Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

Kiev is engulfed in the largest anti-government protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution and the unrest is not likely to end soon.  They are aimed at President Viktor Yanukovych who recently caved to the Russian stick of short term fixes as opposed to succumbing to the European Union’s longer term carrot of associate status as the majority of the population wants and as he had previously promised to support.

This former Soviet Republic has had a rough time of it since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991:  popular aspirations for democracy, rule of law and a European standard of living have been thwarted by endemic corruption, high unemployment, bad government and a 45 million population in decline of which 77.8% are ethnic Ukrainians and 17.3% ethnic Russians, the latter concentrated in the Crimea and along the far eastern border that lies next to Russia. 

Ukraine’s geostrategic position is not disputed nor is its history as the ancient capital of Kievan Rus.  Founded in the 9th century AD, Kiev is claimed as forerunner of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus – the three Slavic majority republics which once dominated the former Soviet Union – but unlike Russia, Ukraine had also been part of a powerful Polish/Lithuanian Empire.  Ukrainian emotional ties to the west re-emerged during the unrest that destroyed the Soviet Union.   

In today’s tug-of-war between a Putin government determined to return “wayward republics” to the Russian fold – or at least back under Moscow’s domination – Ukraine is a strategic piece of coveted real estate.

The Russians – whether under the guise of the Soviet Union and its Communist fraternity or under an old Cold War warrior-dressed-in-muscle-man-clothing – have made it a priority to maintain or regain control of their “near abroad” or as many contiguous territories that were once part of the Soviet Union as possible.  The primary inducement?  A Customs Union plus the continuation of the flow of gas, cheap energy prices and elimination of the threat to erect a trade embargo against certain Ukrainian goods. The problem is that Russian disappointment at the loss of Ukraine in 1991 remains core to Russian external ambitions.  

Even the prospect of losing the three small northerly Baltic Republics was anathema for the Gorbachev government in the late 1980s.  Rather than grant them independence to which they were legally entitled, Gorbachev refused to let them go.  If he had, perhaps he might have kept the rest of the giant country otherwise intact. Or perhaps the Soviet Union would have just disintegrated a year or two sooner.        

When the Lithuanians declared independence in 1990, a furious Moscow cut off gas supplies to the small Baltic republic and blockaded access to foreigners including journalists and diplomats – or perhaps especially journalists and diplomats. 

Soviet bullying intensified.  The Soviets sent in tanks, occupied the main television station by force and murdered 14 young Lithuanian demonstrators who went out into the cold to support independence the following frigid January.  The Lithuanians promptly proclaimed martyrdom for their deceased.

When we visited Vilnius over Midsummer’s weekend in 1991, the situation remained tense, the parliament was engulfed in walls of rolled barbed wire in an effort to keep Soviet internal security troops and tanks at bay. Anti-Soviet protest posters had been hung on the barbed wire fence, shrines for the martyrs were on prominent display and Soviet OMON cockily but warily patrolled the streets with machine guns slung over their shoulders while young Lithuanian militia kept a distance away armed only with hunting rifles.      

Yet just two months later the Soviet Union had crumbled and Lithuania was recognized de facto as well as de jure as independent along with the other 12 former Soviet Republics.  The Baltic independence infection had spread far and wide.  This included into the Ukraine and Russia and it’s what, in the end, brought about the end of the Soviet Union.

Different paths

Today, Lithuania is a full member of NATO and the EU along with Estonia and Latvia – the even smaller Baltic Sea cousins to Lithuania’s north.   Even so, Russia under Putin has attempted to bully these tiny countries through various forms of harassment – including cyber warfare against the Estonians – but the ties they forged with the West – through NATO, the EU and their Nordic neighbors – serve as powerful counterweights. Ukraine does not have those deterrents.   

The Baltic path west has been far different from Ukraine. When President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly refused to sign the long planned and agreed to association agreement with the EU it was because of intense pressure not to do so from Russia’s President Putin.   Putin again used the too familiar Soviet/Russian threat of cutting off Russian gas.  This would have turned off the heat in Ukraine at the beginning of a long, cold winter. Putin has also threatened a trade embargo of Ukrainian products.

When the Soviets used the gas cut off threat on the Lithuanians, it was March. The Lithuanians promptly announced that they’d cook with wood and ride bicycles rather than bow to Soviet pressure.  A Lithuanian professor told me the summer of 1991 when the Soviets were burning customs posts the Lithuanians had erected on their borders with Russia that the Lithuanian population was united in its goal to shake loose of Moscow even if independence didn’t happen until their grandchildren’s generation or even further in the future. If anything, the Soviet boycott in 1990 strengthened Lithuanian resolve.  Perhaps just as the use of force against Ukrainian protesters by the police on Saturday has strengthened the Ukrainian protesters and raised the ante in their fight against the Yanukovych government.

Lithuania also then had Ignalina, a nuclear power plant on Lithuanian soil, that generated electricity as well as neighbors to the south (Belarus) and north (Latvia) willing to sell gas on the black market.  In contrast, the unlucky Ukrainians had the Chernobyl nuclear reactor which had melted down in disaster in 1986.

 Why such different paths?

There’s a pre-revolutionary American saying, “united we stand, divided we fall” that’s likely at the root of the problem for Ukraine.  The opposition to Yanukovych has been factionalized. Even its religious hierarchy has four main divisions (today three of the four support the opposition but one, the Russian Orthodox church, kow-tows to Moscow). Moreover, Ukrainian politicians and protest leaders do not get along with one another and Ukraine’s oligarchs are divided between those who sell primarily to the Russians and others who ship their products westward. Furthermore Yanukovych had Yulia Tymoshenko, one of his major rivals tossed into jail after he squeakily won a disputed election in 2010.  She is ill and her release for medical treatment in Germany is an EU condition for associate membership and one that Yanukovych fears.

Yanukovych is up for reelection fall 20015 – if he makes it that far. 

Although Moscow plays internal Ukrainian fissures to its own advantage, neither Putin nor Yanukovych likes each other but Yanukovych is all Moscow has and likely the best Moscow can get.  Both, it has been said, are thugs. Both also need each other’s support:  Moscow to retain if not increase power over Ukraine and deepen its influence throughout the former Soviet space; Yanukovych to remain in office and retain the perks to which he has become accustomed.

Meanwhile Ukraine is about to go bankrupt in a couple of months – and Moscow can ease the credit crunch without requiring the Ukrainian government to clean up its act.  

Unemployment rages, demonstrators occupy Kiev’s main square and some government buildings. The brutality of the police on Saturday against the demonstrators may be a key turning point:  at the present, the opposition can’t force Yanukovych to leave – no constitutional mechanism exists – and he refuses to abdicate.

Whether a “round table” as now called for by three former presidents will make a difference – as the one in 2004 did that ended the Orange Revolution’s stand-off; or whether behind the scenes diplomatic maneuvering will be productive is anyone’s guess.     

There’s a long dark winter ahead and the situation in this strategically placed country between Russia and the West is likely to get worse before it gets better.