Keeping Georgia Balanced

Georgian Defense Ministry Building (Georgian Ministry of Defense)

Georgian Defense Ministry Building (Georgian Ministry of Defense)

Sparks flew in Georgian politics recently when the Georgian Defense Ministry issued a statement in connection with the death of Aleksandr Grigolashvili, also known by his nom de guerre “Chuzhoy.”  A Georgian citizen and former soldier, Grigolashvili, joined a formation known as the “Georgian National Legion” to fight in the Donbas. He died near Luhansk on 19 December. Notably, Georgians, like Chechens and Armenians, can be found on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict. The “Georgian National Legion” that Grigolashvili joined is ideologically pro-Saakashvili and pro-Kiev.  Through the legion, Grigolashvili fought with the controversial Aidar Battalion which has been accused by Amnesty International of war crimes, including “abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion, and possible executions.”

The statement from the Defense Ministry placed “full responsibility” for the death on “representatives of previous authorities, who are calling on Georgian citizens to take part in military operations outside of our country.” It further emphasized that the Defense Ministry “has noted for more than once that such calls are irresponsible and aim at misleading active and former servicemen of the Georgian armed forces.” It called on Georgian citizens “not to yield to provocation and not to endanger their own lives in exchange of various offers.”

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP)

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP)

The statement is indeed grounded in reality. Earlier in December, Saakashvili accused the Defense Ministry of pro-Russian sympathies and that “many Georgian officers are left without any other option but to go and continue service in friendly Ukraine, which fights the war against Georgia’s enemy.” The Defense Ministry refuted this statement.

In addition, the pro-Saakashvili television network, Rustavi-2, which was instrumental in the success of the 2003 Rose Revolution, has been vocal in its support and encouragement of Georgians fighting in Ukraine. Members of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party have likewise been vocal in this regard.

The release of the Defense Ministry’s statement triggered considerable protest, led by Saakashvili but also supported by Irakli Alasania, Davit Usupashvili’s Republicans, and pro-Western NGOs. Politicians from the UNM alleged that the statement was in “Russia’s interests” and that the pragmatists in the ruling coalition were “Putin collaborationists.”

Seeking to calm the situation, Garibashvili called the statement a “mistake.” The Defense Ministry subsequently apologized for the statement, claiming that it was the responsibility of lower level officials.

Irakli Alasania (RFE/RL)

Former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania (RFE/RL)

However, Alasania and his ally, former Foreign Minister Panjikidze, say that this is not enough and they want those responsible for the statement to “stand trial.” Panjikidze also called the statement a “catastrophe” for the government. Official Tbilisi dismissed such assertions. Additionally, Usupashvili’s Republicans too are increasingly vocal in their criticism of Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze, and Saakashvili’s UNM is calling for his outright dismissal. Janelidze has only been in the post for less than two months and is unlikely to resign.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who has used his position to act as a mediator between the pragmatists and the pro-Western hawks, urged for calm. “I think we should give him [Janelidze] an opportunity to voice his position. We should have a bit calmer reaction on issues like this,” he said.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (Press office photo)

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (Press office photo)

Speaking about the issue again on 24 December, Prime Minister Garibashvili remarked:

The stir around the MoD’s statement and calls for resignation of batoni Mindia [Janelidze] is completely incomprehensible for me; I think this is not a serious talk and I want to say to everyone that perhaps it would be more reasonable to put an end to such talk and this hysteria.  The fact that UNM’s call has caused such a stir is very irrelevant, as well as insulting and underrating for our Defense Ministry.

The controversy over the statement reveals the difficult position of Georgia’s pragmatists, led by Prime Minister Garibashvili. The vast majority of the Georgian population supports them (especially in the regions).  However, they are opposed by a very vocal minority of pro-Western political parties (the UNM, Free Democrats, and Republicans) and pro-Western NGOs.

These pro-Western hawks also have representation in parliament that is proportionally higher than their actual electorate. In addition, they have support from influential Western politicians, especially in Washington as recent support for former President Saakashvili illustrated.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (TASS)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (TASS)

Consequently, the line that the pragmatists have to tread is difficult. Recently former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who supports the pragmatists, stated that Georgia’s “geographical position as well as internal and regional problems put us in a rather difficult situation; however, all resources to achieve our common and long-cherished goal [of a prosperous state] are in our hands today.” He also added “the former authorities, who now represent the opposition, still endeavor to put pressure on our people; although all their attempts to do this have ended in failure thus far.”

Yet, despite the challenges, Prime Minister Garibashvili is fully committed to keeping Georgia balanced. Throughout this past year, the Prime Minister has proven himself to be very much to be his own man, contrary to opposition allegations of him being an “Ivanishvili puppet.”

In fact, Garibashvili continued balancing his government’s pursuit to normalize ties with Moscow while keeping the pro-Western hawks at bay. Further, in the aftermath of the Alasania scandal in November, it was Garibashvili who single-handedly managed to keep the coalition together and to avert a crisis.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and son (Press office photo)

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and son (Press office photo)

Also under Garbashvili’s watch, the Georgian economy grew. Even in recent months, when the lari suffered a fall in connection with the depreciation of the ruble, the government managed to stabilize the situation.

With regard to the Abkhaz and the Ossetes, Garbashvili’s conciliatory statements and actions have helped to build confidence more so than any other political leader in Georgia’s post-Soviet history. Sadly, his overtures were complicated by more bellicose and provocative steps taken by former Defense Minister Alasania. Still, the fact remains that Garibashvili is firmly and sincerely committed to the restoration of Georgian unity through peaceful and pragmatic means.

Garibashvili’s government has had more difficulty in its relations with Ukraine. In particular, the new Kiev government’s proximity to former President Saakashvili, who is wanted in Georgia for abuse of office, has alarmed Tbilisi’s pragmatists. Relations recently went from bad to worse when the Poroshenko government decided to appoint Saakashvili political allies to top government posts.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

Poroshenko even considered making Saakashvili himself Deputy Prime Minister, a position that the former Georgian President eventually declined. The decision to appoint Saakashvili allies also sparked indignation in Ukraine due to the fact that they were foreign citizens to whom Poroshenko had to grant immediate citizenship.

Responding to the appointments, Garibashvili emphasized that the presence of Saakashvili-era officials in the Kiev government was damaging relations between Georgia and Ukraine. He found it incomprehensible that Kiev would be interested in appointing Zurab Adeishvili, the Saakashvili-era Justice Minister who is wanted by Tbilisi via an Interpol Red Notice, to an official position. He also accused Saakashvili’s former Healthcare Minister, Aleksandr Kvitashvili, who was appointed by Poroshenko as Kiev’s new Healthcare Minister, of “destroying the Georgian healthcare system.”

Though he is experiencing difficulties with Ukraine, Garibashvili remains committed to restoring relations with Russia. At his recent marathon press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his readiness to meet with the Georgian political leadership.  “We are ready to move in this direction,” said Putin, “and if the Georgian government considers it possible, we will be glad to see any representative of the Georgian leadership – the President or the Prime Minister, in Moscow.”  In response, Garibashvili announced that the Georgian government is now officially ready for such a summit, which may take place in 2015.  Such a meeting would be a positive step forward for regional security, cooperation, and stability.

Regardless of what finally happens, Garibashvili must be cautious and pragmatic while simultaneously keeping Georgia’s national interests at the forefront. If this past year is any indication, the 32-year-old Prime Minister is certainly up to the task.

UPDATE (29 December 2014): On Friday, Georgian Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze spoke about the controversial Defense Ministry statement, again emphasizing that it was a mistake.  Meanwhile, in the Georgian parliament, a brawl erupted, instigated by an MP from Saakashvili’s UNM.  On Monday, the Georgia’s Chief Prosecutor Giorgi Badashvili stated that Tbilisi will spare no effort to convince Interpol to issue a Red Notice for former President Saakashvili.

Further commenting on the Defense Ministry statement controversy at a recent press conference, Prime Minister Garibashvili remarked that the government seeks to only grant humanitarian aid to Ukraine, not military assistance.  He noted that the government has “strongly distanced itself” from those Georgians fighting in eastern Ukraine. One reporter from the pro-Saakashvili Tabula magazine then asked Garibashvili whether or not “Putin was the common enemy of Georgia and Ukraine.” Garibashvili refused to answer the question, stating that it was a “reckless provocation” prepared by Saakashvili and the UNM. He maintained that:

The fact that former president Saakashvili, who is charged with multiple crimes, and his team were calling on Georgian soldiers – and they were negotiating it in their private conversations – to give up their Georgian citizenship, to quit Georgian armed forces and go to Ukraine, because of high payment there – it is a direct treason and calls for betrayal, I am saying it with full responsibility.

As for the Defense Ministry statement, Garibashvili remarked:

I said that the Ministry itself should not have made such statement, but if the minister or a politician had made such a statement, there was nothing unusual written in that statement.

What the former president is doing is a direct provocation. It is a betrayal to call on a soldier of your country to quit the armed forces and to serve and fight elsewhere in exchange of payment. This is a betrayal.

When pressed further by reporters, Garibashvili stated:

Saakashvili is the enemy of our country and the enemy of our people.  What the former commander-in-chief is doing is a shame and betrayal of our country and our people.

