When the Ukrainian Parliament voted to remove President Viktor Yanukovych last week, the media and the US government sought to portray the outcome as a straightforward victory for democracy. In the aftermath of Putin’s subsequent military conquest of the Crimea, the picture seems to be a lot more complicated than originally thought.
On the surface, this crisis is rooted in Russian historical claims to the Crimean peninsula. Many Russians assert that the Ukrainian claim to the territory is invented, pointing out that Crimea was Soviet territory until the independence of Ukraine in January 1992.
Weinberg Ssnior Svyat Nakonechny, a native Ukrainian, sees the situation differently.
“If you look at the coverage of these events in the Washington Post and the New York Times, you see the same map … of people who speak Russian versus people who speak Ukrainian, over and over again,” he said. “It’s yellow in the West and blue in the East. It’s like a heat map. And if you overlap that map on the results of the three last elections … it’s almost a perfect match.”
This correlation between language and political affiliation has led many media organizations to assume that linguistic preference determines political loyalties, a charge Nakonechny vigorously disputes.
“The media says that because these people speak Russian, they are politically aligned with certain forces within Ukraine that tend to be pro-Russian,” he said. “That is a grave mistake. There’s a lot more to it [than that].”
Nakonechny contends that like most countries, Ukraine is a complex mix of politics and culture that cannot be fully encompassed by a simple, Cold-War-era dichotomy of “pro-Russia” or “pro-Western.”
“It’s unfair to deem all of the East as this appendix of Russia, because it’s not,” Nakonechny said. “That region is as culturally diverse as the West [of Ukraine].”
Divisions in Ukrainian political sentiment toward the EU and Russia have made the crisis trickier to manage for the new government. However, the majority of Ukrainians still believe that Ukraine should be independent and unified.
“The Russian Front was the only party who said that their goal was to make Crimea part of the Russian federation. That party only got 3.5 percent of the vote,” Nakonechny said. “This is a negligible amount of people, a tiny group whose size is inflated by the media.”
Medill junior Olga Tymouch, also a native-born Ukrainian, described how the revolution represents a potential opportunity to undo widespread corruption.
“It wasn’t a human rights issue until the revolution, but living in the country was very difficult,” she said. “Many people suffered in daily life because the former president Yanukovych would run a country where it was impossible to live without bribing government officials.”
Tymouch emphasized Yanukovych’s connection to Russian President Vladimir Putin and how Putin played a major role in establishing corrupt officials in the Ukrainian government.
“Every part of the government is corrupt where Yanukovych chose [officials] who Putin also chose,” she said. “It’s never been beneficial for Ukraine to be part of Russia.”
The Russian military presence on Ukraine’s eastern border poses a problem for the Ukrainian government, which is struggling to consolidate its authority.
“It’s so hard when people don’t really have a permanent government. When you look at the opposition leaders, the night before all those people died, they signed a truce with Yanukovych. That didn’t play over well,” Tymouch said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s hard to find someone who all the people are going to support.”
In the past few weeks, Russian media sources like Russia Today have portrayed the protests and the invasion as the result of serious cultural frictions reaching the boiling point. On the international scene, Putin has tried to use unrest in Eastern Ukraine as an excuse for his decision to occupy Crimea.
“Russian media in particular is exploiting these tensions. Right now, the cultural differences are a bigger issue because they’re being exploited and because it’s really highlighted by Russia physically being inside Ukraine,” Tymouch said. “But I don’t think it was a big issue beforehand, or anything to call for Russian intervention of any sort.”
If Ukraine is to find a way forward, it needs to focus on the economy first. The crisis, which is the result of a decision by former President Yanukovych to spurn the EU, is rooted in Ukrainian economic problems.
Tymouch emphasized the significance of the EU’s decision to grant a $15 billion loan as a form of economic assistance to Ukraine. “Having closer ties to the EU is going to benefit Ukraine more in the long run,” she said. “Putin is the reason that everything is so corrupt; he’s literally robbed the country. Things were better before he got into power.”
Russia's aggressive policies have certainly played a role in the dire state of Ukraine's economy. According to Russian media sources and pro-Russia activists, the invasion of Crimea was a justified response to attacks on ethnic Russians. Northwestern history professor John Bushnell, who specializes in Russian history and culture, identifies Putin’s mindset as the source of this behavior.
“No matter what the EU did, Putin would have been convinced that everything was part of a strategy to ply Ukraine away from Russia,” Bushnell said. “Everything the U.S. has done has confirmed Putin’s understanding of a great Western plot.”
The Russian media has also attempted to depict the new Ukrainian government as a group of fascists. Accusations of fascism are partly due to the presence of three cabinet ministers who belong to the Svoboda Party, which has been accused of promoting anti-Semitism, in the current government. However, this party is not a dominant force and does not necessarily reflect the will of the Ukrainian people.
According to Bushnell, “most of western Ukraine cannot be characterized as fascist, and most of the politicians in the current Ukrainian provisional government are not fascists in any sense of the term. The three members of [Svoboda] are now members of the government because they played a part in the insurrection.”
If this crisis is going to be resolved peacefully, the EU and the US need to be prepared to stand by the legitimate government of Ukraine. Although the New York Times and other media sources have lamented the lack of options available to President Obama and his allies, there are still ways to influence Russian policy that will not provoke a war.
Bushnell points out that Putin is still sensitive to domestic political opinion.
“Popular opinion is important to Putin,” Bushnell said. “He works very hard to gain public support and plays [crises] reasonably well.”
If the US were to employ economic sanctions or find an alternate method of signalling to Moscow the consequences of invading another sovereign country, Putin might be forced to confront Russian public opinion.
“Russians are very nationalistic in times of national crisis, but they want to avoid military conflict,” Bushnell said.