There is a history going back nearly two centuries, some might say a millennium, underlying current events between Russia and Ukraine, as well as an aspect that could affect what in some quarters is currently one of the most important issues in international relations.
First, the history.
EuroMaidan was not a plot by Western imperialists to get one up on the center of power of the former Soviet Union, as too many talking heads of the neoleft either wearing Moscow-colored glasses or simply unable to climb out of a paradigm that no longer exists protest. Nor was it a plot engineered by rightists in Ukraine to create a fascist anti-Semitic Russophobic state as the Kremlin and its propaganda outlets and its sycophants proclaim.
These two views of events are as patronizing and condescending as any of the worst of those more upfront and bald in their imperialist intent and sentiment.
No, EuroMaidan was a popular uprising initiated by the people of Ukraine for a variety of reasons, chief of which were the rampant political and financial corruption of those in power, the worsening economic situation in the country. The final straw that broke the camel’s back was the prospect of being dragged into an inescapable orbit around the power from whose gravity well it had escaped in 1991 when its kleptocratic president threatened submission of the country to Czar Vladimir in the form of joining the Putin/Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union. That’s why the rising in November.
The protestors are still camped out on the Maidan, because they do not trust or have much love for those who returned to power. They want their country back from all the oligarchs, not just the ones recently kicked out but their successors as well.
A thousand years ago, Kiev was the center of power in Eastern Europe north of the Roman Empire governed from Constantinople (“Byzantine” is a misnomer, a neologism coined a century after it fell). With the rise of various empires, wars, migrations, and invasions its star fell while that of Moscow rose. Eventually, Ukraine came totally within the Russian Empire. Peter the Great was the first to order its “Russification”, but he recommended that it be carried out slowly and subtly, like first having ethnic Russians migrate there.
The strategy worked remarkably well and by the twentieth century, Ukrainian nationalism was buried deep. Increasing repression banished the Ukrainian language from public life and printing in the Ukrainian language was outlawed. Ukrainian schools were eventually banned in the mid-1800’s and the formerly autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church was subordinated to the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow.
Then came the February Revolution in 1917, followed by the October Revolution the same year, the latter actually more of a coup d’etat by the Bolshevik Party. As part of its program to gain the loyalty of the disparate peoples of the former Russian Empire, the Bolshevik Central Committee launched a propaganda program promising non-Russian nationalities a certain amount of autonomy in a Bolshevik utopia.
When Stalin, the former Bolshevik Commissar of Nationalities, years later announced his policy of “socialism in one country”, he included in it an unwritten but no less intense policy of Russification. Among other features, this meant that the Russian language was the sole official language throughout the USSR and “nationalist deviations” would be stamped out. This process was most intense in Ukraine, and included the decimation of party members of the Ukraine SSR to half in two separate purges, 1929-1934 and 1936-1938.
The most horrific act toward accomplishing complete Russification in Ukraine was the 18-month famine engineered in 1932 and 1933, in which at least 3.5 million, and possibly as many as 7 million, perished. The latter figure exceeds the death toll for Jews under the Nazi regime 1933-1945 and was carried out in much less time. Ukrainians call this atrocity the Holodomor (“Extermination by Hunger”).
Don’t just take my word for it. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent who had fought with the Polish Army against the Germans then escaped when that collapsed, referred to what happened in Ukraine as genocide. He later became the founder of the UN’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide in 1948.
Lemkin actually coined what was then the neologism “genocide” in his important 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. In addition to the then ongoing slaughter of Jews, Roma, Poles, and others, he cited as examples the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the Holodomor. For Lemkin, genocide went beyond just the killing of mass numbers of people to include the intention destruction of their culture, suppression of their language, and dissolution of their national life.
Ukrainian nationalism remained submerged until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. The new nation suffered the same corruption and insane mismanagement of former state resources as Yeltsin and his younger former KGB protégé Putin allowed in Russia which has led to two revolutions, first the Orange Revolution of 2003 and now EuroMaidan. In 2003, once what they thought was a better government was installed, the protestors went home. With that experience in the rear view mirror, this time they have stayed out.
The turbulent past is the main reason so many in Ukraine support Svoboda, the right-wing party pandering to extreme anti-Russian xenophobic chauvinism. It is important to point that although members took part in EuroMaidan, they neither initiated it nor led it, and while many of its members are part of the current caretaker government, they do not dominated it and its members who are officials hold only less important posts, except for one.
Contrary to widespread belief, fomented both by Putin’s Wurlitzer and the lazy mainstream media broadcasting without fact-checking, the new Ukrainian government did not outlaw Russian. What the MP’s voted on was to overturn a law granting Russian and three other languages status as official state languages. However, Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting president, vetoed that.
Now, to other issues in international relations and how they might be affected.
Three years into its independence, the same year Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa, Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons for destruction. As part of the agreement for it to do so, the United States, United Kingdom, and Russian Federation Statement guaranteed its borders, its sovereignty, and its economic independence in the Trilateral Statement, with France and China giving their assent and support.
The only other nation known to have voluntarily surrendered its nuclear arms is the Republic of South Africa. It ended its nuclear program, which had been covertly supported by the State of Israel, and dismantled its six devices in 1989.
The Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin has violated this agreement on several occasions in as many ways possible, perhaps most egregiously in the invasion and conquest of Crimea and its absorption into its borders, but also in its repeated economic extortion of its neighbor.
Here’s something to think about…
But first, let me point out that I don’t care the least little bit whether or not the Islamic Republic of Iran has nukes. The microscope hasn’t even been invented yet that could see the little that I worry about that. I mean, I hate that anyone at all has them because any use of them in any circumstances whatsoever, especially just to show a rival that one has the will to deploy them, is a crime against humanity.
Iran doesn’t have them now and its programme is many years away from achieving that. But as much as I despise Iran’s mullahs and what they have done to the country and its people, Iran’s leaders are not nearly as dangerous as the current leaders of Israel, which has hundreds of nukes, and even they haven’t used them.
Now, suppose you are a leader of Iran in talks with five world powers who are trying to convince you to give up attempts to begin creating a nuclear arsenal. The five powers promise that they will guarantee your country’s safety against all enemies in return for this, just like they promised the same to Ukraine in 1994. Given the aggression of Russia, the apathy of China, and the impotence of the USA, the UK, and France, how likely do you think Iran’s leaders will trust such guarantees of protection for an agreement to come to pass? Yea, me either.