The mainstream American media has taken a nearsighted view of the Ukrainian crisis by following a script laid out by the State Department. Most reports have either ignored the truth or spun it in a way that paints only a partial picture. Here are seven things you should know about Ukraine.
1. Regardless of claims by some commentators like Forbes contributor Greg Sattell, the divisions in Ukraine are real, and violence unleashed by the Kiev regime is polarizing the nation further.
While the differences between the Ukrainian west and the more Russian-facing rest of the country are widely acknowledged, what tends to be overlooked is that the culture, language, and political thinking of western Ukraine have been imposed upon the rest of Ukraine. Ostensibly this is for the sake of “unifying the country,” but in fact the objective has been to put down and humiliate Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population.
The radical nationalists of western Ukraine, for whom the rejection of Russia and its culture is an article of faith, intend to force the rest of the country to fit their narrow vision. Western and eastern Ukraine do not understand each other’s preoccupations, just as Cubans in Miami and Cubans in Havana would not understand each other. Ukrainian conflict is not the conflict between the “pro-Russian separatists” and “pro-Ukrainians,” but rather between two Ukrainian groups who do not share each other’s vision of an independent Ukraine.
Western Ukraine was joined to Russia only during Stalin’s era. For centuries it was under the cultural, religious, and/or political control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland. Hating Soviet occupation, western Ukrainian nationalists viewed Stalin as a much greater villain than Hitler, so that the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists aligned themselves with Nazis and, led by their radical leader Stepan Bandera, proceeded to rid their land of other ethnic groups, including Poles and Jews.
Western Ukraine is unified in its hostility toward Russians, whom they see as invaders and occupiers. During the last 20 years, as Ukraine tried to distance itself from its Soviet past and its ideology, it chose the nationalism of western Ukraine as the alternative. A necessary correction, perhaps, but the one that has generated its own dangerous myths.
Easterners are angry that pro-Bandera banners, posters and graffiti are popping up all over Ukraine and with the rewriting of history in general, where violent nationalists who fought alongside the Nazis are treated as heroes while Russians, who suffered under Stalin no less than the Ukrainians, are denigrated.
Following the exile of President Victor Yanukovich and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian nationalist rhetoric has become downright offensive and hysterical, ostracizing further the people in the east. The escalating violence will continue to radicalize both sides, so instead of finding a democratically acceptable solution they will resort to baseball bats and AK 47s.
2. The Western press was wrong about the massacre of Ukrainian citizens in Odessa on May 2, 2014, when as many as 100 (the officially accepted number appears to be 42) unarmed people were burned alive in an Odessa building.
When telling the story, the Western press reported on the clashes between pro-Ukrainian soccer hooligans and pro-Russian protesters without any explanation as to why the results of these clashes were so one-sided.
What happened in Odessa was something ominously familiar to Eastern Europe: an organized pogrom. At least the BBC got part of the story right: “several thousand football fans began to attack 300 pro-Russians.” And as in every pogrom, the victimizers blamed their defenseless victims for initiating it.
In fact, pro-Kiev thugs armed with iron rods and Molotov cocktails attacked the camp of protesters, set it on fire, and forced the protesters to retreat into a building, which was set on fire. It was a blatant act of violence and intimidation.
The current leaders of Ukraine promised an investigation, but so far their only response has been to blame the passivity of security forces. The truth is that the victims simply refused to share Kiev’s radical nationalist agenda. Should we call civilians “separatists” or “terrorists” only because their rejection of radical nationalism has resulted in Occupy-type protests? Why not call them moderate Ukrainians?
Incompetent at best and vicious at worst, the Ukrainian government is failing its own population by condoning the intimidation and thus radicalizing it further. This is major news, a possible watershed in the unfolding drama of Ukrainian civil war, yet Western coverage has quickly forgotten the story.
3. The Ukrainian elections scheduled for May 25 would hardly solve the economic problems of Ukraine, since there is a glaring absence of good candidates.
Current political contenders in the elections are either Soviet-style oligarchs like Petro Poroshenko, corrupt politicians like former Prime Minister Iulia Timoshenko, or former member of Timoshenko’s cabinet Arseny Iatseniuk.
Corrupt as ousted president Viktor Yanukovich proved to be, he did win the role in the last election, with the country traumatized by Timoshenko’s own corruption. It is a sad feature of the Ukrainian political scene that its most independent and dynamic politician is Oleh Tyahnibok from western Ukraine, the controversial leader of the far-right nationalist party, Svoboda.
His party is mired in Bandera-Nazi accusations, while Russia declared him a “fascist” and opened a criminal caseagainst him for organizing the assault on the civilians in eastern Ukraine.
4. Politicians do not really matter in Ukraine, because Ukraine is the land of oligarchs.
For better or for worse, Putin has put an end to oligarch rule in Russia. Members of Putin’s inner circle may be immensely rich, but they know to whom they owe their wealth.
By imprisoning Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Putin sent a clear message to the all-powerful oligarchs that controlled Russia during former president Boris Yeltsin’s time: stay out of politics. Ukraine didn’t have this experience, and the politicians seem to be working in unison with, if not under the control of, oligarchs.
