentage of the Ukrainian population rose from 16.9% to 22.1% (7.1 million to 11.36 million) - most of them going to the Crimea. But ever since independence in 1990 the number of people who speak Ukrainian as their first language - and are generally ‘Ukrainianising’ themselves - has grown steeply.


Still, whatever the complex history of Ukraine, a major element of the present conflict was made quite clear at the February 1 EU security conference in Munich. Giving the opening speech, Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, declared that the “future of Ukraine belongs with the EU”. Then John Kerry, the US secretary of state, rammed home the message by saying the US backs Ukraine’s “fight for democracy” - meaning, of course, support for the anti-government protesters on the streets - and complained that the “aspirations of citizens” are being “trampled” by “corrupt, oligarchic interests” that “use money to stifle political opposition and dissent, to buy politicians and media outlets, and to weaken judicial independence”.

Unsurprisingly, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused western countries of “double standards” - he might have a point. Kerry lives in a country where a plutocracy effectively runs the media and determines who the presidential candidates shall be: money buys just about anything and everything. Lavrov also angrily asked: “What does incitement of violent street protests have to do with the promotion of democracy? Why do we not hear condemnation of those who seize government buildings and attack police and use racist, anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans?”

Obviously on the retreat, Yanukovych tried to ease the crisis by repealing anti-protest laws, signing an amnesty for protestors and accepting the resignation of his cabinet. But, ratcheting up the tensions, Kerry stated that Yanukovych’s concessions had “not yet reached an adequate level of reform” - and on February 1 he made a show of meeting Ukrainian opposition figures, including Arseniy Yatsenyuk and the boxer-turned-politician, Vitali Klitschko. Buoyed by such explicit western expressions of support, the opposition has pressed in parliament for a return to a previous constitution, which would mean Yanukovych losing some of the key powers he has accumulated since being elected in 2010 - like appointing the prime minister, government and regional governors.

In effect, Rompuy and Kerry are saying that Yanukovych - just like Bashar Assad in Syria - has to go. Now there is even talk from the White House of sanctions. And the US state department has stated that Washington and the EU are in “preliminary discussions” about financial help for Ukraine - if a new technocratic government is formed, Italian-style. So much for the wonderful ideals of democracy. Russia, on the other hand, has other ideas. What we are seeing, in fact, is a great power tussle about who is going to be the dominant force in Ukraine - the EU/US or Russia?

Quite clearly the Ukrainian government, regardless of its exact political nature, is caught between a rock and a hard place. The economy is mired in recession with the worst yet to come, and there is the EU offering them associate status. Salvation? No, because that offer does not come cost-free. To become an associate EU member means signing up to neoliberalism. Just think about it. Ukraine was one of the heartlands of Stalinist industrialisation, and big state-owned industries still remain - mines, steel plants, etc. Neoliberalism will just mean mass unemployment and further economic misery. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

True, in the minds of many Ukranians associate status in theory means the free movement of labour - which, of course, is very attractive to many, especially younger citizens, looking towards Germany as a possible port of call in their hopes for a better future. Many are genuinely enthusiastic about the EU and all it appears to offer. But cruelly it is very unlikely that associate status will lead to the free movement of labour, leaving the ambitious - using that word in the best sense - trapped in a decaying and fragmenting Ukraine. A horrible situation.

After all, what is the alternative facing them? Russia has offered £14 billion in aid (cheap oil, cheap gas, etc) and some sort of ‘common market’ that also includes - wait for it - Belarus and Kazakhstan. It is almost impossible to conceive of a less appealing prospect. By comparison, Greece, Spain and Portugal are near to paradise on earth. Belarus (literally ‘white Rus’) is a truly weird and frightening place, like a cross between Putin’s and Stalin’s Russia - it still has all the old monstrous statues. Kazakhstan, another strange place, has a large Russian-speaking minority. Yet the only thing these countries have in common - or at least parts of them - is an inchoate and nostalgic Slavophilism, which would quickly break down under the cold economic winds.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian central bank has to keep intervening to stop panic demand for dollars weakening the hryvnia currency - escalating the trend towards general crisis.

We are therefore faced with the real possibility that the former Soviet republic could slip into a civil war sparked by ethnic tensions and conflict - a toxic situation that could deteriorate in the blink of an eye. Those elements of the left that that are backing one side or the other in the Ukraine need to reconsider. Something potentially more dangerous than even Syria is on the cards, this time played out within the boundaries of Europe.



1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AutoMaidan.

2. http://web.archive.org/web/20080323110131/http://www.ukrcensus.gov.ua/eng/results/general/nationality.

3. www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/317542/Kiev/13910/The-first-Rus-capital.

4. The treaty was concluded in January 1654 in Pereyaslav (now Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi) at a meeting between the council of Ukrainian Cossacks and Vasiliy Buturlin, representative of tsar Alexey I - taking place as it did during the Khmelnytsky Uprising, ‘a war of liberation’ against Poland which resulted in the incorporation of eastern Ukraine into the Tsardom of Muscovy and the Cossacks swearing an oath of allegiance to the tsar.

5. www.iccrimea.org/historical/crimeatransfer.html.