The Other Ukraine

Seamus Allen on what you don’t know about the Ukraine Crisis.

A Crisis Continued

Amidst the building pressure for sanctions against Russia within the last two weeks it is important to remember not only that the crisis in Ukraine has not gone away, but to remember how it actually started in the first place. While Donald Trump blocked an escalation of sanctions a week ago, there is no guarantee the situation won’t change. This pressure for an escalation in sanctions throughout January 2018 has been prompted by yet another spike in violence. Kurt Volker, the US Special Representative for Ukraine, stated on the 19th of December 2017 that ‘This has been the most violent year, 2017, and, frankly, last night was one of the most violent nights, certainly since February, and possibly this year.’ OSCE monitors in Ukraine reported over 16,000 ceasefire violations in the period from the 11th to the 17th of December. As a US State Department spokesperson explained ‘Russia and its proxies are the source of violence in eastern Ukraine, and the Russian government continues to perpetuate an active conflict and humanitarian crisis through its leadership and…direct control over proxy authorities.’

The spokesperson added that ‘The conflict in eastern Ukraine is not an organic civil war.’

The Irish Times’s Daniel McLaughlin paints a somewhat different picture of the situation in his article ‘Pro-Russian feeling refuses to fade among eastern Ukrainians.’ To someone used to reading mainstream accounts of Ukraine crisis, this title might seem startling. Yet it captures the real popular sentiment that exists within much of Eastern Ukraine. However, the picture McLaughlin  paints differs more in form than in substance. The crisis really is all Russia’s fault: the Eastern Ukrainians have just been duped by Russian propaganda. We in the West who know better than the Eastern Ukrainians are able to cure them of their delusion, if only they would let us. McLaughlin laments the prevailing pro-Russian attitude in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. This was summed up by one of his interviewees who mourned in disappointment about the fact that they had not been annexed by Russia: ‘Lots of people here thought it would be like Crimea, that everything would be over in a couple of weeks and we’d have Russian passports and pensions.’ The interviewee despairingly decided: ‘why would Putin want this place … it’s clear that Russia doesn’t need us.’ The fact that there are regions in Eastern Ukraine where people are afraid that Russia wont annex them seems rather startling if one believes that the picture painted by the US State Department to be true. But it’s not – at least not quite.

A Contested Ukraine

Ever since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, Russia has been portrayed in Western media as belligerent, dangerous and deceitful.

This is all true. Russia is dangerous; Russia is an internally corrupt and undemocratic regime; Russia really has devoted extensive efforts to the propagation of deceptive and sometimes grossly exaggerated propaganda.

But there is more to the Crimea story than an act of Russian aggression. Much of the standard narrative of Russia’s aggression in the Crimea is not merely misleading, but omits those who ought to matter the most in the current crisis- the Crimeans themselves.

In the standard narrative, the background to the Crimea crisis has largely suffered from grotesque simplification, as has Ukraine itself.

There are two radically divergent conceptions of Ukrainian identity amongst the Ukrainian population. A conflict amongst Ukrainians themselves about the conception of Ukrainian identity lies at the very heart of the Crimea crisis Richard Sakwa in his book Frontline Ukraine describes the two competing alignments as consisting of the ‘monist’ and ‘Ukrainist’ traditions on the one hand, and the ‘pluralist’ and ‘Malorussianist’ traditions on the other. Both of these alignments take a radically different approach to the fact that Ukraine is ‘an agglomeration of territories, peoples and languages.’

The ‘Ukrainist’ vision is predicated upon a conception of Ukraine that is defined in terms of a quest of autonomy from Russian domination. Russia is viewed as the greatest threat to Ukraine’s freedom and identity. This is often combined with a ‘monist’ approach that stresses the need for a monolithic Ukrainian identity, language and culture to be forced upon all of Ukraine’s disparate regions. This can often lead to an intolerance of Ukraine’s regional and ethnic diversity.

The ‘pluralist’ tradition emphasises the regional diversity of Ukrainian identity and thus the need for regional autonomy. The allied ‘Malorussianist’ perspective stresses the historical connection of these identities to their sister nationalities – the Russians and Belarussians. For many Ukrainians, Ukrainian identity can be traced back to common ancestral origins shared with both Russians and Belarussians. This shared identity crystalized in the ninth century with the emergence of Kievan Rus’ – the ancestor state of the later Russian Empire, but one that had its capital in what is now Ukrainian Kiev. As a result of this link the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian peoples share common cultural, linguistic and religious ties. For many Ukrainians, there is an important ‘Russian’ dimension to their identity: Russians and Belarussians are sister nationalities rather than foreigners.

