How Do You Solve A Problem Like Ukraine?
By BRYAN MACDONALD
Since my retirement from journalism in 2007, I usually stick to the nags on this blog but recent events in Ukraine (and most specifically Kiev) have moved me to scribble. Ukraine is a country I know very well. I have numerous friends there and do business in the country – indeed I directly employ a few dozen people there currently.
Ukraine is a wonderful country, full of lovely, warm-hearted people who defeat all myths and pre-conceptions Westerners may have within hours of arrival. It also has amazing landscapes, from the mountains of Carpathia to the stunning visages of Crimea. However, it is not ‘one nation’ in the sense that most of the European, and indeed global states are. The contrast is even clear in the two C’s I just mentioned. The west is historically Polish, Austrian and Hungarian and is generally Ukrainian speaking with small pockets of Hungarians in the southern part. Meanwhile, Crimea is actually a de facto part of Russia (it’s a Republic inside Ukraine) which was only ceded to the Ukrainian SSR by Nikita Kruschev a half-century ago, it’s also worth noting that (a) Kruschev’s political power base was in Kiev and (b) at that moment he would never have envisioned the demise of the Soviet Union.
One country, two orbits. As one leaves the beautiful train station at L’viv (once the most Eastern military base of the Austrian empire and called Lemberg) you are soon struck by a gigantic statue of Stepjan Bandera – leader of the Ukrainian Independence Army during World War Two and an avowed Nazi. Indeed, Bandera even based himself in Berlin at the climax of the war directing Ukrainian insurgents against the advancing Red Army. It’s also the case that many of the Svoboda protesters currently stirring up trouble in Kiev are descendants of soldiers who fought on the Nazi side – indeed some of their fore bearers were guards at Treblinka and Auschwitz. Nazi’s highly valued Western Ukrainian officers as being even more sadistic and dedicated to holocaust than the German’s themselves.
Then head south to the old, but sadly decaying, Russian Imperial port city of Odessa and as you walk up the famous Potemkin Steps you are greeted by a statue of Queen Ekaterina of Rus. A symbol of Russian power and honour – despite being German-born. Also, the language changes from Ukrainian, which more closely resembles Polish to the more globally familiar Russian.
Journey further south to the Crimea and you are basically in Russia. Try to buy a bottle of water and prepare to be asked for “Deset Ruble” rather than “Deset Grivna” despite the fact that you will pay in the latter. It’s not just habit – it’s a sign of quiet protest at locals having found themselves forced into an independent Ukraine that the vast majority of them want nothing to do with. Away from the beautiful wineries near Alushta and the revelry of Yalta, there is also Sevastopol where the Russia navy still maintains its Black Sea fleet and sits side by side with the much smaller and crumbling Ukrainian equivalent.
Now, up north towards Kiev, passing the mainly Russian-speaking cities of Krivoy Rog and Dniprovetrovsk and the conundrum gets even cloudier. Kiev, or Kyiv if you prefer, is caught in the middle between these two worlds. Ask a waitress for a beer in Russian and it’s 50-50 whether you will get a budlaska (Ukrainian) or a pozhaluysta (Russian). It’s that kind of place. Indeed, on the metro you can hear many locals speaking a kind of invented language which is a mix of the two. Kiev is where the two Ukraine’s meet.
Also, Kiev is where Russia itself nominally began during the Kievan Rus of the late 9th century and is a city that they – quite honestly – covet. To a Russian soul, Kiev is a Russian city. Period. And it has no business being in Europe (some would even say it has no place in an independent Ukraine).
Of course my descriptions are vague and lack detail because I don’t have time to write a book tonight but they are a pretty accurate description of the mess that is modern Ukraine. And it is a discombobulation, a gigantic one.
So where does Europe come into this, or more specifically the EU? We all know that the EU is losing its hold on the states of Western Europe. Let’s be frank, the British want out and it’s likely they will get their wish in coming years. The French cling on because of fear of Germany but even they are becoming restless and many of the Eastern accession states have seen through Brussels by now. Indeed, one or more Scandavian nations and (whisper it) even Ireland might follow the UK out the exit door when it opens a few years down the line.
In my view, the Eurocrats of Brussels, especially well-meaning, but deluded types like Carl Bildt are trying to sell Ukraine a pup and a very sick mongrel youngster at that. It’s a fallacy that Ukraine’s standard of living and economic well being will improve upon joining the EU, which, incidentally is not even on the table as I write, rather President Yanukovich was offered an ‘Association’ deal.
Quite the contrary, Ukraine would go in to a tailspin, even if it suddenly was offered rapid full membership. Ukrainian industry and its work force are not competitive and haven’t kept up technologically during the last twenty to thirty years and its education system is in a shambles, essentially a kleptocracy where professorships are purchased.
Indeed, given that students in Ukraine, generally, buy their Degrees and Diplomas, rather than earn them, it is doubtful that those protesting are aware of what they are protesting for. It is a tragically under-educated nation. Because of this they, most probably, are unable to distinguish a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, from an offer for EU membership which is another matter entirely. Many of the protestors (especially the students) are under a misconceived fantasy that this deal will suddenly allow them to emigrate or at least travel freely to the more prosperous west. This is not the case.
