The Historical Context
It has been a really tumultuous year for Ukrainians: They fought an internal war against a corrupt ruling clan, and then, shortly thereafter, a subversive war was initiated against them by Russia, and it continues today. The events are part of a continued evolutionary process of a country shedding its Soviet past and transitioning toward a modern democracy. I believe that to more fully understand today's events, it's useful to take a step back and examine events in Ukraine from a more macro perspective.
These conflicts are a direct result of Stalin's forced famine in Ukraine in 1933. In central and eastern Ukraine, Stalin orchestrated a successful campaign of confiscating food in order to destroy the farmers who opposed collectivization (a push by the state to take private farms and land). After millions of Ukrainians died, the areas were resettled with ethnic Russians, and an aggressive Russification campaign took place, largely destroying Ukrainian language, culture, and identity. Anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western agitation continued for another 70 years until the Soviet Union collapsed.
Without a shot fired, Ukraine was "given" independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. The realization of a democratic and independent Ukrainian state has been evolving in fits and starts ever since. The largest obstacle has been psychological, centered around consciousness and truth. Due to the reasons just mentioned, the east of the country has a different interpretation of historical truth and Ukrainian identity. In the past 25 years, however, that has changed to some degree. Ukrainian families today often may consist of people from different regions and ethnicities; many have one ethnic Ukrainian parent and one ethnic Russian parent. Since the Soviet Union dissolved, there has also been more information about the world and Ukraine's own history available. Many who were raised in the Soviet Union do not have patriotic feelings toward Ukraine, but a new generation born and raised in the independent Ukrainian state regard it with pride as their country.
The 1990s in particular saw the rise of oligarchs and criminal groups whose primary goal was to acquire power and wealth for the benefit of their immediate associates. They organized themselves into mafia-like vertical structures that became known as "clans" in Ukraine. Ukraine descended into a system of corruption and schemes, as one might expect in any state that has a power vacuum. It's survival of the fittest, and either you are strong and thrive or you lose. If you weren't strong and lacked resources, it was hard to make advances.
The western part of Ukraine was geographically closer to Europe and had no famine. A society of corruption existed here as well, but democratic aspirations, organizations, and mentalities also took root here. Many families in western Ukraine had members who had emigrated to the west "na zarobitki," or to work. They saw and tasted a different way of life. At the same time in the east, the oligarchs and criminal groups consolidated power, with the stronger taking over the businesses and enterprises of their opponents. Inevitably, these two social orders would have to clash.
Ukrainians often say their country is united. Personally, I don't think it's a fair statement. Yes, there are patriotic Ukrainians in the east, and there are pro-Russian Ukrainians in the west, but as a whole, due to the historical atrocity, there inevitably was to be a clash of civilizations.
The Battle Today
The battle on Maidan was a fight for a society that respects and values basic human rights and freedoms. Since coming to power, the Yanukovych government continued its mafioso tactics of consolidating power, acquiring wealth, and crushing those who interfered or opposed it. It moved from isolated, secret incidents to violence against the masses when the Berkut police were ordered to violently disperse the Euromaidan students from Maidan Square on Nov. 30. The intention of the government was to frighten the protestors from returning, but video of the brutal attacks infuriated Kiev citizens, who came out in massive numbers the following day to show their opposition to such treatment of their fellow citizens. The anger against the government had been simmering for years, and this incident, coupled with the failure to sign the EU trade agreement, erupted into rage and a massive mobilization against the government.
Protestors resisted physical efforts to remove them from the square but remained peaceful while the government kidnapped and tortured selected activists and individuals, such as investigative journalist Tetyana Chornovol, who was pulled out of her car, beaten, and left in the winter woods to die. After months of such intimidation, the government passed sweeping laws that would severely limit and punish behavior that could be perceived to be in opposition to the powers that be. Very quickly it became clear to many that accepting conditions where a corrupt and criminal government wields such power would mean living in constant fear. These "dictator laws" were completely unacceptable, and a physical pushback was the only tactic left to fight the war being waged within Ukraine. The point of no return was reached after the conflict broke out into violent clashes and the first deaths. People had tasted freedom and would preserve it or die fighting for it.
This was a massive psychological breakthrough, and it would not have been possible if not for the Orange Revolution in 2004. The Orange Revolution was a major turning point in the de-Sovietization of Ukraine. Though Victor Yushchenko's presidency was unsuccessful, it gave the people a new power, the realization that they, collectively, have the ability to actually force changes to happen. This was a monumental lesson given the circumstances that they would have to later endure to remove Yanukovych from power.
