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What I didn’t know about Ukraine

What on earth is going on in Ukraine? I’m sure you’ve seen the images of fire, death and protest on the news, and heard words like Putin, referendum, invasion, and maybe even Crimea. But what does it all mean, who’s to blame, and what’s at risk? 

A little background first. Ukraine is very different nation to New Zealand. It has only been independent since the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, and its borders look really different now to the last time they had independence for a few years in the early 1900s. Combined with a bunch of historical invasions and occupations this means that the country has a bad case of split personality disorder – divided roughly into East and West. 

East Ukraine spent most of the last 250 years ruled by Russians—it’s good farming country there, great for feeding an empire—who sent Russian speakers to live there, and passed laws to make everyone speak Russian. Unsurprisingly, many East Ukrainians still speak Russian, and see Russia as a natural ally. 

West Ukrainians pretty much disagree. They speak Ukrainian and are sick of the chronic corruption in politics and government—that to them echoes of the hated Soviet regime—that have plagued Ukraine’s economy since independence. They see Western democracy, particularly the European Union (EU) as the best partner for a stronger, more successful Ukraine. 

Little wonder then, that every presidential election since 1991 has been an almost 50/50 split vote between candidates seen as either pro-Russia or pro-EU. The last President, Viktor Yanukovych (we’ll call him Viktor from now on) is from the East, and he literally fled the country to Russia in mid February, after the violent protests from mainly West Ukrainians, who pretty much forced Parliament to depose him. 

Why? In November, Viktor vetoed popular moves to have closer trade ties to the European Union, and instead accepted a $15 billion ‘bailout’ package from Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Putin has his own trade union that he’s trying to put together with a bunch of former Soviet states, and he’s quite keen that Ukraine—a major producer of food, and the site of vital gas pipelines from Russia to Europe—be part of his crew, and not Europe’s. During the protests Viktor also introduced anti-protest and media-silencing legislation that intensified public anger, and led to his ousting. 

So what’s this we keep hearing about Crimea? It’s a little Ukrainian peninsula state, with a massive strategic history as the site of Russia’s major naval base. In 1992 the Crimean Parliament adopted their own constitution that declared that they were an autonomous, self governing state, and then a day later begrudgingly wrote in a new line that confirmed that they were still technically part of Ukraine. You guessed it, they’re ‘East Ukrainian’ and the majority of Crimeans are Russian speaking and pretty pro-Russia.  

As President Viktor was being turfed out by the Ukrainian Parliament, the Crimean Parliament passed an act that made Ukrainian the only official state language. In a state that is majority Russian-speaking, this confluence of events understandably led to massive protests, featuring a big clash between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian groups in front of the Crimean legislature. 

This was the moment that Putin sent Russian troops to occupy transport hubs and other key locations. Now, this wasn’t an invasion by the usual understanding, as Russia has longstanding military bases in Crimea, but (and it’s a big but) not only had the Russian forces recently increased to well over the agreed numbers, and—I can’t believe I have to say this—it’s hard to look peaceful when you’re ordering your soldiers to takeover strategic locations in someone else’s country.  

Putin says this move was totally fine, because he had “a duty to protect Russians wherever they live.” As several commentators have noted, the last guy to use this justification for mobilising his soldiers in a sovereign nation was Hitler. However the situation isn’t as neatly anecdotal as that, because Putin is also insisting that he still recognises President Viktor as the rightful President of Ukraine, and the use of force in Crimea was just the help Viktor asked for. National sovereignty and democratic rule is complicated stuff when you can’t agree on who is and isn’t the real democratically elected leader. 

When things calmed down a bit, and the Russian soldiers stood down, the Crimean Parliament (which is actually a “representative assembly” whose acts can technically still be vetoed by the government of Ukraine according to the 1999 Crimean constitution) went ahead and voted to declare full independence from Ukraine. 

They have since announced a referendum to ask Crimeans if they want to join Russia, or go back to the 1992 self governing state that’s formally connected to Ukraine. More cynical commentators have said that the referendum questions could be read “shall we join Russia now, or become an independent state and then join Russia?” 

What’s interesting is that despite being mainly Russian-speaking, a vast majority of Crimeans have indicated in recent polls that their homeland loyalty lies first with Crimea, secondly with Ukraine, and only a slim minority declaring allegiance to Russia. 

Regardless of how Crimea votes, the results will have far reaching consequences for all Ukrainians, and with Russia emboldened, carry a warning for other former Soviet states. 

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