27.02.2014 Author: Seth Ferris

Ukraine: A Dangerous Divide

BN-BE744_0122uk_M_20140122103005Mission Accomplished, but this time the battle is only just beginning.

The removal of the Yanukovych government in Ukraine and the running street battles in Kiev have provided a convenient distraction to the debacle in Syria and America’s continuing inability to get its actions to match its words. It has little to do with the Ukrainian people, however.

We are continually told that this is a conflict between pro-EU Western Ukraine and pro-Russian Eastern Ukraine. In fact the Western objections to Ukraine’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement had little to do with the ongoing public protests against the general conduct of the Yanukovych government, which affected the whole population. The two sides of the country have been pitted against each other to fulfill US policy objectives – and once again people have been killed, in another country, to achieve these.

There is of course a natural divide between the Western half of Ukraine, which is more pro-European, and the Eastern part which tends to look towards Russia and has a large ethnic Russian population. However this situation is replicated in most countries, and is not considered an excuse for breaking them up.

In recent years much has been made of the Walloon-Fleming divide in Belgium, right in the heart of the EU, but the politicians advocating separation are on the fringes of the debate, most Belgians continually expressing a preference to remain united. Then there are Switzerland, the famously disparate nation which is too rich to be told what to do, and China, where the very existence of national minorities, with separate languages, is denied by most countries.

In the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and former Yugoslavia different communities lived alongside each other for centuries before more extreme political elements were inserted and armed by foreign powers to suit their own purposes. When individuals on either side of those conflicts migrate to other countries they again live alongside each other happily in most cases. But at home their differences are considered irreconcilable, when the only people who gain from this situation are the foreign powers who thus gain separate spheres of influence, and an enemy to blame for their own problems.

What is Happening?

Ukraine does not have a long history of independence. For most of its existence it has been part of other countries, whether Russia, Lithuania, Poland or the Soviet Union, or various combinations thereof. It has also suffered a number of religious divides, with the majority Orthodox population being broken up into at least three recognizably Orthodox groups and a significant Eastern-rite Roman Catholic community as a result of political rather than religious disputes.

Despite this the Ukrainian people, in both the Eastern and Western halves of the country, have maintained a common national identity which overrides these divisions. This has been maintained by the protestors in Maidan Square, who are fighting for a better Ukraine, but not the commentators whose brief is to stir conflict as much as possible.

When Ukraine initially negotiated its EU Association Agreement it expected economic benefits, knowing full well Russia would object. It did not receive the support it rightly or wrongly expected. All countries which have sought to join the EU have had similar problems – before Spain joined, for example, it was told to develop its industrial base rapidly, with little assistance, whilst at the same time decreasing agricultural production, its main earner. Eventually the political rather than the economic argument told, but Spain’s recent problems have again made people question why it joined the European Economic Community, as it was then called, without seeing significant economic benefits.

Russia gave Ukraine the economic support it needed, in the form of a 15 billion dollar loan and cheap gas. This may have been a left-handed gift but it does help the country. Yanukovych did not turn his back on the EU by accepting this loan; he stated openly that his own country was his priority and that if the EU wanted to support the country he would accept a similar loan from that quarter.

The EU decided that it did not like being dictated to by a country it was trying to help and so made it choose between the EU and Russia. When the Ukrainian government continued to balance between the two the Russian loan was represented by the West as a reward for refusing to sign the Association Agreement, and the protests depicted as pro-EU and anti-Russian protests, the West thus ignoring what the people were protesting about, democracy again being trampled on by those who claim to support it.

As Ron Paul, a former US presidential candidate, stated in an op-ed piece published after the democratically-elected Yanukovych government had left Kiev, “the usual interventionists in the US have long meddled in the internal affairs of Ukraine. In 2003 it was US government money that helped finance the Orange Revolution, as US-funded NGOs favoring one political group over the other were able to change the regime. These same people have not given up on Ukraine. They keep pushing their own agenda for Ukraine behind the scenes, even as they ridicule anyone who claims US involvement.”

Who is behind it?

