Reaping the Whirlwind in Ukraine

The Russian media had a good laugh on March 2 at the expense of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who denounced Russia by saying, “[y]ou just don’t invade another country on a phony pretext in order to assert your interests.” Kerry’s remark brought to mind John McCain’s similar criticism of Russia after its 2008 conflict with Georgia: “In the twenty-first century nations don’t invade other nations.”

Americans don’t do irony, they say, but Kerry’s and McCain’s lack of self-awareness is not a purely American trait; psychologists would no doubt point out that it is common among nearly all humans. In fact, peoples’ inability to understand how what they do and say is perceived by others poses a serious problem in politics and international relations. It is a major cause of the growing crisis facing Ukraine today.

If the revolutionary government acts to reassure those who fear it that they have a place in the new order, then it can keep its country together.

Watching images of demonstrations in Kyiv over the past few months, many Ukrainians and their supporters in the West saw heroic protestors seeking to topple a corrupt regime and bring liberalism and democracy to their country. Many other Ukrainians and their supporters in Russia, however, saw something very different. What they saw, to put it bluntly, were fascists.

Whether that perception was right is neither here nor there. What matters is that they believed it, and that there was sufficient evidence to make that belief credible. For while it is obviously absurd to call the members of the new government in Kyiv (such as Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk) ‘fascist’, that government owes its position not to peaceful demonstrators, but rather to armed far-right groups—most notably the organization Right Sector, led by Dmitro Yarosh.

Yarosh says that one of his goals is “propagandizing the ideology of Ukrainian nationalism as interpreted by Stepan Bandera”.  Bandera led Ukrainian guerrillas against the Soviet Union in the Second World War, and was thus widely regarded as a Nazi collaborator. Far-right demonstrators in Kyiv have routinely sported fascist symbols such as the Wolfsangel rune and the number 88 (code for “Heil Hitler”). They have used extremely violent methods, and since the fall of ex-president Viktor Yanukovich they have continued to intimidate members of political parties who had supported him. It doesn’t matter that these extremists are not the people notionally running the government; others know that they are there, and draw conclusions about the revolution based on that knowledge.

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In these circumstances the new regime has a legitimacy problem, and would have been well advised to do something to assuage the fears which the presence of the far right has generated. But it hasn’t. Instead, one of its first acts was to abolish the law on minority languages, which gave regional status to languages other than Ukrainian. The authorities in Kyiv could not have chosen a better method had they been deliberately looking for a way to confirm the worst prejudices their opponents hold about them. It is unsurprising that this crassly sectarian measure has sparked outrage and fear in segments of the Ukrainian population.

Furthermore, having promised to form a government of national unity, the revolution’s leaders have done nothing of the sort. Instead, they created a cabinet of ministers drawn primarily from the Fatherland Party (associated with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko), with a few members added on from the nationalist Svoboda Party (whose leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, is widely reported as having claimed that Ukraine is run by a “Moscow-Jewish mafia”). Again, it doesn’t matter that Tyahnybok is not actually running the show in Kyiv. The perception, and the fear it creates, are what count.

Even most Russian-speaking Ukrainians identify themselves as Ukrainian and want to keep their country together. They can be won over to the new order. But if those in authority are to do this, they have to reassure all of Ukraine’s citizens that they have a place in the country. To this end, the government must first broaden its membership to include leaders representing those people who currently oppose the revolution. Second, it should reinstitute the repealed language law (or at least pass a new law giving official recognition to languages other than Ukrainian). And third, it should clearly disassociate itself from the far-right extremists.

None of this is very likely, especially while the regime feels threatened from abroad and so falls back on nationalist sentiment. Russia therefore also has a role to play in calming the situation. Instead of taking an aggressive posture, it could offer reassurance that it has no claims on Ukrainian territory and will not support pro-Russian armed militias in Ukraine. This would help to improve perceptions.

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As for Western states, their interventions to date have been disastrous. This is especially true of those by the European Union (EU)—from the failure to offer an acceptable association agreement to ex-President Yanukovich (who was extremely keen to sign such an agreement) through to the deal that EU foreign ministers brokered between Yanukovich and opposition leaders. The fact that the EU, having signed that deal, did nothing when the opposition immediately repudiated it served to convince Moscow that the Europeans were not operating in good faith. Further Western denunciations of Russia will simply confirm Russian fears that the West is out to get it.

The West should recognise the legitimate interests both of Russia and of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine. At the same time, instead of offering unconditional support to Kyiv, it should make it clear that such support is conditional upon change of the sort outlined above.

The immediate cause of the current crisis is the manner in which the new Ukrainian government came to power. That has left an important segment of the Ukrainian population in fear and suspicion of the new authorities in Kyiv, which they regard as illegitimate.

The ball therefore lies firmly in Kyiv’s court. If the revolutionary government acts to reassure those who fear it that they have a place in the new order, then it can keep its country together. If it doesn’t, then it will have to take its share of responsibility for the ensuing chaos. As the saying goes, “they that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.”

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