Saturday, March 1, 2014

What's Going on in Ukraine, and Why?

There's been a lot of uproar recently over Ukraine.

Cliff notes version: Pro-Russian dictator in the making was driven out by protesters longing for closer ties with the US/EU, and Russia responded by sending in troops to its existing military bases.  War is imminent.  Pro-democracy protesters vs. autocrats is always a sure draw for readers, so journalists are trying to catch every minute of it in any way possible.

(Only Slightly) Longer version:



The roots of this conflict goes back almost a millennium.  The first kingdom of note to rise from what is now Ukraine was called Kievan Rus, over 1000 years ago.  If you guessed by the name that it is was centered in Kiev, the city that is now the capital of Ukraine, you'd be right.  Russians trace their people, culture, and country to this state- that is to say, to Kiev.  Many in Russia consider Kiev to be the mother city of their modern country.

Fast forward a few hundred years.  War and strife happened.  Invasions (by the Mongols, the Poles, Lithuanians, really everybody you can imagine) changed the political control of Ukraine.  Meanwhile, the modern Russian state was developing to the north in Moscow, after throwing off the yoke of the Mongols.  Forward to the 1650s.  A 30-year knock-down drag-out fight broke out between Poland, the Tartars, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russians.  The times were so bad that Ukrainians refer to them as "The Ruin". In the end the Russian Tsar controlled half of Ukraine- a proportion which would only increase as the centuries went on.

Ukraine was and still is extremely agriculturally fertile, and is endowed with many natural resources.  (Which is why the recent Russian threats against Ukrainian food exports are such a dire step.)  Russian rulers began seeking to cement control of the region- by forcibly settling Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, mainly focused on the fertile eastern half of the country.  This policy was continued uninterrupted through the fall of the Tsars and the Rise of the USSR.  Much resentment of Russian control of Ukraine developed over these centuries- to the point where the Red Army had to put down an insurgency in Ukraine after retaking the area from the Nazis in World War II.  (This historical fact is why Russian propaganda accuses the Ukrainian protesters of being fascists.)  Whether these insurgents, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, were pro-Nazi vs. anti-communist/anti-USSR is a topic of controversy.

Note that this is a greatly simplified version- and it ignores 'issues' like the Cossacks, Tartars (which is why Turkey has an ethnic interest in events in Ukraine), and many other groups involved in the long and bloody mess.

Fast forward again to late 1990s and the collapse of the USSR.  The old territory of Ukraine (which hadn't really been a country in almost 1000 years) broke away from Russia.  The brand-new country was quite bi-polar.  The western half of it was largely Ukrainian speaking, severely resentful of Russia, and glad to be free of it's yoke.  It was eager to develop with western support.  The Eastern half was largely Russian speaking, looked to Russia as their mother country, and contained (and still contains) a lot of Soviet-era heavy industry.  The heavy industry is largely obsolete- and will probably collapse in a heart beat if subjected to competition (which is what EU integration would mean...)

Injected into this mess were several problems.  Firstly, Russia had a powerful naval force in the Black Sea, based out of the now-Ukrainian city of Sevastpool.  It wanted to keep the area, however a deal was worked out: Russia would give Ukraine gas in exchange for allowing use of the naval base.  Second, another thorny issue came up: Ukraine was host to numerous nuclear weapons of the former USSR.  In 1994, the Budapest Memorandum was signed.  In exchange for giving them up to Russia and signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Russia (and several Western Countries) roughly agreed never to invade Ukraine.

Fast forward again.  This severely dichotomous country was dominated by politicians from the pro-Russian eastern half- until 2004.  Then something called the Orange Revolution went down.  A politician from the Eastern, Pro-Russian half of the country named Viktor Yanukovych (I'm using red and blue here to distinguish between two very similar names) was declared to have won.  Widespread allegations of fraud and mass civil disobedience led to a repeat of the election, and a politician from the western, pro-western half of the country, Viktor Yushchenko won instead.  6 years later, the glamour of the revolution had run into the cold hard realities of governing.  The opposition split, with an important co-leader of the Orange Revolution (Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been the Prime Minister under Yushchenko) running on a separate ticket.  After the election, Tymoshenko was promptly thrown in jail by the new President, Yanukovych.

Now we get to the precipitating event.  Despite the pro-Russian outlook of Yanukovych, his government negotiated a trade agreement with the EU.  As the time came to sign it came up, Putin stepped in.

Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia since 2000 in the pattern of the classic Russian strong-man.  He saw the collapse of the USSR as a tragedy, and has been actively working to rebuild Russian power.  He has largely been successful, thanks to buoyant oil prices.  He,and many Russians, saw the trade deal Ukraine was about to sign with the EU as a direct threat.  Ukraine was part of Russia for centuries- Kiev is the birthplace of the Russian people.  How could it become a "pro-western" state?  Thus, he leaned hard on Yanukovych.  With a combination of threats (natural gas supplies from Russia to Ukraine) and inducements (a $15 Billion no-questions-asked aid bundle), Putin got Yanukovych to abandon the EU trade deal.

This proved to be a mistake- mass protests broke out in Kiev.  The city had an overwhelming majority of people who hadn't voted for Yanukovych, and saw this latest act as a betrayal of the country's future.  Protests broke out, police were ordered to fire on the protesters, and did so.  More protesters from other parts of Ukraine (a city named Lviv) got their hands on weapons by seizing military armories, and reinforced the protesters in Kiev.  A large battle between police and protesters was imminent- until a leader of the protest movement negotiated a cease-fire with an official overseeing the police- who apparently had no desire to fight.  In rapid succession, Yanukovych's own party abandoned him, as did the police, and he was forced to flee to Russia.

As Yanukovych fled however, parts of the pro-Russian eastern half seemed to protest against the protesters.  Crimea, where Sevastopol and that naval base mentioned earlier are located, is home a large pro-Russian majority.  And, it was already host to thousands of Russian troops.  It is unclear how much of this was staged Russian propaganda, and how much was legitimate popular movement, but elements in control in the region invited Russian troops in (to restore security), and Putin accepted.

Now Putin is starting at the prospect of an extremely anti-Russia government coming to power in Ukraine.  He has to choose now: double down on his bet or not?  If he chooses to formally invade, he faces a poorly trained but reasonably sized Ukrainian army, whose political loyalties are suspect (half their soldiers presumably come from the pro-Russian eastern half of the country).  But, he also risks getting caught in a fierce insurgency and facing extremely hostile world opinion.  The alternative is to let the birthplace of modern Russia wander away from Russia's orbit.  Russia's aspirations to global power may never recover.

The smart move for Putin would probably have been to let Ukraine sign the trade deal with the EU- and then laugh as it falls apart over the next decade.  Ukraine would in all likelihood find itself unable to compete during the painful adjustments into capitalism.  The EU was and is in no financial position to meaningfully help Ukraine in the transition.  After unemployment soared and the people soured on the west once more as they did 6 years after the Orange Revolution, Putin could then welcome Ukraine back with open arms.  But, Russia's pride and image are now on the line.  Who knows which way he'll leap...