Ukraine is fighting for its unity, and most likely survival, but whether the current military action is an anti-terror operation or a war, a fact is clear: Ukraine is heading towards disaster unless a diplomatic and peaceful solution will be found. The problem for Ukraine is that the new Kiev government and the Eastern rebellious regions are not alone in this dispute and their “external sponsors” are to be considered the main reason for the bitter turning of events. While the West, namely the EU and US, and Russia at a different time, and for different reasons, intervened in Ukraine politics for their own geo-political interests, on the other they simply got stuck in front of their stubbornness and hypocrisy by reaching a point of no return.
The Ukraine crisis unfolded few months ago when protests against former president Viktor Yanukovich culminated in what Moscow called a “western sponsored coup” and the Western powers a “democratic change”. The Maidan protests, aimed against Yanukovich’s decision to withdraw from an association agreement with the EU and signing instead a deal with Russia, were soon taken as a pretext from the West to fuel a change of regime as already seen in other areas: Iraq, Libya and the failed attempt in Syria. Nevertheless, this reckless action did not take into account Russia’s vital space and a likely reaction that culminated with the Crimean annexation.
Yanukovich’s government, elected and legitimate, was overthrown by mass protests made mostly by common citizens although no one can deny the presence of armed groups linked to the far right movements with clear xenophobic tendencies such Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) or the Maidan Self Defence Forces. While the West stepped up its anti-Russian propaganda, it did not realise the danger in fuelling an already fertile ground for hatred between the two souls of Ukraine, West and East. By denigrating and openly taking side against the legitimate government in Kiev and supporting what was increasingly becoming an armed insurrection and not a peaceful democratic rally, western interference reinforced the extremist groups providing them with a sort of legitimacy. In few words, the same script adopted in Syria where for long time they supported an armed insurrection refusing to admit that the only taking advantage were terrorist groups linked to Al Qaida or of other Islamist tendencies. While the West ignored this warning (to be honest not that far in the past to be forgotten), it may be worth to mention that even in the 2012 Football Euro Cup for example many in the EU expressed concerns at hooliganism and racist behaviour in Ukraine, especially in UK.
Russia on the other side took this careless action as a pretext and reason to express its concerns for Russian citizens and the Russian speaker population in Eastern Ukraine. While Russia started to build up its war machine, the West and many Ukrainians simply decided to turn blind in front of the evidence: the Maidan protest were not a simple democratic movement , but a clear rebellion and an armed insurrection that many countries, including Russia and the democratic crusaders in Washington and London would not have hesitated to crush at the first sight of weapons within civilians. This led to a brutal repression by Yanukovich, where the (in)famous Berkut and snipers fired against protesters, but also to a response where policemen and security forces were shot dead. Nevertheless amid all this turmoil Yanukovich avoided making that step that would have plunged Ukraine into civil war: call in the army to quell the unrest.
Negotiations were made and even some opposition parties agreed to sit at a table to pave the way for new elections, with Yanukovic granting any sort of concession such amnesty, freeing all arrested and promising greater autonomy for regions. But the deal was sunk by the West pushing the more extreme souls of the Maidan protests to take the lead and provoking further unrest that could have been only resolved by either an army coup or Yanukovich departure. When he decided to leave, at that point it seemed to everyone that the Maidan protests would have been able to close the game and the release of Yulia Timoshenko as the final act of a victorius anti Russian “revolution” in 90s style. It was exactly at this point that the “phase two” of the Ukrainian crisis developed and started with the Kremlin involvement: Yanukovich finds refuge in Russia, Crimea is flooded by special Russian troops, a 40,000 strong army gathered at the border.
Nevertheless, while Crimea was a price willing to be paid in Kiev, and even in the West although the apparent outrage, it was also clear that the Kremlin’s gamble of threatening military invasion in the East played exactly the same side effects generated by western influence in Kiev: exacerbated rather than ease the already irreparable situation in the country. Kiev’s government at this point found itself not struggling for survival but to keep a country united. Attempts to reduce far right movements presence and promise of a new presidential elections were clearly futile in front of a domino effect that, exactly similar to the Maidan protests, saw people rebelling against central government and declaring autonomy, independence or asking Russian annexation.
