The People: An Inside Look on the Ukrainian Crisis

Pro-European protests in Ukraine

Protestors in Ukraine


Today, dozens of armored personnel carriers crossed the Dnieper River into Eastern Ukraine. Representing the newfound courage of President Turchynov and a parliament in turmoil, the Ukrainian armed forces launched what has been described as major “anti-terrorist operation,” as Mr. Turchynov described it. The actions represent a new effort by the government, which has struggled to maintain its own legitimacy throughout a crisis seemingly dictated by Moscow and without serious action from the West.

This latest reiteration of the national crisis has raised an increasing specter of Russian annexation and destruction of the Post-Cold War order in Eurasia. The attention it has generated in Washington and national capitals around the world has been mixed, ranging from calls to send foreign aid to sending foreign troops to Ukrainian soil. Only three weeks ago, this publisher wrote about how we may be on the precipice of a new Cold War, ruled by a spirit of renewed Russian nationalism and desire to emulate the power of the Soviet Union.

The political dueling between Moscow, Washington and Kiev only tells us part of the whole story. Most of the media has yet to really focus on the ingrained political, social and economic trends that have contributed to this conflict. The reader will find that many of our assumptions about the crisis have surprising correlations with the structure and make up of Ukrainian society. Demographics play a huge, though underrated, role in social conflict, especially when under constraints like those of the current international crisis. Finally, it helps us answer the big question: If civil war took place now, will Ukraine fragment and be divided between Russia and a Ukrainian rump state in the west?

HOW fragmentary is Ukraine?

The current conflict rests upon the question of legitimacy: “Does the current Government, led by Turchynov, truly represent the values and wishes of Ukrainians?”  The answer is halfway. It represents the wishes of those that opposed Victor Yanukovych, but he does not carry legitimacy as a democratically elected President. Many pro-western Ukrainians (who are also anti-Russian) support Yulia Tymoshenko, the true darling of the Orange Revolution and the superstar of this revolution. However, others in Crimea, but especially in the Eastern Ukraine, supported Yanukovych, who was decidedly pro-Russian.


2010 Election results. Picture provided by Le Monde

Understanding Ukrainian demographics and how it ties to the recent revolution is informative, because it aligns with the geopolitical foreign policy interests of Moscow. In a recent article of Le Monde focusing on Ukrainian sociopolitical landscape, Ukraine is a case study of how former Soviet states, including Russia, are not homogenous bodies of unified cultures, languages and ethnic groups. The country has a majority ethnic Ukrainians, but they are mostly found west of the Dnieper River Basin. Its border lands with Europe also contain Poles, Romanians and Moldovans. East of the Dnieper, there is majority Ukrainian population, but also significant numbers of Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. When speaking of the Donbass, Tara Kuzio remarked, “as much as 40% of the populace think of themselves as “Soviet” rather than Russian or Ukrainian.”

Looking at socioeconomics, the eastern half, known as the Donbass, is largely industrialized with many large cities that are traditionally the industrial base of the western Soviet Union. But it also has important implications for the cultural identity of its people. Ukrainian politician and historian Hryhoriy Nemyria said this about the Donbass:

“The fact that you came from the Donbas was more important than that you were Russian or Ukrainian; so of course the break-up of the Soviet Union also meant a raising of this regional identity and loyalty… In any case, most people here honestly couldn’t say what they are ethnically, because most families, like mine, are mixed.”

Such statements, along with the economic diversity of the Donbass, shows that the middle class of Ukrainian society is mostly based in the east. Given the government cannot deliver the kind of goods these industrial middle class people, they will turn in their anger to the patrons of their previous president for support.

On the other side, most of the west is rural with fewer cities, the great bread basket containing small farmers in small farming villages. This area is mostly populated by politically and culturally conservative Ukrainians who have traditional loyalties to Kiev. They produce the lowest portion of GDP in comparison with the rest of the country. Their cultural insulation from the rest of Russia and history with the Soviet Union has strengthened their own cultural identity while lack of urbanization reduces the economic diversity consistent with cosmopolitanism. In short, their economic identity connects most to what Ukraine is famous for: the breadbasket of Europe. Along with its selection of minority groups, it is the part that is most loyal to the government and solidly pro-European, ensuring support for Tymoshenko’s pro-European and nationalist party.

Why will Ukraine Persist?

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Many have attempted to assert that Russia has ambitions to annex ALL of Ukraine. This is neither possible or practical for reasons of demography and politics, including the international community. Like Georgia, it was easy for Russia to justify intervention on behalf of ethnic Russians or perceived oppression or subjugation of nominally independent regions (case and point, South Ossetia and Abkhazia). Crimea was Ukrainian, but inhabited by the semi-autonomous Tatars. Along with major economic and national security interests, Russia made a strong case because these people did have strong attachment to “Russia” or the idea of being “Russian.” Self-determination, combined with savvy foreign policy, led to decried, but ultimately successful incorporation of the region to Russia.

But ultimately, Russia is constrained by demographic reality that the western half will never accept being Russian. The cultural and economic identity has made the Donbass or east particularly susceptible to Moscow’s interests to re-incorporate them. But just like Georgia, it is neither in national interest to integrate these former republics, nor in international interests to go beyond principles of self-determination. Right now, Russia’s foreign policy is framed in nationalistic terms and Putin plays on the myths and history of the powerful Soviet Empire. For those who affiliate with Russia or, like our Donbass resident, still liken themselves to Soviet citizens, it is an alternative future to the murkiness of Kiev’s own vision.

The west should take heed and strengthen their own support for Kiev. However, it must be support with continued pushing for continuity and change to a legitimate government that represents Ukraine instead of just pro-western Ukrainians. Kiev and the country need a rallying figure like Yulia Tymoshenko to calm the fears of the people, but with a strong hand to avert civil war. The nation is on the cusp of that cataclysmic event if this recent military action fails and Moscow feels emboldened to intervene.



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