Emphasizing the government’s responsible position to the pro-Saakashvili Tabula journalist, he added:

There is extremely difficult situation in the region. Ukraine is in flames. Your favorite Saakashvili has only one thing on his mind – to cause conflict and unrest in Georgia and to lead Georgia into armed confrontation with Russia. This is the enmity against our country and our people and we will not allow it happen; we are the responsible government… I assure you with 101% that Georgia would be in war now and in a worse situation than Ukraine is, if Saakashvili and his sect – [and the UNM] has turned into sect, because only those [who] are left there… are tied to each other with ideology… – were still in power.

Asked whether or not he wanted to meet the former Saakashvili officials now in the Kiev government in Ukraine, Garibashvili responded “Not only do I have no desire to see them in Ukraine, but I have no desire to see and meet them in Georgia either.”

Getting Kennan Right

George F. Kennan, Heidelberg, Germany, 1952 (Getty)

George F. Kennan, Heidelberg, Germany, 1952 (Getty)

In his recent article in Foreign Affairs, the American academic Alexander Motyl called on Western governments to review George F. Kennan’s case for the “containment” of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Specifically, Motyl contends that Kennan’s containment strategy represents an “adequate policy response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine.”

The trouble with that argument is that if Kennan were alive today, he would most certainly disagree with such an interpretation of his work. In fact, he would likely see the present-day evocation of his Cold War strategy as yet another perversion of his original intent (to note, Kennan also did not intend “containment” to mean a military buildup as it was interpreted in Washington during the outset of the Cold War).

In the late 1990s, the US broke its unwritten promise to Russia, as the legal successor of the Soviet Union, not to expand NATO “one inch” beyond East Germany. Instead, Washington supported the admission of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary into NATO. A realist, Kennan strongly opposed that move as a major error of US foreign policy, and emphasized that its consequences would be dangerous and would not lead to anything good.

However, his advice was ignored by the US political elite, which sought to expand NATO not only into the former Warsaw Pact states and the ex-Soviet Baltic republics, but also into Ukraine and Georgia. Kennan did not live long enough to see the disastrous 2008 South Ossetia war in Georgia, though if he had, he would have likely seen it as a vindication of his earlier warnings against the dangerous policy of NATO expansion. He would likewise view the current crisis in Ukraine as further proof of this.

On a more fundamental level, Kennan was also highly critical of the US policy of “democracy promotion” in the ex-Soviet space. Even during the depths of the Cold War, he believed that if communism ever did fall in Russia, Washington “should let Russians be Russians” and allow democracy to develop in Russia and the former USSR endogenously as opposed to getting involved. Once again, Kennan’s advice was ignored. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, American economists actively assisted the wild “shock therapy” privatization in Russia, while Washington gave then-president Yeltsin its full, unconditional support.

Thus, if the West is serious about formulating a solid Russia policy and about resolving the crisis in Ukraine, it needs to get Kennan right by looking beyond the discourse of containment and exploring his other foreign policy positions. Adhering to his advice would be the first step toward serious de-escalation.

Ukraine’s Rebel Elections

Donbas election (RIA Novosti / Aleksei Kudenko)

Donbas election (RIA Novosti / Aleksei Kudenko)

The results of the election in the rebel-held areas of Ukraine’s Donbas were not a huge surprise. Igor Plotnitsky, the President of the self-proclaimed Luhansk Republic, won by 63% of the vote while Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the President of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic, won by 75% of the vote.

In both cases, it is worth noting the high voter turnout which exceeded 60% in both regions, in contrast to the low voter turnout (in the 30% range) across the border in the portions of the Donbas still held by Kiev. Therefore, the regional electorate illustrates a preference for the rebel leadership.

Notably, when the first steps were taken toward declaring republics in Donetsk and Luhansk in April, much of the population, though pro-Russian, was indifferent to the rebel cause. What changed popular opinion was the violent “anti-terrorist operation” launched by Kiev and the start of the Donbas war, in which thousands of people perished and over a million became refugees. The conflict included numerous human rights violations and war crimes. These were committed by both sides, but especially by Kiev and the notorious far-right volunteer battalions serving under its watch, such as the feared Azov Battalion.  Civilian areas were shelled constantly by Kiev’s forces and, according to Human Rights Watch, Kiev also used cluster munitions.  Buildings and infrastructure lay in ruins as do people’s livelihoods. The people of the Donbas are angry, and popular support has now been galvanized in favor of the rebels.

Something else changed too. Though the proclamation of the rebel republics was primarily driven by locals, its leadership was largely under the influence of Russian nationalists from across the border in Russia. However, over time, the leadership of the rebel regions has become increasingly more local, as clearly seen in the cases of both Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky.  The revolt itself has also become more local and more Donbas-centric.  The rebels have even adopted a “national anthem” called “Вставай, Донбасс!” or “Arise, Donbass!”

Aleksandr Zakharchenko (RIA Novosti / Mikhail Voskresenskiy)

Aleksandr Zakharchenko (RIA Novosti / Mikhail Voskresenskiy)

Zakharchenko, a former coal mine electrician from Donetsk, has an especially “local” character about him which may partially explain why he won by such a large margin. At a press conference on 24 August, he and his defense minister Vladimir Kononov (another Donbas native) disavowed any association between the rebels and the historic “Makhnovtsy.” This was a reference to a history that the Donbas locals would known best, that of the anarchist Nestor Makhno whose “Free Territory” during the Ukrainian Civil War of 1917-21 included portions of the present-day Donetsk oblast. Zakharchenko also seemed to distinguish the Donbas as a region from the rest of Ukraine including even the rest of the Southeast, making statements such as “We didn’t come to you in Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, or Zaporozhia.  Leave us [the Donbas] alone. Let us live free and in peace.” He likewise emphasized the hard-working and working-class character of the Donbas people, an amalgam of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, ethnic Russians, and mixed Russo-Ukrainians.

It also worth noting the specific time in which both Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky assumed office. This was in early August, around the same time that Moscow decided to definitively give the rebels military aid to turn the tide against Kiev. Putin was under pressure from the hardliners in the Kremlin to help the rebels for some time. When he finally decided to do so in August, it is likely that one of the conditions for Moscow’s support was that the leadership of the rebel movement had to become more “local.” This would explain the rise of more local figures, such as Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky, to leadership positions in early August.

Overall, it is clear that the only realistic solution for the protracted conflict in the region can be peace. The rebels are ready for talks with Kiev. However, with the strengthened position of “war parties” in Ukraine’s Rada, such a prospect may be diminished or even lost, drowned out by calls from nationalists in Kiev to continue the war. If this does happen, the Donbas rebels are unlikely to back down.

Ukraine’s Parliamentary Poll: Results and Reflections

Ukraine concluded a parliamentary election this weekend, electing parties largely with a pro-Western and nationalist platform. Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front won first place, edging out his main rival, Petro Poroshenko. In third place came the West Ukraine-based Self-Reliance Party. Fourth place was the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc, which brings together the remnants of Viktor Yanukovych’s old Party of Regions. Then, in the fifth and sixth places respectively were Oleg Lyashko’s Radical Party and Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party.

Many in the West have already hailed the election as a “clear victory” for Ukraine’s “European majority.” However, such an assessment is questionable. In fact, it was an election that really did not help to bring Ukraine any closer to unity. The voter turnout in the country illustrated this.

Voter Turnout, 2014 Ukrainian Parliamentary Election

Voter Turnout, 2014 Ukrainian Parliamentary Election

Overall, the national turnout for the election was 52.42%. On a regional level this varied. In the Southeastern oblasti, the turnout was low, with the lowest recorded in the Kiev-controlled sections of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasti.

Lower voter turnouts were also registered in the far-western oblast of Zakarpattia (Carpathian Rus’) as well as in Chernivsti oblast on the Romanian border.  Turnout was low throughout Zakarpattia, home to the Rusyn-speakers and a distinct region in its own right.  However, it was lowest in districts on the border with Hungary, inhabited by ethnic Hungarians.  Likewise, in Chernivsti, the areas with the lowest voter turnout were those with significant populations of ethnic Romanians.

Not surprisingly, electoral patterns were more divided in the Central oblasti, with an average turnout ranging from 50 to 60%. Of these, Kirovograd oblast registered the lowest turnout. Finally, in the Western oblasti, turnout exceeded 60% and in Lviv oblast, it reached 70%.

It is also interesting to observe which parties managed to win which oblasti in the nationwide election results.

Nationwide Election Results by Oblast

Nationwide Election Results by Oblast

In this regard, Petro Poroshenko managed to carry much of the South and the far-western oblast of Zakarpattia (Carpathian Rus’). His contest with the pro-Western nationalist and current Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was most heated in the Central oblasti. Of those Central Ukrainians who participated in the election (about half of the region’s registered voters), most were primarily divided between Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk. With the conclusion of the election, Poroshenko was able to secure three Central oblasti: Chernihiv, Sumy, and his native Vinnitsya. He lost most of the others by as little as a single percentage point.

In addition to securing most of the Central oblasti, Yatsenyuk and his People’s Front secured their greatest victories in much of the Western oblasti, including all of historic Galicia and Volhynia and Yatsenyuk’s native Chernivsti. Yatsenyuk and his party are known for their more hawkish stance toward Russia, which may explain their appeal to many in the Western part of the country.

