Thousands of people rallying in the Ukrainian capital demand the resignation of the pro-Moscow president Yanukovitch after he refused to sign a pro-EU trade deal, apparently favoring a closer economic integration with Russia (Putin uses the carrot-and-stick approach to make sure that such an attitude may be rational).
The protests turned violent and some of the opposition groups claim that the violence was added to the mix by Yanukovitch's provocateurs. I am aware of no protocol to find out who is right.
One of 15 results of the quiz "name the countries of Europe" given to the Americans by buzzfeed.com. Ukraine is the territory labeled as "Kamchatka" elsewhere or "Mongolia" above (don't confuse it with the much more Eastern region labeled as "another Mongolia"; that's Kazakhstan and it's mostly in Asia). Click the map for other attempts.
Like during the "Orange Revolution" in 2004, many people in the West think that these events are very important. Well, I don't think so. People in the West love to think that all the nations of the Soviet bloc – and perhaps even all the nations of the Soviet Union – are free-minded Western-like nations who are being constantly suppressed by foul techniques of the Russians.
It ain't so. Especially in the U.S., many of the misconceptions boil down to a poor knowledge of geography. In fact, most of the republics in the USSR are intrinsically, culturally, and historically "more Eastern" than Russia itself. Ukraine is a marginal case.
Let me start in 2004: the elections were very close – not too different from the contested 2000 Gore-Bush elections in the U.S. The pro-Moscow candidate Yanukovitch was accused of cheating by his foes and so on. But it's just a fact that he enjoys the genuine support of something like 1/2 of the Ukrainian population – and in the recent 2010 elections, he managed to win.
I would probably vote against him if I were a Ukrainian citizen but that doesn't make me unable to see that the support is genuine. Quite generally, no leader or dictator may maintain his control if he doesn't have at least "dozens of percent" of supporters among the citizens – an elementary point about politics that many people believing in "dictators raping everyone else" clearly fail to grasp.
There's no reason to think that all of Ukraine should be vitriolically against Russia – although some people certainly are. I've known several folks from Ukraine. Condensed matter physicist Yaroslav Tserkovnyak, my fellow Harvard Fellow, taught me some things about their history, present, and culture. I like to repeat his observation that Ukraine is more Russian than Russia – it's the true cradle of the Russian Empire.
I hope that Nadiya Tkachuk won't protest against being posted her. It's been quite some time since TASI Boulder 1999.
Some people in North America apparently think that we in Czechia are extremely close to the events in Ukraine, involved in it, and so on. One very educated and close member of the TRF community made this suggestion, too. Well, I must say it's not really the case.
Approximately 1300 years ago, we had to arise from similar Slavic tribes – those that determined the language and some of the culture (genetically, there has been so much mixing that nations in Central Europe are "in between" nations on both sides regardless of the fact that they only belong to one family of languages). But we were politically separated for more than a millennium and we evolved very differently.
I apologize for this Czech insertion but these contrasts may be useful for foreigners to understand Ukraine, too. To understand it in the context. I will omit the prehistory that has nothing to do with the people who live at the territories these days and with their political considerations.
Volodymyr I of Kiev (on the Ukranian 1-hryvnia banknote) baptized the Kievan Rus; the victory of the Orthodox Christianity was a result of a contest with the Roman Catholics.
When the Czech kingdom was being gradually formed in the 9th century, Kievan Rus covered the territory of present Ukraine. Orthodox Christianity was brought to most Slavic people at the beginning but Czechia would quickly become Catholic, under the German or (resuscitated) "Roman" influence. It was very different in Ukraine which stayed purely Orthodox for many centuries; Catholicism was spreading under the Polish influence sometimes in the 16th century, 500+ years after it became powerful in the Czech lands.
This Catholic-vs-Orthodox separation (as read from the years 1100-1500, for example) is an important factor defining the border between the "West" and "East" of Europe. Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Croats etc. belong to the West; Serbs, Russians, Ukrainians etc. belong to the East according to this particular benchmark. And yes, I do think that this seemingly "remote" historic benchmark is more relevant for many questions than the modern capitalism-vs-socialism categorization.
