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Situation in Ukraine is explosive

Tension could undermine ties between Russia, West

By Dale R. Herspring

Recent events in Ukraine are dangerous and explosive, and could lead to a collapse of the current government and a major downturn in U.S.-Russian relations. 

Ukraine, once part of the Soviet Union, is now independent, although that rankles many Russians who believe, at a minimum,  that Ukraine has a special relationship with Russia rather than the West. Ukraine has 46 million people, most of whom (77 percent) are ethnic Ukrainians. Most of the rest are Russian, and their primary allegiance is to Moscow. In eastern Ukraine, one often hears Russian spoken, while in the west it is Ukrainian, the country’s official language. 

The primary cause of the recent protests in Ukraine was President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to pull out of a major economic agreement with the European Union that would have tied Kiev more closely to Europe. The deal would have left Moscow with little influence in Ukraine.

As a consequence, Russian President Vladimir Putin put tremendous pressure on Yanukovych to not sign the deal and instead to sign an agreement with the Kremlin. That is what Yanukovych did. Instead of going to the EU meeting in November, he signed a major agreement with Russia, giving Ukraine a $15 billion loan and a discount on gas prices and tying Ukraine’s economic development with Russia. From an economic standpoint, the Russian agreement is not too bad. What has outraged Ukrainian protesters is that the deal ties Ukraine’s future to Russia and not to the EU. Many protesters have said that after more than 70 years as part of the U.S.S.R., they want their independence and they want to tie their country to the West instead of Russia. Then on Jan. 16, Ukraine’s parliament approved a number of laws sought by Yanukovych that sharply increased presidential powers. Parliament also adopted laws aimed at suppressing dissent, including the freedoms of speech and assembly.

Soon recognizing the seriousness of the situation, parliament reversed these laws and also ended the practice of voting by a show of hands. This vote was 361 to 2.

On Jan. 26, three opposition leaders met with Yanukovych, after which the changes noted above were announced. Meanwhile, protests spread around the country, and it was clear that the protesters did not consider Yanukovych’s concessions sufficient. Though their fundamental grievances had been addressed, they called for Yanukovych’s resignation and early elections. They also wanted wide-ranging constitutional reform and a shake-up of the political system. Protesters occupied a number of official buildings, leaving the capital of Kiev looking like as if it were on the brink of chaos or even civil war.

Amnesty International reacted to reports that a protester, Dmitry Bulatov, had been held by the police for a little over a week and savagely beaten. In short order, protesters caught a pro-government official and beat him. Some demonstrators then raided a boiler station in Lvov and disabled heating for local administration buildings. This took place when the temperature was minus 15 degrees Celsius.

With demonstrations going on across the country, the government reacted. In addition to sending riot police out to try to control the protesters, the prime minister, Mykola Azarov, resigned and Yanukovych offered high government positions to two of the protest leaders. He offered the prime minister’s position to Arseniy Yatsenyuk and the position of vice prime minister for humanitarian affairs to Vitali Klitschko.  

It should be no surprise that the events in Ukraine have roiled relations between the United States and the European Union on the one hand an Russia on the other.  Secretary of State John Kerry and the EU have openly criticized Russian interference in Ukrainian affairs.  Putin said Ukraine can figure things out for itself, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the U.S. and EU, wondering “What does the inciting of street protests, which are growing increasingly violent, have to do with promoting democracy?”

Several things are clear.  First, in many ways Ukraine is a troubled nation. Corruption is rampant and there is no common identity. The rule of law is weak, and the alienation of much of the country from Yanukovych, who recently took a medical leave of absence, is a major concern. Russia says is will not, under any circumstances, send troops to stabilize the situation. But Russia has economic tools to use against Ukraine.

One wonders what Russia will do if chaos reigns on its western border. Depending on what Russia does, the EU and the United States could be drawn into the conflict.  If that were to happen, we can forget the administration’s “reset” with Moscow.  

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