Prime Minister Yatsenyuk inspects his wall project on the Russian border (Getty)

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenyuk inspects his wall project on the Russian border. (Getty)

In fact, Yatsenyuk’s main pet project has been the construction of a large Berlin Wall-style rampart along the entire Russo-Ukrainian border.  Yatsenyuk is fully committed to this grandiose and costly scheme, even as Ukraine’s economy spins into bankruptcy.  Ironically, in March, it was Yatsenyuk who, in an apparent attempt to channel Ronald Reagan, called for Putin to “tear down this wall.”  In response to news about the proposed plan, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev stated, “I am against all walls,” adding that “let’s hope that those who are planning such a ‘construction’ come to their senses.”

Finally, the Opposition Bloc managed to secure much of Ukraine’s Eastern oblasti. This included Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhia, and the Kiev-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. Other pro-Russian parties also fared well in the East, including the Communist Party which placed second in Luhansk. The conclusion one may derive from the latter is that, even without the presence of the Donbas rebels, the locals are still largely pro-Russian.

Yet, overall, Ukraine’s new parliament has very little pro-Russian representation.  Among other things, the election marks the first time in Ukraine’s entire post-Soviet history that the Communist Party will have no representation.  The Opposition Bloc will be the only major pro-Russian force in the Rada.

By contrast, most of the remaining newly-elected parties in parliament are primarily pro-Western and nationalist in character. Though some commentators have been quick to label some of them as “fascist” or “neo-Nazi,” the fact is that their stated ideologies, while fiercely nationalist and hawkishly anti-Russian, are not explicitly fascist.

Ukraine's far-right Svoboda Party marches in Kiev.  The party did not receive enough votes to retain its position in parliament.

Ukraine’s far-right Svoboda Party marches in Kiev. The party did not receive enough votes to retain its position in parliament. (Gleb Garanich / Reuters)

Additionally, Ukraine’s two overtly neo-Nazi and fascist parties, Svoboda and Right Sector, garnered only 5% and 2% respectively and thus will not be among the major parties in parliament. This is despite the fact that these two parties played a significant role in the success of the Maidan Revolution.

At the same time, it is important to note that there are some political figures with fascist proclivities and UNA (Ukrainian National Assembly) connections among the “mainstream” nationalist parties. One of them is Andriy Parubiy of Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front. It was Parubiy, together with Oleh Tyahnybok, who founded the original Svoboda (then known as the Social-National Party of Ukraine) in 1991.

Further, the major parties will only occupy half of Ukraine’s parliament. The rest will be representatives from single-mandate districts and these include far-right activists, not just from Svoboda and Right Sector, but from the feared Azov Battalion as well.  In fact, Right Sector’s leader, Dmytro Yarosh, even won a single-seat constituency in Dnepropetrovsk.  Additionally, Right Sector, Patriots of Ukraine, and other far-right groups still have influence on the streets and certainly in Kiev’s volunteer battalions that have fought in the “anti-terrorist operation” in the Donbas.

Darth Alekseyevich Vader (The Independent)

Darth Alekseyevich Vader in Kiev (The Independent)

Meanwhile, one of Ukraine’s more interesting candidates, the elusive Darth Alekseyevich Vader, also sought political office. A candidate of the Internet Party of Ukraine, Mr. Vader pledged to turn Ukraine into a “galactic empire.” However, the Sith Lord was denied registration for his candidacy after refusing to remove his mask.

Another loser of sorts was Yulia Tymoshenko. The “gas princess” and self-styled Marianne of the Orange Revolution, Tymoshenko’s arrest sparked a cause célèbre in Europe against the Yanukovych regime. How ironic it must seem to otherwise uniformed outsiders that Tymoshenko was barely able to make it into parliament and had to compete against Svoboda (of all parties) to assume that place. However, to Ukrainians who are familiar with Tymoshenko’s role in plundering the country since its independence, such a result was to be expected.

Ukraine's Oleg Lyashko in the Rada

Ukraine’s Oleg Lyashko in the Rada

In a twist of fate, Tymoshenko actually placed lower than the formerly marginal Oleg Lyashko, leader of Ukraine’s Radical Party. A flamboyant populist known for instigating brawls in Ukraine’s parliamentary circus, Lyashko has used the Maidan revolution, the Donbas war, and Ukrainian nationalism to advance his political career. His Radical Party is a typical post-Soviet personality-based party, serving as a mere vehicle for his political aims.

The eccentric and controversial politician has advocated for a buildup of nuclear arms in Ukraine and has a laundry list of promises, albeit few explanations on how to deliver on them. He has also become an active participant in the Donbas War, where his actions and abuses have been criticized by the human rights organization Amnesty International among others.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

Lyashko’s party, like Yatsenyuk’s and others in Ukraine’s newly elected parliament, also advocates a continuation of the Donbas war. The fact that these “war parties” have been emboldened by their recent election victory will present a serious challenge to President Poroshenko, who will have to forge a coalition with them.  The “chocolate king,” as Poroshenko is often known, is in a tough spot, caught between his domestic hawks and pressure from the European Union (especially Germany) and Russia to maintain the ceasefire and find a diplomatic solution to the Donbas conflict.  He is in an unenviable position.

In addition, Ukraine is bankrupt and its economy is in total disarray. The newly-elected parliament will soon discover that being pro-Western, nationalist, and anti-Russian is simply not the answer for Ukraine’s mammoth economic problems.

Independence Day

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (Mikola Lazarenko / RIA Novosti)

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (Mikola Lazarenko / RIA Novosti)

Today, on 24 August, Ukraine will celebrate its independence from the Soviet Union. Yet, if one observes the developments in Ukraine for the past two decades, it quickly becomes apparent that there is very little to celebrate. In the 23 years since the breakup of the USSR, more than seven million people have emigrated from the country. Now, as the conflict in the Donbas continues, that figure is over eight million and, with Russia’s incorporation of Crimea, this number becomes nine million. Between the 2004 Orange Revolution and the recent Maidan Revolution alone, approximately four million people have departed from Ukraine.

Additionally, the Ukrainian economy is in decline and default and, today, it stands on the precipice of total collapse. Even IMF-sponsored “reforms” will not be enough to bail out Ukraine’s mammoth debt and the added “bonus” of IMF-backed austerity will send the population reeling. Likewise, corruption has not halted at all in Ukraine, and has only become worse. Even the Maidan Revolution was not able to fundamentally change this problem in Ukrainian society. Today the Ukrainian political elite remains just as corrupt as it was when the Maidan Revolution broke out in November 2013. In the Rada, fist fights between rival politicians continue and it is unclear whether or not Maidan has also eased the country’s problems with poverty, unemployment, human trafficking, or organized crime.

Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, the divisions in Ukrainian society have become worse. The Ukrainian nationalists of Galicia today hate Russia or anything Russian-oriented with greater intensity than ever. By contrast, those Russian-speaking Ukrainians in South and Eastern Ukraine continue to reject any notion of membership in NATO or the EU, and they refuse to sever any ties with Russia. Meanwhile, divisions persist among Central Ukrainians while the Rusyns of Zakarpattia view the situation with exasperation.

In the Donbas, war between official Kiev and pro-Russian rebels has given way to a humanitarian catastrophe. Throughout the conflict, Kiev’s forces, including rogue far-right militias like the feared Azov battalion, have relentlessly shelled and attacked civilian infrastructure and the area’s Russian-speaking civilians. Refugees have fled en masse to Russia while others have escaped into more peaceful regions of Ukraine. Thousands died in the conflict, not only civilians, but also Ukrainians from other parts of Ukraine who were recruited to fight against their own ethnic kin. Families have become ideologically split over the conflict, while the industry in the Donbas, which is so crucial to Ukraine’s economy, has come to a total standstill. Cities like Slavyansk are in ruins. Everyday livelihoods of neighborhood bakers, doctors, and others have been disrupted. Daily institutions like grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, and schools have been destroyed or closed. Questions still remain unanswered with regard to the tragic shootdown of the MH17 Malaysian airliner.

Now, as Ukraine prepares to celebrate its 23rd independence day, reports are rife that the government of President Petro Poroshenko will seek to capture the city of Luhansk at any cost. This inevitably means more attacks on civilians, more indiscriminate shelling, and more destruction. Instead of working to declare an “independence day peace,” he is instead alienating more of his citizens against him. As a catastrophe consumes the Donbas and problems persist throughout the rest of Ukraine, including an impending economic collapse, ordinary Ukrainians will inevitably ask: “What is there to celebrate?”

Ukraine: Where Nation-Building and Empire Meet

Ukrainian Girl by a Fence, Ilya Repin, 1876

Ukrainian Girl by a Fence, Ilya Repin, 1876

As the Ukraine crisis continues, there are debates emerging with regard to the relationship between Russians and Ukrainians, in language, culture, and history.

The vast majority of ordinary Russians view Ukrainians, though linguistically distinct, as being a fraternal East Slavic nation, closely bound to Russia by culture, history, and intermarriage. They further assert that Ukraine is an integral part of Russian civilization, owing to the particularly special significance of Kiev to both Russians and Ukrainians. More nationalistic Russians go even further and claim that Ukraine is merely a “concept” and that the people known as “Ukrainians” are merely an extension of the Russian nation who speak a dialect of Russian.

