Monthly Archives: February 2014
The background on what’s happening in Ukraine
Geography and history can help us understand what’s happening in Ukraine in a way newspaper stories focusing on current developments can’t.
The geography: Ukraine is a large country touching on the north shore of the Black Sea, with Russia is to the east and northeast; Belarus to the northwest; Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary to the west; and Romania and Moldova to the southwest. Having located Ukraine within the map of Europe, imagine it divided by a line from northeast to southwest. The upper, western side, historically dominated by Poland and more influenced by the Roman church, is the area where mass protests against the government have recently occurred and where government centers, including the capital, Kiev, have been seized by protestors. The lower, eastern side, historically dominated by Russia and Eastern Orthodox in religion, has supported the newly ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych. Western Ukraine, largely Ukrainian-speaking, leans toward Europe, while eastern Ukraine, with many Russian speakers, is oriented toward Russia.
Other key facts: Ukraine has long been a global breadbasket due to its fertile conditions. As of 2011, it was the world’s third-largest grain exporter. Ukraine also maintains the second-largest military in Europe, after that of Russia. Finally, it’s dependent on Russia for 65% of its energy supplies (oil and natural gas), and 85% of Russian gas is delivered to Western Europe through Ukraine.
Understandably, given its central location, Ukraine has been an often-fought-over crossroads of many cultures. During the Middle Ages it was a key center of East Slavic culture, which developed the powerful state of Kiev. After Kiev fell to the Mongols in the 1240s, the area was contested, ruled, and divided by a variety of powers. Finally, after a devastating 30-year war between Russia, Poland, Turks, and Cossacks, a 1686 peace treaty between Russia and Poland gave Kiev and the Cossack lands east of the Dnieper over to Russian rule and the Ukrainian lands west of the Dnieper to Poland. The later partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century by Prussia, Habsburg Austria, and Russia, resulted in western Ukraine (Galicia) being absorbed by Austria. Polish landlords controlled vast estates and were a law unto themselves in western Ukraine, with peasants heavily taxed and tied to the land as serfs. In 1596, they these landlords set up the “Greek-Catholic” or Uniate Church, under the authority of the Catholic pope but using Eastern rituals, that dominates western Ukraine to this day. Meanwhile, the Russian tsars established a policy of Russification in “their” Ukrainian lands, suppressing the use of the Ukrainian language.
Ukrainians fought on both sides in World War I: with the Allies in the imperial Russian army and on the side of Germany in the Austro-Hungarian army. The war caused the collapse of both the Austrian and Russian empires, with the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and postwar treaties. Eastern Ukraine (Galicia) was incorporated into Poland and western Ukraine into the Soviet Union. The Russian civil war that brought the Soviet government to power devastated Ukraine, leaving over 1.5 million people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. There were more deaths to come in eastern (Soviet) Ukraine: up to 10 million starved to death in the early ‘30s as a result of Stalin’s program of forced collectivized agriculture.
World War II brought more suffering. Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis, with some western Ukrainians collaborating and others fighting on the Russian side. Brutal German rule in the occupied territories eventually turned most of its Ukrainian supporters against them. The Nazis preserved the collective-farm system, carried out genocidal policies against Jews, and deported men to work in forced labor camps in Germany. The total losses inflicted upon the Ukrainian population during the war are estimated to be between five and eight million, including over half a million Jews killed by the Einsatzgruppen, sometimes with the help of local collaborators. More than 700 Ukrainian cities and towns and 28,000 villages were destroyed.
Ukraine became independent in 1991, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, but economic struggles and political problems ensued, including charges of rigged elections and political corruption. In 2004, Viktor Yanukovych, then prime minister, was declared the winner of the presidential elections, which the Supreme Court later ruled had been largely rigged. The opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, challenged the outcome, bringing himself and and Yulia Tymoshenko to power in the “Orange Revolution.” Yanukovych was again elected President in 2010, however, with 48% of votes.
The current protests against Yanukovych began in November 2013, when some Ukrainians demanded more integration with the European Union. Violence escalated after January 16, 2014 when the government adopted so-called “anti-protest” laws. Anti-government demonstrators occupied buildings in the center of Kiev, and riots left 98 dead and thousands injured on Feb 18-20.
Conclusion: Ukraine is still being tugged in two different directions by its neighbors, and is still torn by historical internal divisions.
A New Cold War?
The Obama administration is continuing or expanding all of the elements of US foreign policy for which George W. Bush was so reviled – like killing foreigners and Americans extra-judicially with drones. It’s withdrawn combat troops from Iraq and is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, having failed to achieve its hazy objectives in both countries and created untold damage, including well over 200,000 military and civilian deaths and many more wounded. As someone who just turned 70, I’m reminded of the equally unjustified and even more destructive war of my youth – Vietnam, which resulted in 3.8 million deaths, according to Wikipedia. All of these wars were fought or are being fought for the interests of a small economic elite, and our government continues to try to control events around the world in the interest of this elite and to preserve its macho “prestige,” at the cost of millions of US tax dollars, untold innocent lives, and the stability and safety of the citizens in multiple countries.
The most glaring non-military examples right now are happening in Venezuela and Ukraine. The US government is still trying to reverse the results of the Chavez social revolution, which benefits the majority of Venezuelans and in which they participate at a grassroots level. It’s currently seeking to destabilize or overthrow Hugo Chavez’s successor, democratically-elected President Nicolás Maduro. The Obama regime is also trying for regime change in Ukraine, encouraging mostly right-wing and fascist armed protestors fighting it out in the streets with Ukrainian police, a struggle that’s already resulted in hundreds of deaths.
