March 9, 2014

Letters To The Editor: On Ukraine

It’s important to look at multiple perspectives to any situation. While many can be quick to judge Putin’s Russian, we Americans only have to remember Cuba, and Puerto Rico to provide some sobering perspective on what’s happening in eastern Europe.

We enjoy engaging with our readers and encourage you to write in. Enjoy this one from Nathan Hunt (submitted by Matt Hunt). 

Thank you both, 

Brandon Webb, Editor

On Ukraine

I don’t have a lot to add to the press coverage of what’s happening in Ukraine.  One part that seems to be missing, however, from the coverage I’ve seen is the Russian point of view.  So I’ll outline that position broadly in this message.  This is not a summary of MY point of view or the “CORRECT” point of view, if there is one – this is a summary of the Russian point of view.  This is also not a summary of the official government point of view, i.e. you won’t find this articulated in any official press releases.  This is what people on the street are thinking.

Here Are The Main Points

1.       Yanukovich is the legitimately elected President of Ukraine.  He won the 2010 presidential elections which were confirmed as free and fair by international observers.  He won because the country was fed up with the “reformist” Orange Revolution government of Viktor Yuschenko that after six years had made almost no positive impact on the country’s economic or social situation.  Corruption had in fact intensified under Yuschenko.

2.       Yanukovich is not Putin’s man, he is his own man.  He has played East against West since coming to power and has annoyed both sides in the process.  There has been ample evidence of mismanagement and corruption throughout his term.

3.       But if Yanukovich is guilty of any crime worthy of removal from office, he should be impeached and tried in accordance with the Ukrainian Constitution, not removed by a mob.

4.       Both sides signed a perfectly acceptable agreement on February 21 which the opposition then promptly reneged on.  Under that agreement arms were to be surrendered, occupation of government buildings was to be lifted, and early elections were to be held.

5.       (And this is the crux of the Russian position…) THOSE ELECTIONS ARE KEY.  Because it is far from given that a radical Western Ukrainian (commonly called “Banderovtsy” in honor of their controversial hero Stepan Bandera who declared an independent Ukrainian Republic during WWII) would win any free or fair election in Ukraine.

6.       So if there is any question about the legitimate leadership of Ukraine today, why not decide it with elections or a referendum?

7.       The USA has funded and encouraged the opposition so this is not an innocent “grass roots” movement as the West would like to portray it.

My Own Input

1.       Eastern Ukraine has always belonged to Russia.  Western Ukraine has always struggled for independence from Russia or whatever other foreign power was trying to dominate them.  They welcomed the German invaders in 1941 and initially supported the Nazi occupation of Ukraine because they viewed them as liberators from Soviet power.  They quickly changed their minds.

2.       But the East/West division of Ukraine is not that simple.  In fact most rural citizens throughout the country – even in the “Russian” East – consider themselves Ukrainian and identify Ukrainian as their first language.  I would say that Russian language and nationalism is concentrated in the urban and industrial centers (and the upper classes), rather than in the East vs. the West.

3.       The Crimean is Russian territory populated by Russian speakers and hosting Russian military bases.  It was classified as Russian territory officially until 1954 when Khurushev (a Ukrainian) transferred the territory from Russia to Ukraine.  Both Russia and Ukraine were merely two provinces in the Soviet Union at the time and had no national power of their own.  The transfer was a “gift” to mark the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, the agreement under which the independent Ukrainian Cossacks accepted Russian rule in exchange for protection against the Poles, who were their overlords at the time.

4.       The Crimea was historically the resort area of the Soviet Union, Russia’s version of Southern Florida.  The city of Sochi was originally conceived as a replica of the Crimean resort city of Yalta, where Russia’s rich had been vacationing since pre-revolutionary times.  The last Tsar had his vacation home there, a beautiful palace at Livadia that was later the venue for the 1945 Yalta conference between the USA, UK, and USSR to discuss post-war arrangements.  Olya and I visited in October and flew into the airport that is now occupied by Russian troops.

5.       The unrest started because Yanukovich opted out of an almost-completed agreement to seek integration with the European Union in favor of an “easy money” agreement with Russia.  The EU integration would have been just as harsh for Ukraine as it was for other Eastern European states (Romania, Bulgaria, etc.), involving painful fiscal reform, austerity measures, administrative reforms, etc.  Many people believe that Yanukovich would have eventually ratified the EU agreement – but only after winning his next regularly scheduled election in 2015.

6.       Point 7 in the Russia summary above is actually true – funding of home-grown nationalist movements in former Soviet states has been a staple of Western intelligence strategy since the breakup of the USSR.  I discussed this in some detail with an intelligence operative while watching the Gold Medal hockey match in Moscow last week.  See “The New Cold War” by Mark McKinnon.

7.       I have debated with Russians quite intensely whether this is ethical or not.  I have proposed that If the West does not fund and train grass-roots movements such as the one that materialized in Maidan Square, then nobody will. My contention is that we are encouraging local populations to take an active role in their government, a pioneering and enlightening approach among the traditionally passive electorates of the former Soviet Union.  My interlocutors have suggested that the West uses its wealth to encourage unrest and uprising in any context; people will always complain when given a chance, regardless of whether the regime is restrictive/corrupt or not.  They point out that the Orange Revolution of 2004 brought nothing good to the people of Ukraine and simply intensified corruption.  I have countered that at least the corrupt Yuschenko regime relinquished power when defeated in the free/fair elections of 2010.  The Yanukovich regime appeared to have no intention of doing so, using police to pressure the opposition, putting Timoshenko in prison, and limiting press freedoms.  Yanukovich even appeared to be grooming his son for a position of power or perhaps the presidency in the future.  As always, the truth is probably somewhere in between….