Furthermore, while the EU demands Ukraine’s submission to its diktats, it offers very little in return.
Here is a taste.
i) The EU would impose quotas on imports from Ukraine
ii) The EU has categorically ruled out visa free travel for Ukrainians.
“Ukrainians Not Welcome – Keep Out” is the sign on their gate. We have recently seen the reaction in the UK to Romanians and Bulgarians gaining access to their labour market next year – imagine the scenario if, suddenly, 45 million even poorer Ukrainians had an open door?
Indeed a few weeks back, Ukrainian journalists – the chief cheerleaders for EU integration – were granted only two day EU Schengen visas, against the normal six month visa granted to business people.
According to statistics the benefits of acceding to the Free Trade regime amount to €490 million per annum. However, if President Putin in Moscow (I haven’t mentioned him yet) decided to pull the plug on Ukrainian access to his market – the loss of the Russian and Belarussian outlets would amount to €16 billion annually. Yes, you read that correctly. Now do the math. How does Ukraine gain from this mess?
Then there is the matter of the current Ukrainian-Russian ‘border.’ It is simply not enforced and the 90 day rule is largely overlooked. There are people of both nationalities living and working on the other side openly without proper documents (mainly on the vastly more prosperous Russian one of course). What if Putin locks this down and requires Ukrainian’s to get visas to even enter Russia? How will this effect families (inter-marriage is massive). Also, what if the Russians stop coming to holiday and spend their Rubles in Ukraine?
The Eurocrats hidden desire is to subordinate Ukraine and use it as a buffer state, perhaps later as a launch pad for attempts at destabilising the governments of Russia and Belarus. Presumably, they are egged on by Washington in this ambition.
So why not hold a referendum, wouldn’t that solve it? A referendum would likely only show the degree of the nations division and only complicate this already very complicated, and potentially dangerous, matter. The balance of power in Ukraine has always favoured Moscow and therefore the outcome of such a vote would be likely to swing to Moscow. That in turn would lead to larger problems in the west of the country, possibly even calls for succession.
However, the reality on the ground is that Ukraine, Russia and Belarus all share a common culture. Moscow dominates that collective spirit, and all roads lead to Moscow. Much like how despite prosperity and years of freedom, Australians and New Zealanders still look to London. It’s in their blood and their hearts.
On paper all these nations are sovereign and independent. In reality the situation is a much more blurred optic. I’ll make a very long and complicated idea short and clear by saying that any entity prepared to enter into this region trying to edge out Moscow is going to lose – and lose badly. I am tempted to draw comparisons with Barbarossa and Napoleon but I demur.
Essentially if any outside interference is attempted, Moscow will never tolerate it and the region will always mean more to Moscow than outsiders. Therefore, Moscow will do whatever it takes (with all that implies) to prevent it. It’s a sad situation for many Ukrainians and Belarussians who look to the west for a better future. However, tragedy is not new to this region.
Also I could add that including the former Soviet states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania into NATO and the EU may yet prove to have been a disastrous overreach. Latvians, especially, are starting to look at Putin’s resurgent Russia again with envious glances and wealthy Russians essentially own the small country.
At the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, almost 100 years ago, Leon Trotsky led the charge to reclaim Ukrainian lands that had belonged to Tsar’s Empire for the Soviet Union. But those were mostly different lands. Almost a half of the current Ukrainian map are ex-Russian lands which were absorbed into the former Ukrainian SSR. Their population consider themselves severely oppressed by nationalistic West-Ukrainian movements that are ruling Ukraine today with the support of its Oligarchs who are terrified of Putin (look what happened to Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and also see the chance to legitimise their pilfered gains in the EU.
If Ukraine should fall apart, those lands would naturally side with Russia just as West Ukraine (Galicia) would naturally side with the EU, or by virtue Poland. Poland’s role in this mess cannot be understated. The behaviour of their Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has been beneath contempt. Meanwhile, Moscow, largely stays silent, at least publicly.
Ukrainians who live in Crimea and other Southern and Eastern regions of Ukraine do not support Ukraine’s EU-push to the extent it is supported in Western or Central parts. Should their opinion not be considered as well? When talking about all the economic benefits and a new market that the EU could bring to Ukraine in the long term (and if the EU holds there is little doubt there would be advantages), they can’t forget how much their economy depends on Russia. As the saying goes “Don’t spit in the well you will drink from”.
Just as the Bandera and Svobody-ites in L’viv are willing Germany and Poland to get involved , the majority of people in Crimea would be more than happy if Russia intervened. Some people in the middle might ask why is it that Ukrainian’s great desire for freedom always ends up in them having to join some union where they would have to obey some “big boss”.
Of course, other Ukrainians will point out that there are countries who are members of EU and they are not happy at all and their people have been protesting against that institution. Take a glance at Greece? Bulgaria? Even England?
In the Russian Civil War Trotsky, against the odds, pulled off a triumph and and won back the Ukraine. The Bolsheviks were flung out 18 times and came back the 19th time. That last time they won.
Russian’s understand history and they know that unyielding pressure is all it takes – Russia will keep squeezing until Ukraine gives in.
And Ukraine will give in. There is no doubt about that.