Some Ukrainians, particularly in the Central part of the country, would sympathize with the argument that Russians and Ukrainians are a fraternal people. In the Russian-speaking Southeast this would be further elevated to Russians and Ukrainians being “the same people.” However, as one might imagine, the nationalist discourse in Western Ukraine, particularly Galicia, is radically different. To Ukrainian nationalists, Ukrainians are “completely different” from the Russians. They have they own culture, language and history which they believe is “entirely disconnected” from anything to do with the Russians. Some more extreme Ukrainian nationalists even claim that the Ukrainian language is not only distinct from Russian, but also distinct among all Slavic or even Indo-European languages as well.

Cossack on the Steppe, Ilya Repin, 1890

Cossack on the Steppe, Ilya Repin, 1890

Of course, the truth exists somewhere in-between these conflicting narratives. It is true that Ukrainians do speak their own language and that there are aspects of Ukrainian culture that are indeed unique to Ukrainians. However, it is also true that Kiev is the common point of origin for all East Slavs including Ukrainians and Russians; that at one time in their common history, they used to speak the same language (Old East Slavic); and that the contemporary Ukrainian and Russian languages (though not exactly the same) are indeed very similar. It is also true that the Ukrainians and Russians have much in common in terms of culture, and they have both had a major impact on one another. Examples of this cultural exchange include the squat-and-kick prisyadka dance move and the beet soup borscht, both of Ukrainian origin but deeply influential in Russian culture. Nikolai Gogol was a famous Russian-language author of Ukrainian origin who often included Ukrainian themes in his writings, e.g., Taras Bulba.  The great Russian painter Ilya Repin, though himself an ethnic Russian, was born in Ukraine and also included many Ukrainian themes in his work, signaling his great love for his fellow East Slav brothers.

Mixed Russian-Ukrainian Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his Ukrainian wife Raisa.

Mixed Russian-Ukrainian Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his Ukrainian wife Raisa.

Intermarriage is also a major component of the Russo-Ukrainian relationship. Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev were both products of mixed Russo-Ukrainian parentage; their wives, Nina Kukharchuk and Raisa Titarenko, were both fully Ukrainian. Another former leader, Lenoid Brezhnev, was also of mixed Russian-Ukrainian heritage while another, Konstantin Chernenko, came from a Russified Ukrainian family. In music, the famous Russian rock star Yuri Shevchuck is Ukrainian and the Bessarabian-born Russian tango singer of the 1930s Pyotr Leschenko was also of Ukrainian background. Additionally, the dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and the great Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Korolyov were all born to mixed Russian-Ukrainian parents.

Kievan ruler Vladimir the Great was baptized at Khersones (in modern-day Sevastopol) and converted the Kievan Rus' to Christianity in the 10th century.  He is widely respected by all East Slavs (including Russians and Ukrainians) to this day.

Kievan ruler Vladimir the Great was baptized at Khersones (in modern-day Sevastopol) and converted the Kievan Rus’ to Christianity in the 10th century. Vladimir is widely revered by all East Slavs (including Russians and Ukrainians) to this day.

Rus’, Malorussia, Ukraine, and the Politics of Identity

Another aspect of the very close relationship between the Russians and the Ukrainians is the historical development of the identity of the Ukrainian people. At one point, all of the East Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Carpatho-Rusyns) used to comprise a single people – the people of the Rus’ – who used to speak a single language known as Old East Slavic. Their faith was Orthodox Christianity. The only exception to this were the Kievan territories of Galicia and Volhynia. Forming the westernmost regions of the old Rus’, Catholic and Polish influence was very strong in these areas, particularly Galicia, and their princely families even intermarried with nearby Catholic Polish and Hungarian houses. Significantly, while there was a distrust of Catholicism in the other Rus’ territories further east, in Galicia and Volhynia, Catholic and Western ideas were welcomed and fully embraced. This early cultural division would later play a role in Ukraine’s regional identity differences centuries later.

Another key factor was language. In the 13th century, the Kievan Rus’ fell into decline and became subjected to the Mongol invasions. Its western principalities (largely correspondent to much of modern-day Central Ukraine and Belarus) were absorbed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which later unified with the Kingdom of Poland at the Union of Lublin in 1569, forming the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The gradual “break-up” of the single Old East Slavic language into several different languages – Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Carpatho-Rusyn – occurred during this period. Yet, even into the early 20th century, many of these East Slavs still self-identified as “Rusyni” and spoke a language which they called “Rusynski,” both referring to the old Rus’ state.

Foreign rule further created a new dimension to the situation which involved religion. Rus’ lands under Mongol rule remained free to worship and practice their Orthodox Christian faith. By comparison, in those Rus’ lands under Polish-Lithuanian rule, Orthodoxy was at first tolerated. Later, however, the separateness in faith concerned the Polish monarchs as the Orthodox locals of the historic Rus’ lands saw their affinity not with Catholic Poland or Western Europe but with the world of Russian Orthodoxy. As such, Orthodox Christians were persecuted under Polish rule until in 1595, in exchange for an end to this persecution, the Orthodox clergy of the Polish-ruled lands agreed to the Union of Brest, forming the Ukrainian Greek Catholic (or Uniate) Church. However, in subsequent centuries, as the Russian Tsars later reclaimed the old western Rus’ lands from Poland-Lithuania in the 18th century Partitions of Poland, the Orthodox faith was reintroduced.  Significantly, in the Partitions, the Habsburg monarchy in Austria acquired the Catholic- and Western-leaning region of Galicia.

Additionally, an entirely separate situation existed further west in the region of Carpathian Rus’ (Zakarpattia). This distant western region was a borderland frontier area at the time of Kievan Rus’.  It fluctuated between the control of Orthodox East Slav Kievan rulers to the north and east and Magyar (Hungarian) Catholic rulers to the south and west. With the fall of Kievan Rus’, this Carpathian territory fell under the complete control of the Hungarian monarchs. Overtime, the close proximity of the Catholic Slovak and Magyar populations combined with the area’s separateness from the other historic Rus’ lands due to the Carpathian Mountains led it to develop its own entirely distinct identity and language (Carpatho-Rusyn). This difference was reinforced with the Union of Uzhgorod in 1646 in which the Orthodox Rusyns joined the Catholic Church as part of the Byzantine rite, forming the separate Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church.

Renown Russian writer and ethnic Ukrainian, Nikolai Gogol.  A native of Central Ukraine, Gogol was the author of Dead Souls among other works.

Renown Russian writer and ethnic Ukrainian, Nikolai Gogol.

As mentioned earlier, the Russian Tsars later reclaimed much of the old western Kievan Rus’ territories in modern-day Ukraine in Belarus during the Partitions of Poland in the 18th century.  Orthodoxy was also reintroduced in these regions. The “Rusyni” identity of old persisted among the locals and, during the 19th century, two rival nation-building projects on the territory of contemporary Ukraine sought to supplant this old “Rusyni” identity with a new identity. One was the Malorussian (“Little Russian”) identity, with the name “Little Russia” derivative from old Byzantine maps referring to modern Ukraine as “Lesser Rus'” or “Rus’ Minor.” The Malorussian project claimed that modern Ukraine was a natural extension of the Russian nation. In the Malorussian view, the Ukrainian language that developed from the break-up of Old East Slavic had to be supplanted by a common standard language. In their view, this was to be Russian, a language seen by Malorussian activists as the “successor” of Old East Slavic. Nikolai Gogol, an ethnic Ukrainian who wrote in Russian, was among those who favored Malorussianism.

Taras Shevchenko

Taras Shevchenko

Opposing Malorussianism, was Ukrainianism. Ukrainianism postulated that the East Slavic language that developed in Ukraine signified the development of an entirely separate ethnic identity, independent of other East Slavs. They called their nation “Ukraine,” a name that like “Malorussia” developed from cartographic toponyms and has been literally translated as “borderland.” Ukrainianists emphasized the unique and distinct culture of the people of the area above all else, with a special emphasis on language and culture. Of course, this did not exclude those who viewed themselves as “Ukrainian” but also saw Russia as a fraternal East Slavic nation nonetheless. The writer Taras Shevchenko is perhaps best representative of the “Ukrainianist” group, writing almost exclusively in the Ukrainian language, though occasionally writing in Russian as well.

Of these movements, Malorussianism was favored by the Tsars who regarded themselves as the legitimate successors to the rulers of the old Kievan Rus’. Consequently, the Malorussianist policies of official Petersburg should be viewed not within the context of an empire attempting to force an assimilation on a “conquered” people, but rather as part of a nation-building project or as part of the great “reunification of Old Rus'” and “gathering of the Russian lands” as the Tsars saw it.

A similar national project was also taking place in Italy, which had just been unified under the leadership of Giuseppe Garibaldi. There, the Italian language, based on Tuscan and the Central Italian dialects, was to become the literary standard. However, in the southern island of Sicily, the locals spoke their own Romance language Sicilian, related to Italian but also distinct in its own right. In Rome, the king regarded Sicilian just as the Tsar regarded Ukrainian, as a backward provincial dialect which, with the expansion of education and literacy, would be eventually supplanted by “clean Italian” or in the Tsar’s case, “clean Russian.” Indeed, like Ukrainian, Sicilian developed distinct from other languages in Italy by virtue of its geographic separation from the mainland and historical invasions of the island by Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Germans, Spanish, and others. Yet Sicily was viewed by Italianist advocates as an integral and historical part of Italy, just as Ukraine was regarded as an integral and historical part of Russia by the educated class, the bourgeoisie, and the aristocracy.