The linguistic bond is far deeper than the mere fact that Ukrainian and Russian are closely related languages. For millions of ethnic Ukrainians, Russian itself is a genuinely ‘Ukrainian’ language. Between a third and a half of Ukrainians regularly speak Russian either at home or in the workplace. In fact, 15% of ethnic Ukrainians identify Russian as their first language. The majority language of Ukrainians who live in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, is Russian. Furthermore, Ukraine has, and has always had, a large Russian minority, which comprised over 17% of the population of Ukraine at the turn of the 21st century. Ethnic Russians living in Ukraine have traditionally been able to feel at home – indeed, a majority of ethnic Russians living within Ukraine supported the countries referendum on independence from Moscow.

The Euromaidan crisis begins

The two competing visions of Ukraine have long been in conflict. The catalyst for the current crisis was the rejection of a proposed association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine by Ukraine’s President, Yanukovych, in 2014. While Yanukovych’s main constituency of support within Ukraine emanated from the traditionally Russian orientated regions, Yanukovych was scarcely pro-Russian. Rather, he wished to play Russia and the EU off one another to secure the best deal for Ukraine. The proposed EU-Ukrainian Association pact was eventually rejected over genuine, legitimate economic concerns. Yanukovych instead decided that Ukraine’s interests were best served by a new significantly better economic deal with Russia. Nonetheless, this rejection of an association pact with the EU outraged the ‘Ukrainists’ of Ukraine, who were hostile to the development of closer ties with Russia, and saw the building of ties with the European Union as the best way negate Russian influence on Ukraine.  

Anger at Yanukovych had been building within Ukraine for sometime. While Yanukovych’s government was legitimately and democratically elected, his government had also become extraordinarily corrupt and unpopular. Yanukovych was not unique in this-  corruption has been endemic amongst Ukraine’s economic and political elite across the entire political spectrum. But a wave of initially small protests began against Yanukovych. This was the beginning of the Euromaidan movement. Fuelled by a popular anger at years of corruption, the protests quickly grew in size.

Heavy handed government attempts to curtail the protests only exacerbated their growth even more, with over a half million Ukrainians joining in demonstrations on the first of December 2014.

When Yanukovych’s government passed draconian laws to suppress protests, the situation spiralled out of control. The anti-government organisations took on a paramilitary role and commenced the takeover of key buildings in the capital. The oligarchic political factions who were rivalled against Yanukovych  -but who were typically just as corrupt- seized the opportunity to fund resistance to Yanukovych’s government.

The Far-Right agenda

This was when the Ukrainian extreme right rose to prominence within the Euromaidan movement. It seems fair to say that the great majority of participants in the initial Euromaidan protests were not demonstrating because they liked the EU and disliked Russia. Rather, corruption and economic stagnation were the predominant grievances.

But for other Ukrainians, a ‘Ukrainist’ nationalistic sentiment, and a corresponding opposition to ties with Russia, was a key impetus.

This was especially true of the far-right movements which began to take the lead in the paramilitary opposition to the government: Svoboda and the Right sector. The Right sector originated as a loose confederation of extreme right movements, including ones with a radical Fascist orientation, such as the Stepan Bandera All-Ukrainian Organisation Trident and the explicitly pro-Nazi Social-National Assembly. These radical right-wing nationalists advocated closer ties with the EU because they identified Russia as the enemy to be opposed in all circumstances. These paramilitary movements of these groups led confrontations with the Ukrainian police and took increasingly aggressive actions. Government and regional state administration buildings were taken over throughout the country.

Leaving no doubt about their politics, Svoboda and the Right sector adopted the emblems and banners of the former Organisation for Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). The OUN and its leader, Stepan Bandera, had been Nazi collaborators during the Second World War. In the West this has often been explained away by stating that Bandera and OUN worked with Nazi Germany to win Ukraine’s freedom from Soviet and Stalinist domination. While this was certainly true of many Ukrainians, this does not at all explain away the crimes of Bandera and the OUN. The OUN of its own volition conducted bloody pogroms of Jews, Poles and Russians who were construed as contaminants to their vision of a pure Ukraine. The most infamous of these pogroms are probably the Volhynia and Eastern Galicia massacres, which witnessed the destruction of entire villages and the slaughter of tens of thousands of women and children.

Hence, for the millions of Ukrainians who feel that Russianness is a part of their identity, the new prominence of these groups was a terrifying development.

There is little doubt that the vast majority of the Ukrainian population wanted Yanukovych gone. But the new regime that replaced him was anything but democratic or constitutional. Thus, the Maidan movement that overthrew him now became deeply divisive. In a parliamentary session overseen by armed paramilitaries, deputies were instructed to sack Yanukovych, and the vote was conducted in a manner blatantly violating Ukraine’s constitution. The paramilitaries hand picked a new government consisting of the same traditional corrupt Ukrainian oligarchs but now also including members of the far-right. Of the 21 person cabinet, 8 seats were taken by affiliates of Svoboda and the Right Sector, a highly disproportionate amount of seats relative to their size. Furthermore, a fifth of the territory of Ukraine was placed under the regional Governorships of Svoboda members.

