The turmoil in Ukraine is the latest reflection of the seemingly ceaseless strains between Europe and Russia, as if the Cold War never ended, and that’s why it merits Washington’s close attention.
Europe and the United States, of course, are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Russia is not happy that NATO’s realm has expanded so that it is closer to what Moscow has long considered its sphere of influence.
The issue that has drawn thousands of protesters into the streets of Kiev is whether Ukraine should sign a long-anticipated economic pact with the European Union — thus effectively becoming “more European” — or bow to relentless pressure from Moscow and spurn the EU’s overtures.
On Tuesday, the parliament defeated a measure that called for Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his government to resign, and that enraged the protesters who promptly took to the streets and sought to blockade the administration’s building, which was guarded by riot police.
“While it remains unclear how long the protest leaders can maintain enthusiasm as winter deepens … the momentum seems to be on their side for now,” The New York Times reported Wednesday.
From the American point of view, those who favor the stronger relationship with Europe make the most sense. Not surprisingly, Russia’s political leaders see it differently, and in fact they’ve been putting great pressure on Ukraine to remain more closely allied, economically, with Moscow.
Most of us have had little reason to pay much attention to Ukraine since the popular “Orange Revolution” that in early 1995 resulted in the reversal of the rigged 1994 election of Viktor Yanukovych as president. However, he has since regained power and is the present president and therefore a prime target of the protesters.
And who can forget the infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 that frightened not just everyone in Ukraine but practically the entire world?
History teaches us that relations between Kiev and Moscow have long been rife with brutality and gross intolerance (almost entirely on Russia’s part.) Although Ukraine was one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union, it was never a serene relationship.
In fact, the Soviet brass in Moscow had little respect for Ukrainian culture or language and cruelly suppressed Ukraine’s poets, historians and other intellectuals. Worse, it committed genocide, starving millions of Ukrainians in 1932 and 1933.
Thus it was no surprise that Ukrainian nationals fought against both the Germans and the Soviets during World War II. In 1945, Ukraine was a founding member of the United Nations, and it finally regained its independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.
The argument over whether to improve relations with Europe or preserve their long-standing economic ties to Russia is drawn largely along geographic lines with Ukraine.
Those who live in the east and depend on Russian economic ties are far more likely to favor continuing the status quo — which is being pushed in various ways by Putin — while those to the west tend to favor the proposed economic pact with Europe.
The protesters, who represent a fairly wide range of political beliefs, appear to be far more ready to embrace Western values than those favoring Moscow, the source of so much grief for Ukrainians throughout the 20th century.
Americans, whose ancestors fought so hard for their freedom in the 18th century, are surely on the side of the Ukrainians who seek a better life now and in the future.