It’s very difficult to get the truth about these events – you won’t find it even on NPR. You have to know, as I learned in the Vietnam era, that our government consistently lies about its foreign policy, and go to alternative news sources when important news breaks. I first started hearing the truth about Ukraine yesterday on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now,” and I’ve now found more online.
Franklin C. Spinney, a former military analyst, writes on Counterpunch that “in the late 1980s, the leaders of the West promised Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that they would not expand eastward if the Soviet Union pulled out of Eastern Europe and ended the Cold War. That promise was not kept. A triumphal West stuck it to the Soviet Union’s greatly weakened Russian successor by incorporating the former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO and the EU. Their next move tried to incorporate the Caucasus country of Georgia – a country more a part of Central Asia than of Europe – into the West’s sphere of influence.” The moved failed when the Russians, who intervened militarily.
“Events in the Ukraine suggest that may have been a temporary speed bump on the pathway to rolling back Russia’s geography to the years of Ivan the Terrible. Ukraine is descending into chaos, and the West is fanning the fires of chaos and fueling revanchist fascism, perhaps with a near-term aim of partitioning the Ukraine along its historic Orthodox-Catholic fault line. Putin’s possible reaction may be portrayed as a reason to restart the Cold War with Russia.
Combine these efforts in the Ukraine with the ongoing push to start a Cold War with China (Obama’s Pacific pivot and the Navy-AF budget plan for the so-called Air-Sea Battle) and ever-rising defense budgets may be again in the offing.”
“Democracy Now” and the World Socialist website (wsws.org) both report that the Obama administration has been pressuring the European Union to lean on the Ukraine government. As Stefan Steinberg wrote in a front-page article today on wsws.org, “At an emergency meeting in Brussels yesterday, European foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions on Ukraine, including visa bans, asset freezes, and restrictions on exports. Washington has already imposed travel bans on 20 leading Ukrainian politicians. Earlier on Thursday, the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland traveled to Kiev for talks with the government and opposition aimed at forcing President Yanukovych to stand down.”
Yanukovych has been trying to negotiate a truce with anti-government demonstrators, but “the fascist Right Sector organization, which, together with the ultra-right, anti-Semitic Svoboda party, is playing the leading role in the street battles, issued a statement Wednesday night declaring that it had not signed on to the truce and that there was ‘nothing to negotiate.’ According to media reports, the outbreak of violent confrontations on Thursday began early in the morning when protesters armed with axes, knives, truncheons, and corrugated iron shields. Videos of the fighting show protesters armed with rifles firing at police lines.” Obama appealed yesterday to the “mostly peaceful” demonstrators to “stay peaceful,” and said the Ukraine government should disarm. One can only wonder how he would feel if armed protestors fired on DC police and the leader of another government gave the same advice to him.
Steinberg writes that “Yanukovych, who inflamed the ire of the US, Germany, and the EU by backing away from a proposed deal with the EU last November and deciding instead to maintain close ties with Moscow, represents different factions of Ukrainian oligarchs from those oriented to the West, who are backing the opposition. Rightist and nationalist forces have also gone onto the offensive in a number of cities in the west of the country. On Wednesday, central administration buildings were stormed and occupied by protesters in Khmelnytskyi, Ivano-Frankivsk, Uzhhorod and Ternopil. In Lviv, the largest city in the west, protesters seized the prosecutor’s office and ransacked police stations. They then declared the city’s political autonomy from the central administration in Kiev. Supporters of the autonomy movement set up barricades at the borders with Poland, preventing traffic crossing into the region.
With tensions flaring up on the Ukraine-Polish border, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told Polish TV he had instructed hospitals to prepare for Ukrainian refugees.
Tusk said Hungary and Slovakia were making similar preparations, adding, ‘What is happening today is not war, but the situation could spiral out of control at any moment… We are ready for the worst case scenarios.’
The provocations of ultra-right groups have met with deafening silence from Western politicians and media, which uniformly ascribe responsibility for the crisis in Ukraine to the Yanukovych regime and Russia. The White House and the EU bureaucracy in Brussels are willing to allow these forces to destabilize the country while they lead the campaign to force the Yanukovych government out of power. The US and the EU powers are striving to impose a client regime in Ukraine pledged to carry out austerity policies demanded by the International Monetary Fund and take a much more confrontational stance toward Russia.
The Obama administration’s aggressive policy in Central Europe is a continuation of that of the Bush administration, which sought to undermine the influence of Russia over former Soviet republics and former Eastern Bloc allies in Europe, as well as former Soviet Republics in Asia. The real content behind Obama’s bluster about democratic aspirations was most vividly exposed by the recent comments of Victoria Nuland, the US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. In a leaked telephone conversation with the US ambassador to Ukraine, Nuland, wife of the neo-conservative cold warrior Robert Kagan, put forward her preferred scenario for a future Ukrainian government, dismissing the opinion of European leaders with the comment, ‘Fuck the EU.’ Nuland had previously underlined the geostrategic importance of Ukraine to the US when she told an international business conference that the US had invested $5 billion in NGOs and other organizations opposed to the Yanukovych regime. [The same strategy is being followed in Venezuela.]
In Libya and Syria, the Obama administration and its European allies were prepared to utilize the most reactionary political forces to achieve regime-change. Now in Ukraine they are provoking the break-up of the country and its descent into civil war.”
I’ll be researching then history of Ukraine, which I’m sure will shed more light on the situation there, so stay tuned (and skeptical)!