Clearly, this was not a Fascist takeover of Ukraine, as Russia claims. A  majority of the Ukrainian government and regional governors were not of the extreme-right. But the extreme right had evidently gained an extraordinarily disproportionate influence in government. As vicious anti-Russian rhetoric became prominent in parliament, the new undemocratic parliament attempted to ban official recognition for languages other than Ukrainian. On the streets, anti-Semitic, anti-Polish, and above all anti-Russian rhetoric became ubiquitous. Marchers shouted: ‘Glory to Ukraine’, ‘Death to enemies’, and ‘knife the Moskals’, Moskals being a derogatory term of abuse for Russians. This rhetoric was frequently turned into reality in violent attacks against undesirables. The Chief Rabbi of Ukraine advised Jews to flee Kiev, and to consider leaving the country. Throughout the country competing demonstrations and anti-demonstrations were held as Ukraine become increasingly polarised. The most infamous incident of violence was a massacre of pro-pluralist demonstrators by the Kulikov field in Odessa. The victims were driven inside a trade union building which was set aflame; those who tried to escape through windows were clubbed to death. It is scarcely surprising that the new Maidan regimes’ plans to establish a new National Guard comprising the far-right militaries prompted hysteria.

Russia’s intervention

These events were terrifying to many millions of Ukrainians who identified with the nations ‘pluralist’ and ‘Melorussianist’ traditions, to say nothing of the millions of Russians who lived within Ukraine. This was especially true in Eastern Ukraine. It was here that- with the backing of Russia-  anti-Maidan resistance triumphed in the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. It is worth remembering that the majority of Crimea’s population is ethnically Russian. While Crimea’s referendum on unification with Russia may have been quasi-democratic at best, according to Sakwa: ‘even in perfect conditions a majority in Crimea would have voted for union with Russia.’ According to the Irish Times’s Daniel McLaughlin, many in Donetsk and Luhansk felt let down by Russia for not integrating them in a manner similar to Crimea.

Russia, however, had its own reasons for intervention. Russia has long been concerned about the Eastward expansion of NATO and the EU, both of which have already expanded to Russia’s borders. ‘Is this a military organization?’ Putin asked about NATO on one occasion ‘Yes, it’s military…It’s moving towards our border. Why?’ It is worth remembering that NATO was originally formed an anti-Russian military alliance. Furthermore, Russia believes that the US had promised it that NATO would expand no further, as part of the compromise that ended the Cold War. Russia has long feared that it will be encircled by NATO and the EU, and that Ukraine will be won over to the West. Hence, Russia was unnerved when it was unveiled that the US had spent billions since 1991 on so called ‘democracy promotion’ within Ukraine -a typical euphemism used by countries to sponsor political factions abroad who serve their interests. The figure amounted to five billion according to a public statement by Victoria Nuland, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs. With the US explicitly endorsing the Maidan movement within Ukraine as ‘democracy promotion’, it was easy for Russia to construe the new militantly Russophobic Ukrainian regime as a US creation.

No way out?

While the Ukrainian regime may remain as oligarchic and corrupt as it has always traditionally been, there have been changes since the Maidan revolution. The far-right wing in Ukraine has been driven from its place in government. Russian propaganda about the existence of Ukrainian neo-fascist paramilitaries however, are not pulled out of thin air. As Joshua Cohen, the official US Project Officer for USAID in USSR territories, wrote in the Washington Post ‘To be clear, Russian propaganda about Ukraine being overrun by Nazis or fascists is false.’ But, nonetheless, he continues: ‘the threat cannot be dismissed out of hand…Far-right and neo-Nazi groups have also assaulted or disrupted art exhibitionsanti-fascist demonstrations, a “Ukrainians Choose Peace” eventLGBT events, a social centermedia organizationscourt proceedings and a Victory Day march celebrating the anniversary of the end of World War II.’  Furthermore, Amnesty International has accused Ukraine’s government of tolerating Neo-nazi groups to act with ‘impunity.’

However, while the far-right may have been the catalyst for the schism of Ukraine, the problem is unlikely to be healed even in their absence. The ‘moderates’ who now govern Ukraine have imposed economic blockades against the populations of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk, designed to punish these regions for their insubordination. Ukraine’s aggressive military activity against these regions is not contingent on what the peoples of these regions wish for. Neither of course, is Russian foreign policy. But the conflict to date has only served to cement Ukraine’s divisions even further. Even in the absence of Russia and Ukrainian Fascists, there is a deep division with Ukraine. Yet, it is surprising how little attention the Crimeans themselves receive in Western media coverage on the Crimea crisis. It might be worth asking whether or not the Crimeans have a right to decide their own fate.