current affairs

Ukraine: it’s actually so much more complicated

The question of “whose side are we on?” isn’t one often asked in this country with regards to Ukraine.

The question of “whose side are we on?” isn’t one often asked in this country with regards to Ukraine. Media coverage has been highly supportive of the Euromaidan movement and the new government in Kiev.

Recently, for example, worrying flyers have been circulating in the city of Donetsk, held by pro-Russian militia instructing Jews to register with the new authorities and pay a substantial fee.

The situation couldn’t seem clearer cut, who could support the neo-Nazis behind such a scheme?

In reality the situation is much more complex. The flyers were a hoax dismissed by Denis Pushilin, whose name was fraudulently used on the flyers, as “a fake, and a pretty unsuccessful one,” with members of his movement believing that the flyers were placed to discredit them.

It is assumed that those behind it did so to target the large Jewish/Israeli lobby in America, a group that has in the past proven critical to American foreign policy decisions.

The movement in question is the vast array of pro-Russian groups who have de-facto control over the east of the country, angry about the new government that has seized power in Ukraine.

A historical background

To fully understand their grievances it is necessary to understand the recent history of Ukraine. During the Soviet administration of Ukraine many Russians came to the east of Ukraine to work in industry and in the mines.

They formed a substantial minority, notably in Crimea many Russians came to work in the naval base in Sevastopol, and ethnic Russians make up a large percentage of the population. At the fall of the Soviet Union in late 1991 they remained in situ but few identified with the new Ukraine.

In the immediate aftermath of the secession of Ukraine in 1991, the national parliament (Rada) consisted mainly of Ukrainian nationalists who neglected the ethnic Russians in the east in favour of the ethnic Ukrainians in the west of the country.

The east was devastated by neglect from the government with extreme poverty and deprivation. Only the election of Viktor Yanukovych in 2010 saw things improve for the better in the region, investing heavily in the Donetsk region and providing support and recognition for the ethnic Russian minority.

So it is easy to understand the resentment the ethnic Russians of the east of the country hold towards the Ukrainian nationalists of the Euromaidan movement who ousted a democratically elected president that supported them. For many Yanukovych’s presidency embodied their hope of a better life.

Many ethnic Russians mobilized out of fear for the return of neglect from Kiev and further decline, forming armed groups to deny Kiev control of pro-Russian territory.

Anger at Yanukovych

It has been reported that Russian special forces are actively supporting armed pro-Russian protestors. Whilst this is a definite possibility, there is no physical evidence to prove their involvement.

Many of the protestors are students angry at Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement. They believe that the rejection will hold back Ukraine’s economic growth and deny them the prospect of being able to work elsewhere in the EU. Most belong to the Batkivshchyna (or Fatherland) Centre-Right nationalist party of Yulia Tymoshenko.

However as the protests continued, right-wing ultranationalists like the social-nationalist (try turning that around) Svoboda who have claimed to be the inheritors of the traditions of the fascist Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, for them the protests are not about Europe, they are about overthrowing a government simply because they do not agree with them.

Scrutinised power

The Euromaidan (literally Euro-Square) movement is much less homogenous than the pro-Russians, while the pro-Russians are united in support for either greater autonomy or re-joining the Russian Federation the diverse groups behind the Euromaidan protests have no single aim.

Yulia Tymoshenko is generally regarded to be at the head of the movement. As the founder and CEO of the USEU energy company her dealings come under intense scrutiny. It was alleged that she bribed former Ukrainian PM Pavlo Lazarenko when he was in office, in order for USEU to get a monopoly on all gas imports to Ukraine.

There are also allegations that the pair ordered the murder of several of their rivals. She was jailed in 2011 on abuse of power charges with regards to her time as prime minister, and prior to the revolution was under investigation for misappropriation of public funds and several unsolved murder cases.

A recurring symbol of the movement is the crimson and black flag of the ultranationalist Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and their armed counterpart, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA). The contrasting colours symbolising “Ukrainian red blood spilled on Ukrainian black earth.”

It’s the people’s decision

The UPA were a particularly brutal insurgency responsible for the mass murder of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia with pitchforks and axes, they were also notorious for murdering the entire families of men who joined the Soviet Red army.

The emblem is a worrying indication of the intentions of the movement. While it is unlikely that the new government of Euromaidan supporting politicians will pursue an ethnically pure Ukraine, the presence of many who would unite under such a symbol is concerning for the largic ethnic Polish and Russian groups in Ukraine. The memory of the crimes committed by such groups is very much alive.

We come back to the question of whose side should we be on in this case: while some may wish to side with the Euromaidan movement simply because they align themselves with Europe, and by extension ourselves.

Others may be inclined to support the ethnic Russians angry at decades of neglect. Then there’s the question overthrowing of a democratically elected government, was it a legitimate move?

The best course of action may be to sit this one out, to western foreign policy not picking a side is an alien concept but it makes perfect sense. We have no legitimate interests in influencing the situation nor a right to decide what is in the best interests of Ukraine and act accordingly.

There is no clear good or bad side here. Who comes out on top should be decided by the people of Ukraine.

What do you think about the current conflict in Ukraine? Have your say in the comments section below.