Getting the story straight in Ukraine

Euromaidan Protest
Radically oriented protesters throwing Molotov cocktails in direction of Interior troops positions. Euromaidan Protests. Jan 19, 2014

With the death toll rising to double figures in Ukraine after a number of particularly deadly days of rioting, it has become important to separate what is going on in the former member of the Soviet Union, from what is not.

The reality of competing national imperatives in one of the world’s most important geographical regions is being lost in the echo chamber of global newswire services reporting only about the protests. 

The roots of the events in Ukraine go much deeper than just simple demonstrations.

In what is now being termed by Western media as a low-level revolution, more than 25 people have been killed this week as protesters taking violent action against the government clashed with police in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities.

Stones are being thrown and Molotov cocktails hurled but it is important to remember that their President Viktor Yanukovich was democratically elected in 2010 with an important majority.

A great many Ukrainians were very happy with Mr Yanukovich. So while some are deadly serious in their grievances, today’s demonstrators calling for his premature removal from office are walking a fine line between healthy political expression and the very real possibility of undermining Ukraine’s constitution.

Protests and their roots

It is still unclear when these protests will end. Even though the participants are still relatively low in number, those who remain appear to be the stalwarts of the movement.

The bulk of the protests are centered on Kiev’s aptly-named Independence Square. Police have advanced on the square multiple times but have so far been unable to enter and clear the section due to barricades and reports of semi-automatic gunfire coming from the protesters.

Current negotiations between the government and protesters have focused on finding a resolution to the violence in Kiev and the growing instability throughout the rest of Ukraine. 

Amid the unrest, Russia has found an opportunity to exploit Ukraine's divisions for its own benefit, namely by encouraging a discussion on Ukrainian federalism.

That Russia is now getting involved is news in itself. During the first flare-up of unrest in November 2013, Russia remained very quiet. 

Their silence was troubling for analysts at the time, given how important Ukraine is for Russia but Moscow was waiting to see who else would join the protests and where they were drawing their encouragement from.

The demonstrators' fervour appears to be supported by the US and Germany which are playing a not-very-covert game in the former Soviet Republic to influence Ukraine’s politics.

This shouldn’t be too surprising, given that the United States views Ukraine to be just as strategically important for Washington as does Russia. After all, the Americans have indirectly influenced governments through intelligence assets and aid relief in Ukraine in the last 10 years. 

Russian moves

But this is in Russia’s backyard. After the 2004 Orange Revolution, in which the United States supported anti-Russian factions in sweeping to power a pro-EU, pro-Western, and anti-Russian government, Moscow turned its full intelligence and political attention toward Ukraine in an aggressive attempt to reestablish influence over the country. 

Russia moved quickly to counter the Ukrainian revolutions because it feared the same thing happening in Moscow with protests outside the Kremlin if the contagion of pro-Western sentiment spread eastward.

Unfortunately for US goals the pro-Western government of Viktor Yushchenko fell in 2010. Yet the whole extended episode illustrated two major points about Ukraine’s strategic position.

First it showed that the rivalry between Russia and the United States was not a thing of some bygone era, as many had presumed. The Cold War tension certainly appeared to vanish after the fall of the Berlin Wall but the reality was more complex. Competition between the two simply moved further into the shadows.

Secondly, just as with the current protests, the last decade of fluctuating peace and unrest in Ukraine shows how isolated protests can be co-opted by political powers to push their own agendas. 

Both the US and Russia have felt comfortable using aggrieved Ukrainian demonstrators as proxies, and now Germany is heavily involved using its own proxy groups stoking anti-Yanukovich protests. And it appears to be just getting started.

The United States is not enthusiastic about Russia gaining superior influence over eastern Europe. They would much rather maintain a balance of power on the European peninsula, one in which Washington does not have to get its hands dirty. 

US balance of power strategy

Such a scenario is much more preferable than intervening in eastern European affairs more overtly and directly on the side of the Europeans. That path would provoke an already nervous Russia probably too much.

Neither are the Russians excited about any loss of their own influence in the region especially as their own geographic and strategic position relies so heavily on retaining influence over eastern Europe. 

Russia’s economy is probably never going to be as strong as the leaders would have people believe but they are very good at political theatre.

The cards Russia is playing in Ukraine - and even in Syria - are meant to convince Former Soviet Union countries that Russia is more than a regional power and they had better think twice before discarding Moscow in favour of the West. Mr Yanukovich apparently understood this message loud and clear.

The Americans have fewer cards to play than the Russians in all of this, largely because Ukraine is on Russia’s doorstep thousands of kilometres from heartland America. Washington’s goal is in balancing Russia with the stronger powers of the EU, but there’s only so far they can take this with the resources they have.

As Washington’s attention moves away from its commitments in the Islamic world and South Asia, it may be able to free up more diplomatic and military resources to better focus on containing Russia. But presently, that is still a way down the track.

What is happening in Ukraine not as simple as a pro-Western faction of residents protesting a unilateral decision to pull away from deeper EU integration made by a democratically elected government. It most certainly is that, but there’s more to the story. The conflict goes back centuries.

Behind the curtain, where the real story usually is, political forces both old and new are contesting over an important piece of geopolitical real-estate. 

The implications of where all this competition eventually ends up digs all the way down to some of the world’s most important country’s national imperatives. That is why it is essential to get the story straight

Nathan Smith has studied international relations and conflict at Massey University. He blogs at INTEL and Analysis

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