How Ukraine Got to the Brink

May 27, 2014
by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

A Ukrainian Army helicopter flies over a column of Ukrainian Army combat vehicles on the way to the town of Kramatorsk on Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (AP Photo/ Evgeniy Maloletka)

Ukraine’s political crisis is now in its six month, with no end to the turmoil in sight. While this weekend’s special presidential election won high marks from international observers for fairness, clashes at an airport in the eastern city of Donetsk were said to have killed at least 30 pro-Russia separatists.

Easing the tensions won’t be simple. At play are a mix of cultural, economic and geopolitical forces that in some cases, date back centuries. Here is a brief guide.

A Deal Gone Bad

Ukraine has a lengthy history of political instability, but the roots of the current turmoil can be traced to the Nov. 21 decision by former President Viktor Yanukovych to abandon a deal for greater integration with the European Union. The trade pact, supporters believed, would have meant a boost for Ukraine’s stagnating economy, as well as closer cultural and political ties with Europe.

The deal was popular, but never outright loved in a nation long torn between support for Russia in the east and Europe in the west. Days before the signing ceremony, a poll by the research firm GfK Ukraine found that 45 percent of Ukrainians supported the pact, while 14 percent backed a separate deal with Russia (more on that deal below).

When Yanukovych abandoned the agreement, it sparked mass anti-government demonstrations in the capital of Kiev. The protests drove Yanukovych from office, but soon after a new pro-Western government took power, Russian forces moved to annex Crimea, a strategically important peninsula in southern Ukraine. Today, pro-Russian unrest in the east has left the country on the brink.

The Putin Factor

The Ukraine-EU trade pact had one very important critic: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rather than watch his neighbor inch toward the west, Putin sought to lure Ukraine into a competing customs pact with Belarus and Kazakhstan. The goal? A “Eurasion union” designed to boost Russia’s influence on the global stage. As Putin explained in a 2011 newspaper article:

We received a big legacy from the Soviet Union — infrastructure, current industrial specialization and a common linguistic, scientific and cultural space. To use this resource together for our development is in our common interest.

To that end, Moscow warned Ukraine that closer EU ties would stir a dangerous combination of economic distress and political unrest. In July, Moscow fired a shot across the bow with sanctions on a Ukranian chocolate company Roshan. The move was viewed to be a response to Roshan owner Petro Poroshenko’s support for EU integration.

Russia stepped up the pressure in August with changes to its customs rules that resulted in massive delays on the border for Ukranian exporters. Explaining the new rules to journalists, a Putin aide said, “We are preparing to tighten the customs regime just in case Ukraine takes the suicidal step of signing an agreement of association with the EU.”

Meddling by Russia in Ukraine’s economy is nothing new. In 2006, for instance, Russia shut off natural gas exports to Ukraine after political disputes with the nation’s former president, the pro-Western nationalist Viktor Yushchenko.

Yanukovych’s last-minute turn away from the EU was seen as an important win for Putin. The Kremlin responded by offering billions in stimulus dollars for Ukraine and a promise of cheaper gas exports.

Discontent with Yanukovych

Even before his u-turn on the EU deal, Ukraine was already deeply split over Yanukovych.

Voters in the west of the country, where Ukrainian is the predominant language, viewed the native Russian speaker somewhat warily. During Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution,” for example, thousands of voters demonstrated after Yanukovych claimed victory in a presidential election under widespread suspicion of fraud. Following intense international scrutiny, the results were annulled, a new vote was held and Yanukovych lost.

In 2010 he won the presidential election — this time, legitimately — but soon alienated voters over his handling of the economy; his refusal to release a political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, from jail; and a long-standing perception for being too soft on corruption.

A 2011 poll by USAID found more than 75 percent of Ukrainians were dissatisfied with Yanukovych’s efforts to rein in corruption, while another 66 percent were unhappy with his actions to limit the influence of oligarchs. The poll also found that 90 percent of Ukrainians believed he had not done enough to create jobs or keep prices low.

The East/West Divide

On a much more fundamental level, the roots of Ukraine’s political crisis are about an east/west divide that formed centuries ago.

The major fault lines were carved in the 17th century, when war left large chunks of land in the east under Russian control, and much of the west to a mix of powers, mainly Poland.

The divide grew even sharper under Joseph Stalin in the 1930s — that’s when a famine (or a genocide, depending who you ask) resulted in the deaths of millions of Ukrainians. Ukraine was a Soviet Republic by then and to repopulate the east, Stalin moved large numbers of ethnic Russians into eastern Ukraine.

The nation took on its current borders in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The internal fissures, however, never went away. Today, roughly one in six Ukranians is an ethnic Russian, and one in three speaks Russian as their native language. The split was on clear display in the 2010 election cycle, when the east voted strongly for the more pro-Russia Yanukovych, while the west voted overwhelmingly for the more pro-Europe Tymoshenko.

What Now?

A lot will depend on the extent to which Ukraine’s president-elect, Petro Poroshenko, is viewed as an honest broker by voters in the east.

“The best-case scenario is that a leader emerges with an electoral mandate that … gives them the kind of political base to negotiate with the disaffected in the eastern Ukraine,” Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, told FRONTLINE. “You’ve got to revive the economy and you’ve got to reconstruct the state, and the election could be a possible step towards both of those major and hard objectives.”

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