While the West this time promptly called these rebels “terrorist and agents of Russia”, Russia vested the rebellions as “popular will and democratic expression of an under siege population of Russians from fascists in Kiev”. These words, as mere propaganda may be, had a strong effect in Russia and Ukraine as they were used only during what is known as The Great Patriotic War against the Nazis.
Kiev: new government, new president same confusion on the ground
The new government appeared for many as inept and incapable to deal with the unrest. While it was without any chance and counterproductive oppose Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it was the initial inertia showed during the start of the Eastern rebellion that fuelled a sort of excessive optimism, a thought that a swift solution could be found. While the East was proclaiming itself free with a People’s Republic in Donetsk and hold a referendum not recognised by the international community, in Kiev whilst condemning the fact that an electoral consultation was taking place in a deteriorated security situation, they found nothing better than to do the same by organising presidential election in a country on the verge of collapse. Nevertheless, the point of no return was the decision to call in the army, thus increasing the danger of a civil war, with soldiers refusing to fight and switching sides, military difficulties and an expensive human price to pay that is already showing its bill.
But if the Kiev government decided to do what Yanukovich refused to do, and thus applying the same role of the army as saw in Syria, Libya and Egypt against their own population, it also appear that the government born from the Maidan protests is not followed by the same population strata as demonstrated by the recent presidential elections. If at first Yulia Timoshenko’s freedom was seen by many as the first step for a return to power, the election saw the victory of a man not new in Ukrainian politics, as having cooperated with both Yushenko and Yanukovich, with the West and Russia. Entrepreneur Petro Poroshenko, won an outright victory in Ukraine’s presidential poll of May 2014 with 54% of the votes, he was the only oligarch to have supported the pro-European opposition from the start, though unaffiliated to any of the country’s political parties. He is known as “the chocolate king” for his ownership of Ukraine’s largest confectionery manufacturer, Roshen. Poroshenko was supported by the former boxer Vitaly Klitschko, who gave up his own presidential ambitions to throw his weight behind him, and by fellow tycoon Dmitry Firtash, who has long been on cordial terms with Russia. Ukrainian media interpreted the great support for Poroshenko as a reaction to the opposition’s inability to find common ground during and after the anti-government protests that overthrow former President Viktor Yanukovych and as a signal that the new establishment was distancing itself from extremists.
Poroshenko comes from the mainly Russian-speaking Odessa region in southern Ukraine, although his political stronghold is believed to be in the central Vinnytsya region, where he started his business and political career. He has been elected to parliament several times and has worked with both the pro-European and pro-Russian political camps in Ukraine. He was foreign minister in Ms Tymoshenko’s government from 2009 to 2010, and briefly an economic development and trade minister in 2012 under Yanukovich. He was one of the founders of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, in 2001. However, later that year he left to lead Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine electoral bloc. He was also one of the main figures of the Orange Revolution that brought Mr Yushchenko and Ms Tymoshenko to power in 2004. This chameleon political careerist, or to be more frankly an interest piloted one, is at the top of a stubbornness government refusing to deal with a fundamental request of autonomy from the East, where the clear anti-Russian stance of some of its supporters and the Western backing are bogging down the country in a fratricidal confrontation with unpredictable consequences. The government is avoiding any discussions on constitutional reforms or for a federation, and its obstinate centralism is favouring paradoxically the disintegration of a united country. On the other, after his victory, Mr Poroshenko promised to forge closer links with the EU and restore peace in restive eastern regions where pro-Russian separatists had severely disrupted voting. He has also pledged to improve relations with Russia. But his first act was an all out military assault on Donetsk and consequent bloodshed.
So the last question is: taking aside the fact that it is without doubt the influence from Washington and the EU, what were the internal reasons for overthrowing Yanukovich?