After Yushchenko's failed presidency, the pendulum would have to swing back, and though many Orange Revolutionaries became apathetic, Yanukovych's presidency would serve to later galvanize them again. There is a significant positive factor that is often overlooked about Yanukovych's rule. Taking the long view, a Yanukovych presidency was a reality check for the eastern Ukrainians who believed the fantasy that Yanukovych would make life better for them. Without Yanukovych being given that chance, they would always be stuck in some illusion of "what might have been," and the divisions would have become even more entrenched.
The geopolitical movement known as the Euromaidan became the struggle for freedom now referred to in Ukraine as the "Revolution of Dignity." Ukrainians had not hed blood in the fight for their independence until this point in time. The hundreds who gave their life are now known as martyrs, and the country has changed. Rather then relying on politicians or the help of Western countries, Ukrainians took matters into their own hands and proved that they are willing to unite and fight, and capable of doing so. But the battlefront quickly moved to Ukraine's east and south.
The Russian Response
The subversive Russian invasion and occupation of Crimea and efforts to do the same in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions could potentially have some long-term positive results. Patriotism and Ukrainian identity continue to be born out of all the chaos induced by Russia. People in Ukraine say no one has united Ukraine more than Putin. His tactics of manipulation and intimidation have forced many "indifferent" Ukrainians to make a choice: Are they Pro-Russian or Pro-Ukrainian? I think the results have been surprising even to Ukrainians themselves. There are many who were anti-Maidan but are not necessarily pro-Russia and prefer to live in the Ukrainian state. Putin miscalculated the number of people like this and assumed that most Russian speakers were also pro-Russian, but the reality is not so. The yearning for Russia is also very generational. Those who were young during the Soviet Union have nostalgia for the days of yore. But a new born-in-Ukraine generation knows that their future is with the West. They also know the truth of the events of the Euromaidan, and they know that Russia did all it could to prevent and destabilize Ukraine's westward integration. Vladimir Putin has shattered the myth of "brother nations" once and for all.
Russia is on the losing side of history because it distorts fact and truth to suit its desire for empire and occupation. Putin can easily fool his own people, and many continue to spread his worldview online. Despite extremely heavy-handed efforts to portray black as white, over time people will learn the truth. On Ukraine's election day Russian TV announced that Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh was leading all candidates, even though the final results were completely different. I hope that it is seen as concrete evidence of the Russian government's blatant lies, and I hope that citizens in Russia will begin to realize that what they are seeing in the Russian media might not be the full truth. But if they don't want to see it, than they never will. Writer Roger Scruton describes these types of manipulation as inherited from the Soviet Union:
Lenin and Stalin perceived that when truth is confiscated by power, people are helpless. Hence they set up a system of government in which truth was entirely plastic, to be shaped and reshaped by decrees from the ruling politburo, and to be fed to the people and to foreign powers in the form and the quantities that would be most useful to the business of social control. We see this process at work today.
Looking again with the long view, losing Crimea (and perhaps Donetsk) will allow the rest of the country to move forward. Those particular areas have the highest concentration of people brainwashed by years of Soviet and Russian media exposure, and there is no hope of deprogramming them. Only when they see facts with their own eyes will they perhaps change their thinking. Now they will have the opportunity to see what life is really like under Russia. So far the reality has not been as glamorous as the fantasy. The truth will become known as the results become visible.
The danger, however, is that Russia won't stop until it is forcefully stopped. This is something the West is slow to see. If they had acted more forcefully in Crimea, Donetsk may have never happened. If they don't act more forcefully in Donetsk, the invasion by rebel militants will continue to spread, and many more people will die. Putin doesn't need official annexation; he might settle for a destabilized grey zone. The Kremlin push for "negotiations" with armed militants is something that they themselves would never stand for. If Ukrainian separatists rose up in Russia's Kuban region, there is no doubt that Putin would quickly annihilate them, as he did in Chechnya. The terrorists in Donbas seem to have just enough civilian support to take good strategic advantage of having human shields.
Summing up the long view, everything that has happened in Ukraine this year has been simmering for a long time. Events are now taking place that will propel Ukraine forward to the dream of a prosperous and civilized nation-state that will play a larger role and even set new standards for the global community. What form that nation-state has and where those boundaries will lie are being decided right now. I fear that without Western interference, many more will die before it's settled. Putin uses history to lay claims to land that was settled by his nation following one of the most massive genocides in human history. Russia uses deception and other subversive tactics of empire expansion at the cost of human life and dignity. In his nation he is continuing to foster an imperial, chauvinistic mentality that justifies killing and murder. Putin's rule and expansion of these ideas is a threat to the civilized world. There will be a larger price for the West to pay later if action is not taken now.
Let's not forget about the genocide that the 20th century didn't want to acknowledge. Here is testimony from those who lived through it.