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, 1880-91, Ilya Repin

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, 1880-91, Ilya Repin

An additional development to all of this was the emergence of three new historical territories overtime. They included Zaporozhia which established itself in the “wild fields” south of Polish-ruled territory in the 15th and 16th centuries.  In this region, rebellious Orthodox Christian Cossacks fought against the Polish monarchs.  Then, in the 17th century, the area of Slobozhanshchina (or Sloboda Ukraine) emerged around the cities of Kharkiv and Sumy.  Finally, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the area of Novorossiya was formed along the Black Sea after the Russian Tsars had finally succeeded in taking Ottoman-held territory along the coast.  In all of these regions, Ukrainian (or Malorussian) populations played primary roles in their historical formation and settlement.  Further, in all three of these regions, Orthodoxy was the primary faith.

The Malorussian-Ukrainian debate also took place across the border in the Austro-Hungarian-ruled East Slavic territories of Galicia, North Bukovina (Chernivsti), and Carpathian Rus’. There, the debate existed between Ukrainianists and Russophiles (effectively Malorussian activists under a different name). It became even more complex in Carpathian Rus’ ruled under the the Hungarian realm of the dual monarchy, between Ukrainianists, Russophiles, and Rusynists (those who chose to self-identify as Rusyn or Carpatho-Rusyn). In Galicia, where Catholic influence of both the direct Roman Catholic and Uniate strands remained strong, the debate was eventually won by the Ukrainianists. However, in Carpathian Rus’, the debate over ethnic identity still persists to this day.  Notably, during this period, many people from these Austro-Hungarian-controlled territories (particularly Galicia and Carpathian Rus’) also emigrated further west in search of opportunity.  They arrived in the United States and Canada, establishing the core of what would become the contemporary Ukrainian and Carpatho-Rusyn diasporas of today.

National Identity in the Soviet Era

Original avant-garde poster for Aleksandr Dovzhenko's "Earth" (1930).  The film is perhaps Dovzhenko's best-known work and it is part three of the director's "Ukrainian trilogy" which also included "Zvenigora" (1928) and "Arsenal" (1929).

Original avant-garde poster for Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930). The film is perhaps Dovzhenko’s best-known work and it is part three of the director’s “Ukrainian trilogy” which also included Zvenigora (1928) and Arsenal (1929).

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the civil war in Ukraine of 1917-21, and the establishment of the USSR, Ukrainianism as a movement won out over Malorussianism.  In the 1920s, the new Soviet government undertook a “Ukrainization” policy in the newly-declared Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, as part of its broader nativization or korenizatsiya (коренизация) policy toward nationalities, by promoting and advancing the Ukrainian literary language. This had the effect of encouraging a major cultural and literary renaissance in Ukraine during the NEP that many Ukrainians still fondly remember today.  The advent of new art forms, like film, helped advance this renaissance, in which the great Ukrainian filmmaker Aleksandr Dovzhenko played a leading role.  A pioneer of early Soviet film, Dovzhenko is credited for not only his contributions to the development of Ukrainian cinema but also for Soviet and Russian cinema overall.

The Ukrainization policies were abruptly halted in the 1930s under Stalin whose NKVD purged the republic of real or perceived nationalists, “kulaki,” and “enemies of the people.” Yet, it should be noted that Stalin was not interested in the Malorussian-Ukrainian identity debate, but more concerned with strengthening his position throughout the entire USSR, and to this end he purged writers and intellectuals in all Soviet republics.

Joseph Stalin smoking his pipe at his desk. (Getty)

Joseph Stalin smoking his pipe at his desk. (Getty)

Compounding all of this was the terrible Soviet famine of the early 1930s. The famine hit Ukraine very hard and some Ukrainian nationalist historians even go so far as to assert that what happened was a deliberate attempt at genocide against the Ukrainian people by the Soviet government. However, this fails to take into account the fact that the famine also affected many non-Ukrainians too, including Germans, Poles, Jews, and Russians.  Likewise, the famine also hit southern Russia and northern Kazakhstan, two other major cereal-producing regions of the Soviet Union, very hard. Among those who witnessed the starvation was a young Mikhail Gorbachev, a native of southern Russia, who personally experienced the horrors of the terrible famine first-hand. It affected his own family and killed off half of his village.

Millions starved to death in this cruel campaign of forced collectivization and suppression of the so-called “kulaki.”  Yet, Western correspondents like Walter Duranty disguised the facts while Stalin and Soviet officials claimed that the campaign had made the “eternally happy” people of the Soviet agricultural heartland “dizzy with success.”  Overall, ethnicity meant little to Stalin.  Nobody was safe from the terror of the vozhd.  He was an equal-opportunity mass murderer.

The Stakhanovite Movement in the Donbas

The Stakhanovite Movement in the Donbas

The Soviet era also saw the rise of industrialization.  The heavily industrial coal-mining region of the Donbas (Donets Basin), centered on the cities of Donetsk (also known as Yuzovka or Stalino) and Luhansk (also known as Voroshilovgrad) really emerged during this period.  Prior to this, the Donbas had been an area with a mixed Ukrainian and Russian Cossack population divided between historical Sloboda Ukraine, Novorossiya, and the Don Cossack Host.  The Soviet era firmly established the Donbas as a unique region in its own right, a truly working-class “Soviet” region where Russian was the primary language.  It was in this area that, during the Stalin era, Aleksei Stakhanov and the Stakhanovite movement emerged.

World War II left an indelible mark on Ukraine.  In the war, most Ukrainians fought alongside the Russians against the onslaught of the Nazi German war machine.  Many Ukrainian villagers in present-day Central and Southeastern Ukraine experienced violent atrocities at the hands of the hated Nazi invader and the country’s sizeable and historically significant Jewish community was decimated by the Holocaust.  The war also brought about the unification of Ukraine with the West Ukrainian territories of Galicia, Volhynia, North Bukovina, and Carpathian Rus’ (Zakarpattia).  The addition of these new territories not only “unified” Ukraine but signaled a “reunification” of all East Slavic territories for the first time in history since the fall of the Kievan Rus’ in the 13th century.  The new territories also presented (and continue to present) new complications for Ukraine’s collective identity.

Stepan Bandera, a man regarded throughout much of Ukraine as a wartime collaborator with Nazi Germany and in Western Ukraine (especially Galicia) as a "hero."

Stepan Bandera, a man regarded throughout much of Ukraine as a wartime collaborator with Nazi Germany and in Western Ukraine (especially Galicia) as a “hero.”

While the vast majority of the people in Central and Southeastern Ukraine view World War II as the “Great Patriotic War” and the Red Army as “saviors,” the view is different in Western Ukraine.  In Galicia (centered on the city of Lviv), the Soviet Union is looked on as a “conqueror” or “oppressor” while the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and Stepan Bandera who are viewed throughout most of Ukraine as wartime collaborators with the Nazis, are seen as “heroes.”  The “hero” view of Bandera also exists but is less prevalent in Volhynia where there are more positive views of the Red Army.

Meanwhile, in North Bukovina and Carpathian Rus’, the view of the Red Army as a “liberator” is much more common and there are reasons for this. North Bukovina’s Slavic population had been repressed under Romania’s chauvinistic government. Meanwhile, Carpathian Rus’ faced attempted Magyarization under Hungarian rule and neglect as part of Czechoslovakia. This, together with the region’s traditional Russophile sentiments, led the locals to welcome inclusion into the Soviet state.  Further, the additional factor of the unique Carpatho-Rusyn culture of Carpathian Rus’ also added to the complexity of Ukraine’s collective identity.  The region’s absorption into Soviet Ukraine also signaled their official shift in ethno-identification from “Carpatho-Rusyns” to “Ukrainians.”  Still, a sense of distinctiveness among the people of Zakarpattia continued to persist.

Following Stalin’s death, Ukraine experienced a very brief renaissance under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.  Khrushchev, who was himself of partial Ukrainian background, even awarded the peninsula of Crimea to Soviet Ukraine, partially out of Slavic sentimentality, partially for economic and irrigation reasons. However, by the 1970s, Ukraine, along with the rest of the USSR, began to fall into stagnation.

Still, Ukrainian speakers co-existed alongside Russian speakers with no problems. Intermarriage and cultural exchange with Russians was commonplace.  The only issue with which the Soviet government had to deal was in newly-acquired Galicia, where the insurgent forces of the OUN continued conducting guerrilla operations into the mid-1950s. Yet, overall, Ukraine remained well-integrated into the Soviet Union.

By the time of glasnost, no significant national movement emerged in Ukraine except for the Rukh movement based in Galicia. Generally, most Ukrainians were uninterested in nationalism and more interested in a stable country and a working economy. 72% backed Gorbachev’s New Union Treaty in 1991, though later that year, an overwhelming majority voted in favor of a vaguely-worded referendum on “independence” with no explicit mention of an actual separation from the USSR (which was present, for example, in the wording of Armenia’s referendum on independence).

Russian President Boris Yeltsin with Ukraine's first post-Soviet President Lenoid Kravchuk.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin with Ukraine’s first post-Soviet President Lenoid Kravchuk.