It has been claimed by many the corruption, but in a country were each president from Kuchma to Yushenko, from Timoshenko to Yanukovich has been accused of stealing or being corrupt, it is very difficult to believe that. Even the claim that Ukraine was a dictatorship is an exaggeration as Yanukovich won legally an election and no constitution or power was suppressed, people were free to move. A powerful element is without any doubt the economy and the silence over this is the reason why both the West and Russia push on nationalist propaganda to mask their responsibilities.
Ukraine is an economy near to collapse, even though has a strong agriculture in the western part, known as the granary of Europe, and a powerful industrial sector in the East. Nevertheless extreme dependence from Russian import / export, gas and energy supply combined with western liberist economy exploiting cheap labor and reduced taxes made Ukraine not a sustainable and independent economy. Ukrainians were frustrated by this rather than the stories created and inflated by the medias. The first protests, when Yanukovich refused to sign with the EU, were genuine only to be then hijacked for strategic and political interests. What Ukrainians also believed, and probably still believe, is that the EU will welcome them in a further enlargement. Whilst Ukrainians are continuously brainwashed by western propaganda of an easy EU access and an economy ready to get back on its feet, a debt is piling up, bankruptcy is just behind the corner; Russia counter measures are already starting with gas payment demands.
The reality is that no one is ready to bail out Ukraine, like Greece, especially after a landslide victory of the anti-EU parties in the recent European parliament elections that put a clear slogan out: no more EU, no more enlargement, no immigration. After the shameful anti Romanian and anti Bulgarian propaganda in the EU of last year, now the new xenophobic and racist parties across Europe are ready to target Ukrainians as the Eldorado that will cash in at next the electoral polls.
Eastern Ukraine: A new symphony in Donbas?
This area the powerhouse of Ukraine, and of the former Soviet Union, is in majority Russian speaker and nevertheless they lived peacefully within Ukraine since the independence.
However, it has never been an easy coexistence between the two areas, and this was reflected in history during the WWII and the constant push and back between presidents towards Russia and the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Eastern Ukraine always supported filo Russian presidents and when Yanukovich won the election, the Party of Regions had in the Donbas region its stronghold. The delicate equilibrium that maintained united a fragile architecture was broken suddenly with the Maidan protests, although some cities in the East at first even participated in the change of power, like Kharkiv or Dnepropetrovsk. Eastern Ukraine at first, even though with less enthusiasm, joined protests against Yanukovich, but in the Donbas region everything started to move in the opposite direction with the raising fear of a new power unbalanced towards the West and hostile to Russia, from which this region heavily depends.
When the Maidan protests were increasingly becoming anti Russian and xenophobic, with raising extreme right movements taking the lead with armed groups, Eastern Ukrainians felt the same sense of need for defence and even paranoia that Russia has about an incoming encirclement. This is especially true for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions where Russian speakers are over 50% and it is known as Donbas or Donetsk basin. Carpe diem was the word following Crimea annexation by Russia and, feeling the moment, they truly believed in an insurrection supported by Russia, arriving to overthrow the local governments and declaring a People’s Republic, followed by a non recognised independence referendum. But, exactly as it happened for the Kiev government, the Donbas region at the crucial moment saw its external sponsor vacillating, being unsure how to step back from this mess. As in western Ukraine believe to EU propaganda, in the Donbas people believed too much in Russia’s involvement and soon found themselves alone. After Crimea annexation it seemed that Russia was ready to take on Ukraine, and thunder words from Putin made the Donbas greater confident, as well as Kiev government inaction. But to repeat Crimea was a dream, as it was Russia going to war against Ukraine, at least for now. The Odessa fire, that was for many the possible signal of all out war with Moscow, in reality was the turning point were both Washington and the Kremlin understood that they push too far and began slowly to settle down. The problem is that the Kiev government and the Donbas region instead raised their stakes and a military confrontation is now on the ground, with a clear risk of degenerating into civil war.
There is a movie by a famous soviet director, Dziga Vertov, called Enthusiasm Symphony of the Donbas that in its Stalinist propaganda was aimed at demonstrating the development and the importance of this region as a centre stage for the construction of socialism. If the movie portrayed a happy and hardworking place with a triumphant soundtrack, today the symphony coming from Donbas is very different and sounds more like the thunder of war.