Another difference in the history was that Ukraine's borders were always very flexible. From a regional political perspective, Ukraine was mostly "just some territory" ready to be modified and fragmented. So during the centuries, various parts came under the influence of Poland-plus-Lithuania, the Cossacks, Austria-Hungary, and the Russian Empire. This is very different from the Czech kingdom whose borders have been constant pretty much for 1,000 years – protected by mountains and well-defined, powerful enough kings (who operated as bosses of an autonomous kingdom within the "Holy Roman Empire"; in some eras, the kings were Czech, in others, they were foreigners, but the territorial integrity was a constant). Hitler's 1938-1945 intermezzo with its completely contrived new borders was just a tiny intermezzo in the stable 1000-year-long history of the Czech empire. ;-) The Czech lands would be absorbed to "larger blocs" as a whole.
On the other hand, the instability of the borders and identity of Ukraine made it less well-defined. I would say that the USSR has been helpful to shape the identity of Ukraine. Stalin and others did terrible things to Ukraine – and others in the USSR – but the folks had some time to realize who they really are. I think that the answer is that while they're geographically closer to the West and Ukraine belongs to the European continent according to all widespread geographic conventions, they're probably spiritually closer to Russia than any other Slavic nation (except for Belarus).
In 1918, when Czechoslovakia was created, it also contained the very poor region called "Subcarpathian Rus" or "Ruthenia" where the Rusyn language is being spoken (the reasons weren't terribly deep – the borders were just drawn in this way: the Eastern European borders [East from Slovakia] were never too canonical). It's de facto a dialect of Ukraianian although some people love to present it as an independent language (such interpretations have political or ideological implications, of course). Incidentally, for many years, a governor of this poor little region of Czechoslovakia was an American. After 1945, they would decide to join the USSR and Ukraine (under a new name, "Transcarpathian Ukraine": the new prefix means, of course, that one should look at the region from the Ukrainian side and not the objective=Czechoslovak viewpoint) in a referendum, a step that many of them were really sorry about 1992 when I met a group of Ruthenian activists at the Prague's Wenceslaus Square demanding their incorporation into Czechoslovakia (that was already disintegrating, but they didn't care).
The only other major political relationships between Czechia and Ukraine are a "moderate" number of Ukrainian workers we have here – they're usually fine (people with Ukrainian college degrees often work as construction workers etc.) although we still remember the constant murders by/inside the Russian-speaking mafia operating even in Czechia and Slovakia of the 1990s that would incorporate Ukrainians just like Russians; and the asylum that Czechia often loves to give to relatives of Yulia Tymoshenko and former Ukrainian porn stars. I think that this "Czech option" for those Ukrainians who are significantly more "Western" and "liberal" than the general atmosphere in Ukraine is a good thing for them (and maybe for us, too). Just for the Czech readers: check this wonderful sketch about Papa Frost who is applying for the political asylum in Czechia. Ukraine is also the home of important pipelines coming from Russia but we're no longer exclusively dependent on them.
But even during the Cold War, the Czechoslovak-Soviet (now Slovak-Ukrainian) border was pretty impenetrable. I have never been to Ukraine myself. Railways had different track gauge in Czechoslovakia (1435 mm, currently the main "norm") and the USSR (1520 mm) so it was nontrivial for trains to continue from Slovakia to Ukraine. In many similar respects, you could see that countries like Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Slovenia were closer e.g. to West Germany than to Ukraine even during communism. The territory of the USSR was very different; some Americans don't really distinguish the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc. The countries outside the USSR were "almost" as independent from the USSR as the Western Europe was independent of the U.S.