Post-Soviet Ukraine

Following the Soviet collapse, Ukraine was widely expected to do well as an independent state. Despite the stagnation of the Soviet economy, Ukraine fared as one of the more prosperous Soviet republics. It had an extensive Black Sea coast, rich farmlands, Carpathian Mountain pastures, and heavy industry. However, these expectations faded within the first years of the country’s independence. From the outset, Ukraine faced two challenges: state-building and nation-building.  Its corrupt political class was unable to meet both.

In terms of state building, Ukraine had to develop independent institutions and a functional national economy. Kiev was able to develop institutions which were basically successors to the pre-existing Soviet republican institutions. However, Kiev was never able to establish a national economy. Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first post-Soviet president oversaw a corrupt privatization in the 1990s. An oligarchy and a corrupt political elite quickly emerged, stifling Ukraine’s potential development. Poverty, unemployment, organized crime, human trafficking, and other social ills that became characteristic of Ukraine’s post-independence landscape also came to the fore.

Regional politics also remained. Throughout the post-Soviet era, the people of Galicia, the epicenter of Ukrainian nationalism, continued to vote for candidates with nationalist, pro-Western, or anti-Russian credentials. By contrast, the Russian-speaking Southeast (including the Donbas and Crimea) consistently voted for pro-Russian candidates. The more divided, Surzhyk-speaking Central oblasti oscillated between candidates, as did the remote Rusyn-speaking Zakarpattia oblast. Outside of Galicia and Western Ukraine, nationalism generally gained little traction. In the Center and Zakarpattia, it was viewed with indifference and distrust. In the Southeast, it was met with outright hostility.

Orange Revolution 2004 (FotoArt.org.ua)

Orange Revolution 2004 (FotoArt.org.ua)

The Impact of the 2004 Orange Revolution

Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, backed by Washington and American-based NGOs, was viewed by many Ukrainians as a means of solving the country’s problems and bringing it back on its feet. However, it only exacerbated them. Fundamental issues, such as corruption, remained largely unaddressed. Meanwhile, the pro-Western and nationalist policies of President Viktor Yushchenko enhanced the divisions among Ukrainians. His total affinity for Washington, his push to see Ukraine join the EU and especially NATO, as well as his efforts to rehabilitate and bestow awards on controversial figures like Stepan Bandera, created joy in Western Ukraine, confusion in the Center, and anger in the Southeast. Notably, in 2006, the landing of the US marines in the Crimean city of Feodosiya as part of a US-Ukrainian military exercise prompted major anti-NATO protests from the local population.

The Orange Revolution also intensified these regional divisions on an electoral level. Before the revolution, the politics of Central Ukraine had been more divided, with its oblasti acting as “swing states” and “election spoilers” between pro-Russian and pro-Western candidates. But the Orange Revolution somehow changed this pattern. Though divisions in Central Ukraine persisted and still do persist to this day, the threshold majority began favoring more pro-Western politicians. Coincidental to this development was the rise of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (henceforth PoR) which claimed to represent the interests of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians in Ukraine. In elections, the PoR began to secure the solidly Russian-speaking oblasti from Odessa to the Donbas.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (AFP)

Most striking were the ways in which these new political divisions began to change historical relations between oblasti in Ukraine. A good example is the division that now exists between Sumy and Kharkiv. Historically, these two cities and their oblasti had a long history together, going back to their common foundation in the 17th century as part of the frontier region of Slobozhanshchina (or Sloboda Ukraine). In post-Soviet Ukraine, both the Sumy and Kharkiv oblasti followed each other’s electoral patterns. However, starting with the Orange Revolution, these two oblasti began to diverge from one another. Sumy, despite its Russian-speaking culture and heritage, was the native region of Viktor Yushchenko who became “nationalized” in Galicia. Yet, despite his nationalist ideology, Yushchenko’s place of birth in Russian-speaking Sumy strengthened his credentials in Washington and among American NGOs as “the man who could bring East and West together.” However, as the case of Sumy illustrates, Yushchenko only intensified the divisions. As a result of the Orange Revolution, the Sumy oblast and city began to be carried by pro-Western politicians. Pro-Russian politicians still came close to them in elections, but the overall political orientation began to shift. By contrast, Kharkiv became a solidly pro-Russian PoR oblast.

Superimposed on all of this was the growing geopolitical competition between the United States and Russia for influence in the post-Soviet space. Many commentators warned against the expansion of US influence in the region, particularly with regard to the NATO military alliance. Yet in the 2000s, Washington began to push beyond expanding NATO into Central-East Europe. They also began to look toward the former USSR, particularly the two most strategic ex-Soviet republics: Ukraine and Georgia. The sponsorship by Washington and American NGOs of the Rose and Orange Revolutions in these countries deeply troubled Moscow. The Kremlin subsequently began to throw its support behind the PoR and Yanukovych as the most “pro-Russian” force in the country.

Therefore, the development of divergent political forces domestically within Ukraine, combined with the geopolitical competition between Russia and the West, have effectively set the stage for the present-day conflict in the country.  A solution to Ukraine’s protracted crisis can still be found – but it first and foremost requires a ceasefire, humanitarian aid relief for the people of the Donbas, and, most importantly, political will.   Moscow has signaled its readiness for such a process.

For more information on Ukraine’s historical, regional, and linguistic dynamics, see my earlier entries: What Is Ukraine? (2 March 2014, updated 15 May 2014), Who Are the Rusyns? (19 April 2014), The Historical Geography of Ukraine (15 May 2014, updated 24 August 2014), and 10 Points on the People of Southeastern Ukraine (21 June 2014).

Donbas Tragedy

Donbas refugees in Simferopol (Reuters / Andrey Iglov)

Refugees from Ukraine’s conflict-ridden Donbas in Simferopol, Crimea (Reuters / Andrey Iglov)

Note: An updated and slightly expanded version of this piece was published in The Nation magazine as Is Ukraine on the Brink of Tragedy? on 3 September 2014.

As the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas (also known as “Donbass” in Russian) continues to rage, there is ongoing debate about what will happen if Kiev manages to reassert its control over the region. To some in Moscow, the defeat of the rebels means the defeat of Russia. They argue that if Kiev succeeds in taking the Donbas, it will mean the whole of Ukraine proper in NATO with possible fighting even in Russian-controlled Crimea. By contrast, Washington’s view is that a victory over the rebels in the Donbas would signal a “victory for democracy” and for Ukraine’s “European choice” (and possibly even “Euro-Atlantic choice”).

Are these narratives accurate? Will Russia really lose out geopolitically if Kiev defeats the rebels? Would this really be a victory for Washington? Would Ukraine become stable and would the defeat of the rebels really signal the start of Ukraine’s “path toward democracy?”

In reality, even if Kiev manages to defeat the rebels and reestablish its control over its rebel oblasti, there will still be many more daunting challenges to face.

First and foremost, the vast majority of Russian-speaking Southeastern Ukrainians from Odessa to Kharkov (many of whom did not even support the rebels) will still view Kiev with distrust and as a “coup government” regardless. Additionally, if Kiev persists with driving through painful IMF-sponsored economic austerity “reforms,” it will turn not only the entire Southeast but also the more mixed areas of Central Ukraine against them. The situation will likely be even more challenging for Kiev in the Donbas itself where civilians have faced near-constant shellings, bombardments, and atrocities. Many of their neighbors, friends, and families have also made the trek to Russia as refugees. According to the UN, close to a million Ukrainians have fled to Russia since the crisis in Ukraine began.

Then there are bombed-out towns like Slavyansk, the remnants of the “anti-terrorist” assault. Kiev will already have difficulty supplying itself and Europe for a long, cold winter. How will they supply a city like Slavyansk where the infrastructure has been virtually bombed into oblivion? It is doubtful that anyone would want to stay in a bombed-out shell of a building for a freezing cold winter, especially a family.

Further, despite the persistence of US State Department officials and the US political elite, the American government can realistically go only so far in supporting the scenario that they helped to create. They will quickly discover that they simply do not have the resources and funds to continue supporting Kiev. Even if they did, those funds would be almost guaranteed to be misused and misspent by Ukraine’s corrupt political elite.

Certainly, for those supporters of Maidan, the reality of the corrupt Ukrainian political elite will come to roost very soon. In addition to painful economic reforms, it is unlikely that there will be any major effort to tackle Ukraine’s massive corruption issue or pay off its astronomical debt. That said, the disappointment with Maidan may well come faster than did the disillusionment with the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Therefore, while it may seem to some in Moscow that a defeat of the Donbas rebels signals the “imminent defeat of Russia,” in reality time is on Russia’s side.

However, then the question becomes: until the realities of the situation begin to set in, how much more suffering will the Ukrainian people have to endure?

After all, the greatest tragedy of the Ukraine crisis is that when future historians look back at all the damage that has been done by this conflict – the deaths, the divided families, the refugees, the destroyed cities, the severed economic links, the ruined diplomatic ties, etc. – they will perhaps wonder, as historians of other unnecessary wars do today: was it really worth it?

What Will Be the Legacy of Ukraine’s Maidan?

Euromaidan Protestors in Kiev (Photolure)

Euromaidan Protestors in Kiev (Photolure)

Though Western commentators have rushed to hail Ukraine’s Euromaidan as a “democratic” revolution, in truth its results still remain very far from certain.

