Thursday, 20 February 2014

Getting the story straight in Ukraine

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 Soviet Union country, from what is not.

The reality of competing national imperatives in one of the world’s most important geographical regions is being lost in casual reiteration of global newswire services which report only a series of violent protests. The events in Ukraine are much deeper than just this.

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 President Viktor Yanukovich clashed with police in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities. Security forces opened fire at protesters outside a security service building in western Ukraine's Khmelnytskyi region on February 19, killing one and wounding two others. Both members of law enforcement and demonstrators are among the dead.

Amongst all the throwing of stones and Molotov cocktails in Ukraine, 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 they are deadly serious in their grievances, today’s demonstrators calling for his premature removal from office are walking a fine line between necessary political expression and the very real possibility of undermining Ukraine’s very constitution.

It is still unclear when these protests will end, and even though the participants are still low in number relative to the population, those who remain appear to be the stalwarts ready to see the movement through to the bitter end - whatever that end is. The inclusion of football fans in the protests, known as Ultras, are sure to add fuel to the protest fires.

From the government’s perspective, the Ultras illustrate the breakdown of the demonstrations into little more than thuggish opportunism, but this is only half the truth. While not necessarily ideologically aligned with the protesters, Ultras are acclimatised to rough dealings with law enforcement and generally relish any chance to bring their well-honed and relatively sophisticated riot techniques to protesting political groups. Versions of these groups are common all around the world in places with strong football cultures.

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. A spokesperson for the government assured February 19 that they do not wish to disperse the demonstrators forcibly and are looking at diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis.

Current negotiations have centered 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 getting involved now is news in itself. During the first flare-up of unrest in November 2013, when these so-called “Euromaiden” protests began as a negative response to the Yanukovich government’s reversal on Ukraine’s expected closer integration with Europe, Russia remained very quiet. Their silence was troubling for analysts at the time, given how important Ukraine is for Russia, but clearly Moscow was waiting to see who else would join the protests and where they were drawing their encouragement from.

The demonstrators fervour once again appears to be supported by the United States and Germany 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 important strategically for Washington as does Russia. After all, the Americans have indirectly influenced governments through intelligence and aid relief in Ukraine just with the last ten years.

Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych speaks during a joint news conference
But this is 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 towards 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.

Unfortunately for the US goals and the newly elected pro-Western Ukrainian government, resources for US intelligence are far outweighed by their Russian counterparts’ in Ukraine and the government of Viktor Yushchenko fell in 2010. Natural gas supplies to Ukraine - which Russia has few qualms using as a particularly effective political tool - were shut-off from Ukraine to help leverage Moscow’s foreign policy goals. The whole extended episode illustrated two major things 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 underground and further into the shadows.

Once Russia under the direction of President Vladimir Putin returned to its natural status as a regional power, which it concretely and vividly displayed with its 2008 war with Georgia, the old ways were finally returning. What the world discovered during this time, and continuing into today, was that political manipulation never quite left the repertoire of otherwise “reformed” Cold War adversaries.

Secondly, just like 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 United States and Russia have felt comfortable using aggrieved Ukrainian demonstrators as proxies, and now it appears 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 the extremely strategic and geopolitically important Eastern European region. They would much rather mould a balance of power on the European peninsula between Russian and the EU, one in which Washington does not have to get its hands dirty and neither side can win outright. That scenario is much more preferable than intervening in Eastern European affairs more overtly and directly on the side of the Europeans. This 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 they’d have people believe, and 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 such as Ukraine that Russia is more than a regional power and they had better think twice before discarding Moscow in favour of the West. Kiev apparently understood this message loud and clear.

Complicating things even more, it appears the Germans are also finally moving into their own version of a post-Cold War foreign policy. Evidence has emerged that one of the major protest leaders, Vitali Klitschko, is being closely controlled by German political tentacles in an effort to further Berlin’s goals in Eastern Europe and towards Russia.

The United States appear to be happy letting Germany take a lead role in controlling the Ukrainian protests from the Western side, but Washington will be observing closely that Germany doesn’t gain too much influence and undermine their own strategy of creating a balance of power on the continent. A strong Germany is one thing, but a Germany with designs on broadening their foreign policy goals is still a worrying thought.

The Americans have fewer cards to play than the Russians in all of this, largely because Ukraine is on Russia’s doorstep and thousands of kilometres away 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. It goes back decades and even 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 goes digs all the way down to multiple nation’s very national imperatives. That is why it is important to get the story straight.


Otrazhenie said...

Very well balanced story, Nathan. I saw this article on NBR online, but could not leave a comment as unfortunately comments were closed. My grandma was Ukrainian, my grandfather was Russian. They both lived happily in Ukraine all their lives. You are totally right - what is happening in Ukraine now is not as simple as a pro-Western faction of residents protesting a unilateral decision to pull away from deeper EU integration. Once the law and order broke, much darker forces came into play as well, including radical nationalists with neo-Nazi agenda. I’m very concerned for the welfare of my relatives, friends and all the people in Ukraine, no matter of their ethnicity. :-(

I was wondering whether it is OK with you if I use one image from your article on NBR online on my blog at with a link to your article on NBR? Thanks.

Thesmith said...

Thanks for the interaction. Glad you enjoyed the story and I hope you're going to stick around for more analysis of this crazy world we live in.

I have no issue at all with you using the images or content on my site. Please just ensure you attribute the content correctly.