The Two Ukraines Portend a Disastrous Possibility
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The Fiscal Times
February 24, 2014

In less than a week, the simmering crisis in Ukraine has tipped into tragedy and tumbled straight down to existential calamity. As Viktor Yanukovych fled Saturday from the presidential compound in Kiev to a hotel room in the eastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine went from a weak and corrupt government to what could shortly turn out to be no government.

The timing could not be worse. The economy is wheezing, and whoever gains power in Kiev faces a crushing national debt of $19 billion.

It now starts to look as if 46 million Ukrainians may never get the one thing they have needed most since declaring independence from the crumbled Soviet Union in 1991: a leadership that can unite a nation with sharply divergent ideas of what being Ukrainian means. Splitting in two roughly down the middle has swiftly emerged not merely as a possibility but an outcome with a dreadful logic to it.

Related: Russian Ties to Ukraine Go Much Deeper than Gas

Incessantly last week, President Obama and many administration officials insisted that Washington desired only that Ukrainians be permitted to determine their fate for themselves. “Our approach as the United States is not to see this as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia,” Obama said during a midweek visit to Mexico. “Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future.”

The talk on the Sunday press shows was of a piece, casting the ouster of Yanukovych as an expression of popular will. “The good news is the fact that this happened from the bottom up,” Tom Friedman said on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. “The West didn’t do this. The United States didn’t do this. The EU didn’t do this. The Ukrainian people did this.”

If only our world were so clean and simple.

President Obama was simply disingenuous. Pundits offered a radical misreading. The U.S. and the European Union have done plenty in Ukraine since protests erupted last November; this is a matter of record. Those who brought Yanukovych down represent a segment of Ukrainian people, possibly not a majority, and include nationalist fanatics who display little interest in democracy and its institutions.

SLIDESHOW: 35 Intense Photos of the Ukraine Crisis

If Ukraine today stands for anything, it is a graphic demonstration of the destructive effects of foreign intervention—anybody’s intervention—in the affairs of other nations. Part of its tragedy is that it has been ripe fruit since independence for global rivals caught in the East–West tensions of the Cold War era.    

The place is a paradox. Ukrainians hold fast to their identity, but the nation is divided between its western, European-tilted provinces and its eastern and southern portions, which long favored close ties with the Soviet Union and continue to lean toward Russia.

Kiev, where the anti–Yanukovych protests have been centered, lies in Ukraine’s west. In effect, what the world has watched on television for the past three months has been a revolt of half the country. It is good to recall that the Soviets never trusted Kiev. Lenin made Kharkiv, the Russian-speaking city in the east where Yanukovych now takes refuge, the capital; Stalin kept it that way until 1934. 

The question since November has thus been evident all along: What does it mean to be Ukrainian? Another part of the tragedy today is that the nation has succumbed to the either-or temptation of self-definition according to the surrounding geopolitical divide.

Related: Ukraine’s Eastern Spring Has a Chance to Blossom

Yanukovych is an interesting figure in this respect. He is an easterner, but he was elected to office in 2010 committed to guiding Ukraine toward the West European orbit. You would think he was precisely the kind of figure who could keep the country stitched together and find some variant of the “third way.”

With evident enthusiasm, Yanukovych entered into talks with the EU last year that were to lead to extensive political and trade agreements. It was with the collapse of these talks last November, when Yanukovych turned abruptly back to Moscow and a $15 billion package of bond purchases and energy discounts, that his support crumbled and opponents took to the streets.

Yanukovych had his reasons, and his opponents are mistaken in glossing them in favor of the idealistic posturing evident in Kiev’s Independence Square. The EU deal, in concert with an International Monetary Fund bailout, offered too little money, required a painful debt-repayment schedule, and imposed an austerity program replete with the IMF’s familiar conditions, including cuts in fuel subsidies and the dismantling of the regulatory regime.

The Russian bailout came with plenty of political implications, no doubt, but no conditionality. 

As to the Americans, the infamously profane YouTube recording of two diplomats plotting to manipulate prominent opposition figures, said it all. The three oppositionists—Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatseniuk, and Oleh Tyahnybok—were those who signed a short-lived compromise with Yanukovych late last week.

Related: In Ukraine Standoff, Echoes of US-Russia Cold War Tensions

The EU made its offer and fair enough; but I fault it on one of its conditions: It reportedly required Yanukovych to reject all Russian offers of support. This was intrusive, Cold War-ish if ever a stipulation was.      

For the Americans’ part, two mistakes. The nation that armed Contras in Nicaragua and invaded a tiny social democracy in Grenada ought to have seen the risk of tampering with the political process on Russia’s borders. Equally, to view the world as a John Wayne movie admits no complexity, causing it to back questionable forces in Syria and, in Ukraine, undermining democracy out of interest instead of furthering it with detachment.

The interim outcome is full of ironies.

Legislators in Kiev have named an acting president, the new parliamentary speaker, Oleksander Turchinov, to guide an appointed government until elections, now scheduled for May 25. Instantly, governors in the east rejected the parliament’s authority and pledged to assume responsibility for security and “constitutional order” autonomously. It is a crack on the way to a fissure.

Russia, meantime, has folded its wallet for the time being, and Ukraine may be forced into a deal with the EU and the IMF that could prompt still more political revolt. Instantly, the EU and the Americans are balking at the thought of “owning” the Ukraine’s problems.

Yanukovych roams the eastern and southern provinces in search of support and refuses to resign. How ironic if the Russian-speaking easterner with frustrated aspirations to open Ukraine outward ultimately proves the best Ukraine could do for the moment.

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A correspondent, editor and critic for more than 30 years, mostly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, Patrick Smith has also lectured in journalism and media studies. He is the author of five books.