There are frequent tensions among them or between them and politicians; for instance, the richest person in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov, worked closely with Yanukovich, while others preferred Timoshenko or Victor Iuschenko. Akhmetov’s business interests are connected with the metallurgical industries in the east and he has organized his 300,000 employees to help him assert his control over eastern Ukraine and fend off military attacks on civilians, attacks which were encouraged by another oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky.
5. The Western press, including Forbes, has underestimated the extent of oligarch Igor Kolomoisky’s influence.
Taking the concept “corporate raiding” literally, Kolomoisky has employed paramilitary units at his disposal for all kinds of hostile takeovers. Undoubtedly a shrewd businessman, he managed to wrestle various businesses from such powerful competitors as the current president of Tatarstan, and, if we believe Putin, from Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. Kolomoisky’s recent foray into politics has been carried out on the same grand scale.
Even though he resides in Switzerland, he has been appointed the governor of the Dnepropetrovsk region. He has offered a bounty of $10,000 for any “Russian Separatist,” provided the Ukrainian army with necessary equipment, and armed nationalist volunteers. With the regular Ukrainian army reluctant to shoot its own population, Kolomoisky’s units have participated in various military attacks on the east, including the May 9 assault on Mariupol, where several civilians were killed. Russian sources connect him to the massacre in Odessa. Members of the new governor of Odessa, appointed after the massacre, are his close associates.
Kolomoisky’s “pro-Jewish” activity has its own share of controversy. He gives money to various restoration or construction projects from Jerusalem to his native Dnepropetrovsk, serves as the president of the Jewish community in Ukraine, and in 2010 he became the president of the European Council of Jewish Communities, following his promise to donate $14 million for various projects.
Other EJCJ members described his appointment as a “hostile takeover Eastern European style.” After several of them resigned in protest, Kolomoisky quit the EJCJ, but not before he set up an “alternative” committee called European Jewish Union. Jewish leaders subservient to Kolomoisky claim that Ukraine is now an open, pluralistic society, but in light of Ukraine’s tradition of anti-Semitism and pogroms, it is hard to be optimistic.
The Western press complains about Putin’s state-controlled media, but Kolomoisky has no less information control. His business holdings include the largest Ukrainian media group, “1+1 Media,” the news agency “Unian,” as well as various internet sites, which enable him to whip public opinion into an anti-Putin frenzy.
Andrew Higgins of The New York Times published a storywith the headline, “Among Ukraine’s Jews, the Bigger Worry is Putin, Not Pogroms,” which praises Kolomoisky for adorning Dnepropetrovsk with “the world’s biggest Jewish community center” along with “a high tech Holocaust museum.”
Higgins notes, however, that the museum “skirts the delicate issue of how some Ukrainian nationalists collaborated with Nazis…explaining instead how Jews supported Ukraine’s efforts to become an independent nation.” In other words, this high-tech museum is no more than a media project, as it focuses on issues unrelated to the Holocaust at the expense of honoring the victims and documenting the role of the Ukrainian collaborators.
6. Russia is weak. The country is losing population and shrinking geographically and economically.
Russia is clearly overextended. Look at the Russian-Chinese border, where the concentration of population reveals a grim picture for Russia: there are about 100,000 Chinese per square kilometer on the south side of the border vs. 10 Russians on the Russian side.
Only a fanatical Russophobe would imagine that Russia wants to expand. The Baltic republics, Moldova, Georgia, and Poland, continue to prod Western media with the stories of Russian expansion, because NATO, the EU, and the USA are more than happy to “stand up to Russia” and provide financial aid.
7. President Putin has been accommodating to Western interests.
Despite what you read in the Western press, he didn’t protest about NATO expansion, he gave up on a number of important Russian military bases, and acted aggressively only when he felt that Russia’s back yard was threatened.
Annexation of Crimea, while responding to very strong popular demands both in Russia and Crimea, was a limited operation that enabled Putin to save his face after “losing” Ukraine. Since then he has given plenty of indications that he is ready to call it a day. His limited goals are acknowledged in the writings and interviews of such people as former ambassador to Russia Jack Matlock, or former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
But what needs to be stressed is that the next Russian leader might not be that accommodating, especially in light of continuous and needless bullying on the part of the US. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s NATO representative and a serious political figure on the right, has already declared that next time he’ll fly into Ukraine and Moldova on military bomber after these countries didn’t allow his plane to use their airspace.
What gave rise to Hitler was Germany’s continuous humiliation after World War I. The policy of public humiliation of Putin, the talk of “punishing” him or Russia for bad behavior, is insulting to the Russian leader and his countrymen.
In contrast to Germany in 1939, Russia still has plenty of nuclear arms. Had Russia intended to enslave the US or its allies with its threat of nuclear bombs, I would be more than happy to repeat after New Hampshire: “Live Free or Die.”
But is it worth it to taunt and threaten an already angry and frustrated nuclear power for the sake of handing Ukraine to the likes of Mr. Kolomoisky and his motley crew of oligarchs, nationalists, and subservient politicians? Those Western politicians and journalists, who confuse the issue of defending freedom with the power games that the current Ukrainian elite is playing, should be aware that they are not serving, but rather betraying, cherished American principles.
This article is by Vladimir Golstein, a professor of Slavic studies at Brown University. He was born in Moscow and emigrated to the United States in 1979.