I believe that the pro-EU leaders helped Ukraine to have a spectacular growth rate a decade ago. But it may have been partly a coincidence, too. Moreover, the apparent corruption that may have devoured some of these pro-EU politicians, along with their mutual (internal) hatred, has soured many of the ideals. And Russia isn't the ultimate Hell anymore, either. Despite Ukraine's significant resources and convenient location, its GDP per capita (above $7,000) is just 1/2 of the Russian one (above $14,000). None of them may be compared to the most prosperous post-socialist countries like Slovenia and Czechia (above $28,000 and $26,000, respectively: those numbers are really close e.g. to Spain at $29,000). So unfortunately for the Ukrainians, it is nonsense to imagine that it's the Russian influence that keeps Ukraine from getting richer and happier.
Many Americans may be eager to help others in the world. Sometimes, they should think whether they know enough geography and reality to be sure that their help is really helpful. Just to be sure, we the Europeans – at least Brits – were not much better in our knowledge of the U.S. states.
Their membership in the Eastern Slavic group of nations is an important aspect that attracts Ukraine to Russia. But one shouldn't forget that while the geographic location of Ukraine in Europe (in the geographic sense) is indisputable, its future membership in the EU is also complicated by the problems with the EU itself. Even nations like the Czechs who surely think of themselves as being a part of the European civilization have lots of doubts about the benefits of the EU and our membership – the support may be below 50 percent right now (and the logic of our refusal is often much closer e.g. to the British one than many people at all sides like to admit). All these negative sentiments are almost certainly even stronger in Ukraine whose average people are significantly different in many respects.
At the same moment, while I dislike (much of) the influence of the EU it is bringing to the West (and us, usually), I do think that the EU may have a nearly purely positive influence on countries that haven't really started to function well. After 1989, I would be rather enthusiastic about the memberships in all the Western blocs; I would be pleased whenever "they" would say something nice about us, too (of course, the Western folks cared much less than I would be imagining); well, it's hard to figure out when "exactly" I lost this nearly uncritical enthusiasm but it may be much more than a decade ago. So my guess is that a closer association of Ukraine with the EU would be ultimately better for Ukraine. Be sure that despite my criticisms against the EU, I do think that the political practice in Ukraine is much more messed up than the political practice in the Brussels (but that doesn't mean that the incorporation of Ukraine into the EU would be guaranteed to fix things).
Western parts of Ukraine which include the capital Kiev tend to prefer pro-Western candidates; Eastern parts are more pro-Moscow. A split of the country may sound brutal but in Ukraine's history, it wouldn't be "quite" unprecedented, either, and it may reduce lots of tension.
But you can't really direct the country in this direction against the wishes of (most of) its citizens. I think it's more important for Ukraine to learn how to operate the democratic system in some automatic way. My feeling is that a few thousand of dissatisfied citizens who don't like the current, legitimately elected president don't really matter for anything. The president has the power – and thanks to the violence, perhaps even the moral right – to make them irrelevant. And Yanukovitch isn't a "Russian puppet", either. I think that even for him, some of these foreign policy decisions may be nontrivial.
Modern Europe-Asia boundary (since 1850): European states (green), transcontinental states (blue; light/dark is European/Asian part), Asian states (violet).
Ukraine's size is "small enough" so that you can imagine it as a member of the EU. In this respect, it differs from Russia whose membership in the EU could also be seen as the EU's incorporation into the Russian Empire; the relationship would look more symmetric, especially if you look at the territory. Russia as a EU member would surely change the character of the EU qualitatively (no one is really thinking about such a thing these days). But just because you may imagine Ukraine as another EU member doesn't mean that it's actually more natural for all the Ukrainians to morph into "ordinary" Western Europeans than it is for the Russians.
Everyone should understand that if there is some "natural or sustainable" border between the West and the East that puts (most of) Russia to the East, chances are that this most "natural or sustainable" border goes along the Western borders of Ukraine (shared with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary – and now we must also add Romania, a full-fledged EU member) – or at most, "somewhere inside Ukraine". You shouldn't imagine that Ukraine is just another Western nation (that is even ready to weaken the interests of Russia) because it is not one. You may find folks – perhaps even Nadiya Tkachuk – who wouldn't hesitate to sever all ties with Russia if they were deciding about the future of Ukraine. But that shouldn't make you overlook the "forest"; the majority of the Ukrainians may see (and probably does see) their future and their identity differently.