It can be said that Euromaidan was a truly post-Soviet movement. In other words, it was a revolt in which many fervently believed that simply joining an organization (in this case the EU) could instantly solve all their problems. This recalls other instances in Ukraine and other former Soviet states in which people voted for a given politician believing that he or she will be the “savior” of their respective country.

Of course, the reality is that joining the EU holds no promise of immediate reform for Ukraine. In fact, it will likely mean that Ukraine (a near-bankrupt country) will have to fall in line with harsh EU austerity programs, thus only creating more problems. It is also true that EU institutions can indeed help Ukraine reform itself and reduce corruption. However, they cannot simply “cure” Ukraine of the corruption issue. What Ukrainians who supported the Maidan do not seem to realize is that Ukraine must work toward fundamental reform on its own.  Unfortunately, with Ukraine’s present corrupt political elite, this does not seem to be an immediate prospect. In this regard, if Ukraine were to actually join the EU, it would become like Bulgaria or Romania, i.e., a large country which despite joining the EU, continues to be plagued by corruption, poverty, and other issues. However, given Ukraine’s large size and the sheer level of corruption and poverty, the task of integrating this country into the EU would be even more problematic, especially because the EU is still in the process of recovering from its own very serious Eurozone crisis.

Poland is often evoked by advocates of Ukrainian EU membership as an example for Ukraine to follow. However, this too is misleading. Poland’s perceived success was not due to simply joining the EU. It was the result of hard work and serious reform efforts conducted by the Polish government both before and after joining the EU.  Again, this illustrates that joining the EU alone will not be a solution to a country’s problems.  The reform can only come from that country alone.

Yet another problem with Maidan is that it seems to have been encouraged and driven by internal and external forces who are not acting in the interests of the Ukrainian people or its demands. The internal forces are Ukraine’s corrupt political elite who see an opportunity, not so much for Ukraine, but for themselves. The external forces are those Western countries with geopolitical interests in Ukraine, especially the United States. It is acknowledged that the emotions of those fighting against the corrupt government of Viktor Yanukovych and for democratic reform were truly genuine. However, these same emotions were also manipulated by the above mentioned internal and external forces, which sought to achieve their own aims in Ukraine and which are not seriously interested in the genuine, fundamental reform of the country.

Outside the EU, there is the Moscow-backed option of the Eurasian Union. Casting common stereotypes about corruption in Russia aside, the Eurasian Union and Russia actually do offer impressive results to Ukraine. Regardless of Putin’s questionable democratic credentials, it is apparent that he has managed to stabilize the situation in Russia, especially from where it was in the 1990s. The economy is stable and growing. The middle class is growing. The birthrate is growing and not just in “national” republics like Chechnya but in the Slavic Russian heartland as well. Corruption is decreasing (slowly, but still decreasing — Russia ranked 143 on Transparency International’s CPI in 2007 and last year ranked 127, still very corrupt but a significant improvement nonetheless). Alcoholism too is decreasing (albeit again, slowly).

At the same time, Russia still has many problems. Poverty remains a serious issue and Putin, though reigning in several oligarchs, has not reigned in all of them. Though the print media is free in Russia, television, from which many Russians get their news, entertainment, and information is still controlled by the government.  In addition to all of this, the most daunting task facing the Eurasian Union idea is its lack of a coherent vision. The EU presents itself as supportive of human rights, democracy, reform, etc. By contrast, the Eurasian Union, which is a direct descendant of earlier integration efforts in the post-Soviet space, does not really have a set of ideals, aside from the natural historical, cultural, and economic links that bind the ex-Soviet countries. What the Eurasian Union needs is a common vision and, in this regard, the best would most likely be a common social democratic vision. Such a vision would be a natural fit for populations in the ex-Soviet space suffering from widespread poverty and joblessness and who are somewhat used to leftist economic models, given the Soviet experience.

The Eurasian Union also needs to promote itself as a “union of equals,” meaning that all of its members should have a stake in it.  In this respect, all the national languages (not just Russian but Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian, Kazakh, etc.) should have equal status in the union as well.  Like in the European Union, all documents regarding the Eurasian Union should be translated into all of the state languages of each member state.  Such a policy would make the Eurasian Union far more attractive to the former Soviet states and would demonstrate a sensitivity and understanding toward national cultures.  By contrast, campaigns to have ex-Soviet states adopt Russian as a co-official language will fail because the republics will only perceive this as an “imperial” endeavor.  In other words, Russian is already widely spoken in these countries.  Why push the issue and create a problem where there is none?  As Mikhail Gorbachev (one of the leading advocates of post-Soviet integration) has stated, if the Eurasian Union is to work and succeed, it must be a real union of equals, not an empire.

Overall, whatever the choice Ukrainians make, they must realize that they cannot simply “sign up” to join this union or that union and expect instant reform.  True reform can only come ultimately from the Ukrainians themselves.

10 Points on the People of Southeastern Ukraine

Bronze statue of a mother and child in Odessa (Rex Features)

Bronze statue of a mother and child in Odessa (Rex Features)

1. Most of them are not ethnic Russians. In fact, unlike in Crimea, the vast majority are ethnic Ukrainians who speak Russian. Census data from the Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet eras uniformly confirm this for all of the Russian-speaking oblasti in present-day Ukraine. At the same time, there is also a substantial ethnic Russian minority in the southeast. There are many mixed marriages between Russians and Ukrainians and a large number of southeasteners have family in Russia.

2. Their native region does not correspond entirely to historic Novorossiya. The southeast also encompasses other historical regions of Ukraine, notably Sloboda Ukraine (around Kharkiv), the Donbas (the Donetsk basin), and Zaporozhia (centered on Dnepropetrovsk). The latter was an old Cossack territory and is largely considered to be the “Piedmont of Ukraine,” the place where the movement to unify the Ukrainian people began. Yet regardless of whatever historical regions existed in the southeast, one thing is clear: the vast majority of the people historically self-identified as either “Malorussians” or “Ukrainians” in Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet censuses. This is an indisputable fact.

3. They tend to be more cosmopolitan and, indeed, “Soviet” people. It is the quality of multiculturalism that really dominates in this part of Ukraine. Ukraine’s largest cities are located here and this has attracted many people from other Soviet (and later ex-Soviet) republics to move to this area. Ukrainian nationalism has much less traction in this part of the country and, even more broadly, antisemitism and discrimination in general are less of an issue in the southeast than in other parts of Ukraine. Jews are well-integrated and there have been many Jewish mayors and governors. Mixed marriages between different ethnic groups is also a frequent phenomenon. Odessa is perhaps the best example of a multicultural city in the Southeast.

Two images of the Donbas.  The top shows Alexei Stakhanov with a fellow miner in 1935 (Library of Congress).  The bottom shows a Donbas miner in 2014 (Reuters / Maxim Zmeyev)

Two images of the Donbas. The top shows Aleksei Stakhanov with a fellow miner in 1935 (Library of Congress). The bottom shows a Donbas miner in 2014 (Reuters / Maxim Zmeyev).

4. Many of them, especially in the Donbas, are working-class people. The Donbas is synonymous with industry in Ukraine. It was a significant region in the “Rustbelt” of the former USSR, comparable to the Ruhr valley in Germany.  The area remains very economically important for Ukraine today. There are several large cities in this part of the country with large working-class populations. It is a heartland for coal mining and, as an example of just how “working-class” it is, one of its famous native sons is the great miner and Hero of Socialist Labor Aleksei Stakhanov. The Stakhanovite movement had a major following in the Donbas.

5. Most of them support neither Euromaidan nor the post-Maidan government of Ukraine. Despite hopeful predictions that Euromaidan would “unite Ukraine,” the opposite has in fact occurred. There were even more supporters of the 2004 Orange Revolution in the southeast than there were of Euromaidan. Further, most favor membership in the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union as opposed to the European Union and perceive the post-Maidan government as assuming power through illegal means or even through a “coup.” Few participated in the recent Ukrainian Presidential election which Petro Poroshenko won. Most blame the United States and the Obama administration specifically for Ukraine’s most recent misfortunes.

6. Most of them disliked the corrupt regime of Viktor Yanukovych. Despite the fact that Yanukovych registered consistent victories in the Russian-speaking oblasti of the southeast, most nonetheless disliked his corrupt and incompetent government.  Few, however, viewed the Euromaidan revolution as the solution to the problem.

7. Most of them do not support the Donbas rebels. The rebels’ Russian nationalist ideology and advocacy of a “separate” identity for Ukraine’s Russian-speakers has led the majority of the people in the southeast to view them with distrust. The one aspect of the rebels that they do support is their general opposition to Kiev. Generally, though, the ideology of the rebels has failed to catch-on beyond the Donbas. This is most certainly not due to any success on the part of Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation,” but rather by the rebels’ own narrow and short-sighted nationalist dogma.

Pushkin Monument, Odessa (ua-travelling)

Pushkin Monument, Odessa (ua-travelling)

The rebels’ nationalism is particularly unappealing in a progressive multicultural city like Odessa on the Black Sea coast. With its mix of Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, and Mediterranean influences, Odessa is an irreverent city celebrated for its “love of the dandy in men and the daring in women.” It was “the St. Petersburg of the south,” founded on the order Catherine the Great and her lover Prince Potemkin with the vision of the Spanish General José de Ribas, after whom that the city’s famous Deribasovskaya Street is named. It was Odessa that was the scene of Pushkin’s torrid love affair with the wife of Prince Mikhail Vorontsov, producing some of the most beautiful Russian-language poetry. It is also a city that brought the world Yiddish theatre, Babel, and Ilf and Petrov. Comedy and humor are more than a staple of Odessa: they are a way of life. It is this inherent cultural liberalism that explains why the rebels will never stand a chance here ideologically. But then again, neither will Kiev.

