Ukraine: Is There an Alternative?

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Surveying both the mainstream and the alternative/Left media on the Ukraine crisis can seem like switching between alternate universes. In one, Ukrainians struggling for democracy, European values and independence, after toppling a corrupt President in thrall to oligarchs and the dictatorial Vladimir Putin, are now bedeviled by an extremist, pro-Russian minority who are creating chaos and dismembering the country. In the other, neo-Nazi militants, backed by the imperialist US and EU engineered a coup against a democratically elected government, installed a regime beholden to the Western banks and corporate interests who stand to profit from the coming forced austerity programs, and now are carrying out a reign of terror against simple eastern Ukrainian citizens peacefully expressing their opinion. Conspiracy theories and allegations of ‘false flag’ deceptions abound on both sides, centering especially on the key, bloody flashpoints: the sniper killings of demonstrators on Maidan square (dubbed ‘Euromaidan’) in Kiev on February 20, the fire in the Odessa trade union building on May 2 which killed dozens or hundreds (depending on your source), and the continuing bloody clashes around Slavyansk, Mariupol and other towns near the eastern (Russian) border.

On closer inspection, both sides of this black-and-white picture show contradictions. In the US establishment universe, why would Putin want to stir up widespread violence in Ukraine, thus putting at risk the 66% of Russian natural gas shipments to Europe—the richest source of his and his oligarch associates’ wealth and power—which pass through the Ukrainian pipelines? And what about the regime change that happened in late February under clearly questionable Parliamentary procedures, and the involvement of such elements as Right Sector, acknowledged on all sides as dangerously extremist, and the nationalist Svoboda party, which holds several ministries in the transitional government? In the Left/alternative universe, how can a fascist/extreme nationalist takeover be at the same time pro-US and -EU imperialist, when the EU, and by extension the US and NATO, are the biggest bogeymen of the nationalist Right across Europe? And is Putin—and his state-controlled media, which provide or at least echo the anti-Western arguments—really an appropriate role model for a democratic Left?

For all of the objectionable aspects of Putin’s rule and of Russia’s monolithic media landscape, the charge that an anti-Russian bias is rampant in US media and politics seems hard to deny. US geo-strategic planners have for well over a decade been pushing aggressive policies to roll back Russian influence, rather than the kind of strategic partnership that might have been expected after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen cites the US media for a “relentless demonization of Putin, with little regard for facts,” and the creation of a “new Cold War divide” by US actions such as the attempts to spread NATO to former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia. This was compounded, according to Cohen, by the EU’s “reckless ultimatum” in November that Ukraine choose between association with the EU and the deal offered by Russia, whereas Putin’s proposal for a three-way arrangement was rejected; Yanukovich’s choice of Russia and rejection of the EU spawned the protests that led to the fall of his government.

The key geopolitical factor that affects Ukraine is the aforementioned energy one. The EU—and especially its economic engine, Germany—is heavily dependent on Russian gas, mostly shipped by pipeline through Ukraine. Russia, through the quasi-governmental energy giant Gazprom, has shown its willingness to use these shipments as a political weapon several times in the past decade, by stopping or severely restricting supply. The US for its part has attempted to remove this lever by supporting an alternate supply route, the so-called Nabucco pipeline, from Azerbaijan and Iraq by way of Turkey. (Some US politicians have also advocated a lifting of the ban on exporting US natural gas, as a way to subvert Russian energy domination over Ukraine, and Europe.) Many see the whole region as the site of increasing geopolitical competition centered on energy.

It is also far from clear that a Ukraine that further integrates with the West—the EU, but also inevitably the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, US Treasury and other sources that it desperately needs to avoid bankruptcy and even complete economic collapse—will get closer to the prosperity and “normal” life that its citizens crave. The IMF has already made initial assistance conditional on sharp increases in consumer energy prices and large cuts in social benefits. Even the Washington Post has reported that concerns over IMF-demanded austerity measures have helped push citizens in eastern Ukraine onto the streets to protest. The hardships faced by citizens of Greece, Spain, Hungary and other EU member states struggling with economic crisis and the austerity demanded as a condition of bailouts pale before those that loom for Ukrainians, already several times poorer than even the poorest EU constituents.

US leaders and media emphasize the need to defend Ukrainian national sovereignty, violated by the secession or occupation (again, depending on one’s perspective) of Crimea in March, and threatened by a similar outcome for the largely ethnically Russian eastern parts of the country. The intertwining of Russians and Ukrainians goes back at least to the precursor to the Russian state, known as Kievan Rus, between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, which ranged from present-day northern Ukraine northwards to the current major population zones in western Russia (including the locations of today’s St. Petersburg and Moscow). Ukrainian territories under the Russian czars were later referred to as “White Russia” or “New Russia;” ethnically Russian settlers moved there in great numbers starting in the sixteenth century. Ukrainians look back to the 1648 uprising led by Bogdan Khelmnytsky as the fount of their national independence struggles; others point to tens of thousands of Jews killed during the rebellion and ensuing war, and even more Poles. Ukrainian independence efforts both in the aftermath of World War I and during World War II, when many collaborated with Nazi Germany in order to stave off Soviet power, also led to the deaths of many Jews and others. In between the wars, millions of Ukrainians fell victim to their own national tragedy, the Holodomor, starving during Stalin’s brutal forced collectivization. So the Ukrainian national cause offers much to admire, but also much to be wary of, and its national borders are also not necessarily historically sacred.

With scheduled May 25 Presidential elections pending as this article goes to press, what are the prospects for the Ukrainian people themselves (as opposed to “the fascists,” “the Russian stooges,” etc.)? Politics now as before the “Euromaidan revolution” are dominated by oligarchs, such as election front-runner Petro Poroshenko, a candy magnate known as the “Chocolate King,” or contender Yulia Tymoshenko, the hero of the 2004 Orange Revolution, who made her fortune in the gas industry. Alongside the nationalist militants at Euromaidan were peaceful demonstrators, surely the majority, who sincerely desired to overcome a clearly dysfunctional politics and economy, for the benefit of all Ukrainians. Both “sides” in the current media struggle have succeeded in turning a civic and social movement into an ethnic and national conflict, and Ukraine into a geopolitical pawn. I have not been able to find a continuation of this people’s movement into the current situation, a “side to root for.” But what will definitely do the people unimaginable harm is the looming civil war, not to speak of a possible internationalization of the conflict, in a region that has been a borderland for centuries. It is incumbent on us to urge our political representatives—and our media—to work for diplomacy, resolution and reconciliation, at least as a first step, rather than stoking discord.

About Richard Esbenshade

22-year resident of Urbana, taught history for several years at UIUC, specializing in Eastern Europe; longtime activist in peace/green/social justice/solidarity movements; father of two, including Public i alumna Shara.
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