8.       Russia has done itself no favors by sending troops to the Crimean.  The fallout will be significant in the world political arena and threatens Russian leadership of the G8 summit this year as well as their very membership in the G8.  It may also negatively affect the pro-Russia block’s standing in the May 25 elections that have been called.


At the end of day, this is not a black-and-white issue.  Both sides have been guilty of extremist rhetoric and/or actions that have exacerbated the situation when they should have been calming the other side.  After the ouster of Yanukovich, the new government might have found acceptance and legitimacy from both West and East if they had exercised caution and diplomacy rather than making controversial (and therefore destabilizing) moves, such as:

  • Including extremists in the new government at ministerial positions.
  • Repealing the law allowing Russian to be used as a second official language if certain regions (oblasts) prefer this.
  • Hinting at repudiation of the 2010 Treaty of Kharkiv confirming Russia’s right to hold navy bases in the Crimean.  Over the weekend a letter signed by 3 ex-Presidents of Ukraine recommended this, though one of them has since denied he intended that.
  • Making statements about Ukrainian membership in NATO (most recently from the General Secretary of NATO).

Several Russians have compared this conflict to the Cuban Missile Crisis in which the USA imposed an illegal blockade on an independent country because the military threat was simply too close and too grave to ignore.  I have also heard comparisons with Grenada.  Even the strongly anti-Russian Bush/Cheney administration did not go so far as to suggest that Russia should close its bases in the Crimean.  They also declined requests from Ukraine and Georgia to begin a membership qualification process with NATO, thinking that it would be simply be too threatening to Russia.  But the new Ukrainian government has renewed both those “nightmare” specters in the mind of Russia’s leadership and now we have what we have.

Russia’s movement of troops into the Crimean is surely heavy-handed, illegal, and disproportionate.  It will do nothing to enhance Putin’s stature or Russia’s reputation in the world political arena.  In a single week Russia has lost most of the political capital Putin cultivated over seven years with his Winter Olympics project.  But the stakes are extremely high for Russia and Putin decided to show the world just how seriously his government takes the threat.

The troops Russia sent are fairly small contingents, primarily defensive, and not likely to spark open conflict unless attacked.  Now would be a good time for all sides to calm down and reassess the situation.  If the new government can provide appropriate guarantees to Russia and mitigate the fears of Ukraine’s Russian population, they might be able to defuse the situation fairly quickly.  If they take a hardline approach based on principle, appealing for Western military and ideological support, the outcome could be worse for everyone.

Nathan Hunt is a native of Nebraska. He is an Eagle Scout,  a Nebraska Presidential Scholar and later graduated Summa Cum Laude from Yale University with a degree in Russian Studies. He studied in Moscow and moved there in 1992 to start a Food Brokering company. He is active in the Canada Eurasia Russia Business Association (CERBA) and serves as Chairman of the Board. He is an active businessman in the United States and Europe and quite often serves as a translator.

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  • majrod

    LeopoldWitkowski majrod I agree. Heck I think the whole rational world would agree that it hopes cooler heads prevail and the the Ukraine isn't worth a world war that kills million. One can think that but also has to recognize the limitations of that kind of thought.   Hope is not a method. Serbia wasn't worth a World War.  The Ukraine isn't.  Poland isn't.  What is?  Where do you stop? Serbia started WWI because of a series of alliances that drew nations into a war they didn't want along with the naked aggression of Austria Hungary attempting to invade Serbia and Germany Belgium.  Those alliances don't exist over the Ukraine but the naked aggression does. Poland also started WWII partly due to alliances.  Poland had an alliance with France and Britain to defend it should Germany invade. I don't think the Ukraine is worth WWIII.  I do think stopping naked aggression is worth fighting for when it impacts US interests.  The problem with the Crimea and Ukraine is we don't know where Russia will stop (just like Germany in WWII). FWIW while I don't think the Ukraine is worth WWIII I bet the Ukrainians disagree.  Yesterday a Ukrainian lawmaker said if they hadn't given up nukes they wouldn't have been invaded.  He's right.  Maybe the answer is more nuclear weapons?  We might have less situations that could lead to WWIII.

  • LeopoldWitkowski

    majrod I never said it did.  I just wanted to comment how I enjoyed the read and pass on something interesting I had heard.  My personal take on the situation is the only thing I'm for certain of is that I  hope calmer heads prevail. Serbia wasn't worth it 100 years ago and Crimea ain't worth it today.

  • majrod

    LeopoldWitkowski   BTW, just in... Russian forces on move today in Crimea, seize military hospital in Simferopol and base in Bakhchisaray

  • majrod

    big_hatdance majrod  Thanks Bud. I just wish my analysis paid a fraction of what the talking heads get.  :) I'd be able to do a lot more of it. LOL!!!

  • majrod

    LeopoldWitkowski and that justifies an invasion by an outside country how?