Pro-Russian demonstrators in Donetsk (Reuters / Valeriy Bilokryl)

Pro-Russian demonstrators in Donetsk (Reuters / Valeriy Bilokryl)

8. Many of them view Russia favorably. Putin, Russia, and the Eurasian Union are all still very popular here due to a mix of factors, including linguistic, familial, and economic connections to Russia. On Crimea, it should be noted that though few initially supported Russia’s move to incorporate the peninsula, this now appears to be changing, especially since the 2 May Odessa massacre and Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation.” It should likewise be noted that support for Russia does not necessarily mean support for the rebels whom most southeastern Ukrainians view with distrust.  The Soviet Union is also still greatly missed here and most southeastern Ukrainians are leftists when it comes to economics partially due to this sense of nostalgia.

9. Most of them strongly oppose the “anti-terrorist operation.” Kiev’s bombardment of towns and cities, human right abuses, atrocities, the massive death toll of civilians, and the involvement of right-wing groups like Right Sector (Praviy Sektor) have alienated most southeastern Ukrainians against Kiev.

10. Most of them want more rights. These primarily include bilingualism and the right to elect their own governors. Some advocate for a simple de-centralization in a reformed unitary state while others favor federalism, and more extreme factions (a very small minority among them) support a confederation. Most importantly, it must be emphasized that the vast majority of southeastern Ukrainians do not want to secede from Ukraine.

Putin and Poroshenko: A Tale of Two Presidents

Updated on 15 March 2015 with newly revealed information on Crimea.

Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are in a pickle. Both presidents have a crisis on their hands in Ukraine. Both presidents know genuinely how to resolve it: through diplomacy and dialogue. However, the currents of the crisis in Ukraine, and that of history in general, seem to be moving faster than either gentlemen would prefer.

Putin and Poroshenko

Putin and Poroshenko

Following his election as Ukraine’s President, the Podolian “Shokoladni Tsar” Poroshenko inherited the so-called “anti-Terrorist operation” from the Yatsenyuk government. Poroshenko seems to want to end the conflict and has vocally sought to reach out to his Russian-speaking compatriots in the Donbas. Yet at the same time, he appears restrained in what he can do, and at times even appears to even endorse the controversial “anti-Terror” campaign that has thus far cost hundreds of lives, including many civilians. There are at least three reasons for this.

One is that the 2004 Orange Revolution constitution was restored in Ukraine, which effectively means that the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, has more power than Poroshenko. Therefore, by law, Poroshenko is limited in what he can do.

Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the far-right paramilitary organization Right Sector, flanked by two members of the group.  Right Sector has actively participated in the controversial "anti-terrorist operation" in the Donbas in which hundreds of civilians have died.  (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)

Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the far-right paramilitary organization Right Sector, flanked by two members of the group. Right Sector has actively participated in the controversial “anti-terrorist operation” in the Donbas in which hundreds of civilians have died. (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)

The second problem that Poroshenko faces is the fact that the “anti-Terrorist operation” is led by a disparate assortment of groups including Right Sector (Praviy Sektor) and other far-right militants, the Maidan self-defense forces, oligarch-financed militias (effectively “private armies”), and (allegedly) mercenaries from other countries. The regular Ukrainian army, with defections and desertions, has proved to be unreliable for Kiev. Therefore, to “reign in” the rebels, it relies on these “independent” groups and militias. The problem with this strategy is that the latter are truly “independent” and thus it is difficult for Poroshenko to command them to “stop,” even though he is now calling for a cease-fire.

Finally, Poroshenko is under pressure from rival political forces, primarily the Batkivshchyna party and its leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who has threatened to launch “another Maidan” if Poroshenko’s presidency proves to be a disappointment. In a concerning development, the usually pro-Western and liberal Batkivshchyna now appears to be co-opting itself with Ukraine’s nationalists. In fact, since this crisis commenced, nationalism and Russophobia appear to have become increasingly prevalent within the Ukrainian political elite; though it is doubtful that these attitudes reflect the popular sentiment of the vast majority of Ukrainian people.

Aleksandr Dugin

Aleksandr Dugin

On the Russian side, Putin is in a no less enviable position. Despite Western and Ukrainian allegations that the Donbas rebels are effectively Russian puppets, the truth is that they are indeed largely comprised of locals. However, they do indeed have supporters and handlers across the border in Russia. These are primarily extremist and nationalist Russian political forces led by fanatical ideologues and writers like Aleksandr Dugin and Aleksandr Prokhanov and fierce commanders like Igor Strelkov. They write for far-right Russians gazetas like “Zavtra,” reenact battles from the 1918-22 Russian Civil War as White Army officers, and like their nationalist Ukrainian counterparts, they too harbor antisemitic sentiments. They dream of forging an authoritarian Eurasian state, a vision that (despite Western rhetoric) is in fact quite different from post-Soviet integration schemes like Putin’s Eurasian Union or similar ideas proposed by Mikhail Gorbachev, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, and others in the past.

The Russian nationalists supporting the Donbas rebels are not officially backed by the Russian government. Instead, they are acting out of sheer nationalist zeal.  However, hardliners among Russia’s political elite, like Dmitry Rogozin, are putting great pressure on Putin to intervene to support the rebels. For his part, Putin has to balance relations between the hardliners like Rogozin and the more liberal wing of the Kremlin represented by Dmitry Medvedev and other liberals from Putin’s Sobchak days. As I wrote earlier, the hardliners earlier demanded that Putin immediately annex Crimea. The Medvedev group supported a referendum on the issue but ultimately favored caution, arguing that an outright annexation would make relations with the West worse. In the end, Putin ordered a special operation in Crimea in which the troops of the Black Sea Fleet gained control of the peninsula as a so-called “self-defense force.”  He also took the position that he would support the final outcome of the Crimean referendum, whatever the result.  In the end, the population voted for the incorporation of Crimea into Russia and Putin backed this decision.

This has not occurred with the Donbas and Eastern Ukraine. Despite invoking the rhetoric of “Novorossiya,” Putin has refrained from intervening in Ukraine, a decision that was likely not only influenced by Medvedev and the liberals, but also by other dynamics as well. These include the mere fact that the division between the Russian-speaking oblasti and the mixed Russo-Ukrainian Surzhyk-speaking oblasti in Ukraine is ambiguous. Thus it would be very dangerous for Russia to intervene militarily, if only for this reason. Further, Putin had clear geopolitical objectives in Crimea centered around concerns regarding the Black Sea naval base and potential NATO expansion. There are no such geopolitical concerns for Eastern Ukraine specifically, though in the bigger picture, the fate of Ukraine as a totality is important for Russia geopolitically. That said, while Russia will likely not intervene militarily in Ukraine to support the Donbas rebels, it may lend itself to other initiatives, including establishing a humanitarian corridor.  Given the outcry in the Russian public over the atrocities and violence occurring in the Donbas in Kiev’s controversial “anti-terrorist operation,” this may very well happen.

Flag of the Donetsk People's Republic (AFP)

Flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic (AFP)

Finally, it must be noted that a major shortcoming and self-defeating factor of the Donbas rebels is their narrow focus. Their ideology is based on Russian nationalism, Orthodoxy, Russian-speakers, the southeastern oblasti of Ukraine, and “Novorossiya” (even though Novorossiya historically did not cover all of the Russian-speaking oblasti). However, this hardly makes for a viable ideology that can attract large numbers of people and that the Kremlin can feel justified in supporting. Such an ideology may find traction in the Donbas where sympathies for Russia run particularly high. However, in the old Sloboda Ukraine (centered on Kharkiv), historic Zaporozhia (centered on Dnepropetrovsk), and the “core” of Novorossiya (cities like Odessa and Nikolayev), the ideology of the rebels has garnered very little traction, even if the population has a strong dislike of the post-Maidan government and disapproves of the atrocities being committed in the so-called “anti-Terrorist operation.” Also, most have no interest in seceding from the Ukrainian state, even though they strongly dislike the current government.

Further, while the majority of the locals in Southeastern Ukraine speak Russian and take their cultural cues from Russia, they still identify as ethnic Ukrainians. Tsarist-era censuses (particularly the 1897 census) attest to the fact that the people of this area largely self-identified as “Malorussians” (i.e., Ukrainians) in Tsarist times. Hence, the people of these oblasti are indeed of Ukrainian origin and are not ethnic Russians who simply adopted the “Ukrainian” ethnonym in the Soviet era. Therefore, unless the rebels think in terms of “Ukraine” as opposed to “the Donbas” or “Novorossiya,” most southeastern Ukrainians will continue to view them with skepticism.

As the Ukraine crisis enters a violent, prolonged military phase, its greatest tragedy is that the people of the Donbas and other regions of Ukraine will continue to suffer in the process, becoming cannon fodder for rival Ukrainian and Russian nationalist visions. Meanwhile, Putin and Poroshenko will continue to remain hostage to events that are unfolding fast. History will proceed, regardless of what either president has to say about it.