373638551The Orange Revolution was one of a wave of color revolutions imposed on countries which no longer served US objectives, as the rhetoric the US used to justify them, and the list of US organizations on the ground at the time, made clear. They were all presented as popular uprisings. How popular the Ukrainian one was can be judged by the fact that Viktor Yushchenko, who it was ostensibly held to support, garnered just 5% of the vote when he stood for reelection and was replaced by Yanukovych, who the revolution had allegedly been against.

The winds can change like this in democracies, but not after popular revolutions which sweep the old system away. How many Salazar supporters are in Portuguese politics now?

Some of those publicly involved in Ukraine are familiar faces. Senator John McCain has made several trips there recently to meet the opposition. McCain has well-documented connections with Dillon Aero, a company whose involvement in illegal arms dealing has been caught on tape. He always seems to pop up anywhere war is threatened, banging the drum for one side rather than the other. His hands are already soaked in blood over Libya, Syria and little Georgia with the 2008 Georgian-Russian war.

Now he is saying, “People of Ukraine, we are with you.” Who exactly is “we”? Who profits from the current crisis in Ukraine, the US voters who sent him to work for them or arms dealers?

To deflect this question, he adds “the US must stand up to support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea.” This is a reference to the longstanding agreement, which the Orange Revolution government did not repeal, that the Russian Navy should use the Crimean naval base at Sevastopol. The US has concluded similar agreements with countries all over the world without believing that they violate these countries’ territorial integrity.

What is the plan?

Russia has now recalled its Ambassador to Ukraine (for consultations), so we can assume that things are about to get interesting. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already fired the first warning shots by accusing the opposition, quite rightly, of failing to honor the peace deal signed by all sides.

This stipulated that the protestors would go away, but they haven’t because they still feel they have grievances even if the official opposition has signed a peace deal. This is another indication that these international maneuvers have nothing to do with the actual grievances of the protestors, who are bottom of the food chain in this story.

Lavrov did however publicly question whether Yanukovych would be able to cling onto power. This indicates that Russia sees the President himself as a liability but not his cause, as if removing him will cleanse his deeds. In fact, although Yanukovych has now resigned; he and his government have relocated to his power base in the East of the country and they will continue to press their case to be restored as a legitimate and democratically-elected government.

Thus the stage is set for an even bigger standoff between Yanukovych, the US which wants him gone at any cost and Russia which does not want the US alternative. The positions of Russia and the US are irreconcilable, so those they see as their natural allies will not be allowed to reconcile. There will be two Ukraines, whether the Ukrainians like it or not, and a new Cold War which, by the merest coincidence, knocks the EU out of global contention for the foreseeable future by exposing its weaknesses of decision-making and implementation.

As Stephen Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies and Politics at New York University and Princeton University recently wrote, “And the longer-term outcome may be—and I want to emphasize this, as nobody in the United States seems to want to pay attention to it—the outcome may be the construction, the emergence of a new Cold War divide between West and East, not this time, as it was for our generation, in faraway Berlin, but right on the borders of Russia, right through the heart of Slavic civilization. And if that happens, if that’s the new Cold War divide, it’s permanent instability and permanent potential for real war for decades to come. That’s what’s at stake.”

Who wins?

Ukraine has a common border and history with Russia. It also has a common border and history with the EU, having been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire for over three hundred years. It has economic and political ties with both sides. It is the largest country wholly within Europe and has vast coal and industrial resources and strategically significant ports.

Both East and West want to get their hands on these resources. More importantly, they don’t want the other side getting them. Ultimately the country wants independence, not dependence, and has the resources to make it work. Its people see that as a right, and are protesting because they feel their rights have been violated. They are finding out the hard way that, as far as the Western powers are concerned, the only right a civilized country has is to agree with them.

So where does all this leave Yanukovych? Potentially, as the Saviour of Ukraine, as most people don’t want it dismembered and that is all the other sides are offering. All the people in Maidan protesting against him may end up fighting for him. What more could any politician want? You couldn’t make it up.

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.