Why Ukraine Is So Important

Since late November the streets of Kiev have become a battle zone, with anti-government protesters facing off against Ukrainian police in near-daily clashes. In the past week or so it became especially violent, with a number of deaths reported among anti-government protesters and images of a near-post-apocalyptic scene in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the center of the protests.

Today, after the government finally attempted some reconciliation, there is finally hope. Ukraine’s parliament has repealed a series of strict anti-protest laws that led to renewed protest earlier this month, and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov tendered his resignation. The most violent stage of the protests might be over.

Unfortunately for the protesters, as the violence ebbs, so may the international attention. Domestic political news in Eastern European countries rarely makes headlines in the U.S. or Western Europe unless it is very dramatic or violent, and common misconceptions about Ukraine relate to things as simple as the country’s name. Don’t forget, before the protests Ukraine’s biggest international story for years was the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and her status as “world’s hottest leader.”

So why should Western readers care about the situation in Ukraine? Two important reasons fit broadly into two schools of international relation theory: Idealism and Realism.


REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Ukraine is a country of almost 46 million people, and we should care what happens to them

Taras Ilkiv, a Ukrainian journalist writing for Business Insider, has argued that while the government’s shift on proposed EU membership is often listed as being the core behind the protests, the real problem relates to human rights and democracy. For people with an idealistic world outlook, it is important to fight that emerging oppression.

Ilkiv says that a peaceful protest against President Yanukovych’s U-turn was violently broken up by Ukraine’s notorious Berkut special police on Nov. 30, and that this was the catalyst for broader protests. People weren’t just sick of the excesses of the Berkut or Yanukovych’s shift toward Moscow — they were angry at Yanukovych for creating a centralized system that allowed for extreme corruption, nepotism, and intimidation. When the government began sending text messages to protesters taking part in “violent demonstrations,” Yanukovych’s government began to look positively Orwellian.

But this is also about more than just Ukraine

Political realists recognise that Ukraine’s domestic tensions really hold major geopolitical significance. Even if, as Ilkiv and others have argued, the protests aren’t just about an internal divide between the pro-Europe West and the pro-Russia East, outside the country this is the aspect that matters most. For many Russians, the history of Ukraine and Russia are intrinsically intertwined, and it’s hard to imagine Russia President Vladimir Putin’s grand plans for a Eurasian Union working if Ukraine joined the E.U. The implications are huge.

“The emergence of a democratic independent Ukraine transforms the geo-strategic landscape in Central Europe,” Distinguished Chair in European Security at the RAND Institute F. Stephen Larrabee wrote in an email to Business Insider. “Without Ukraine Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire. However, if Russia were to regain control over Ukraine with its 46 million people, major resources and access to the Black Sea, Russia would automatically regain the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state.”

Additionally, a number of key gas pipelines from Russia to Western Europe run through Ukraine. In pure economic terms, a shift to Russia would likely change the dynamics of how Western Europe is powered.

The problem with caring about Ukraine

The problem with caring about Ukraine is that there’s no easy way to get involved nor any clear side to back. While U.S. and E.U. governments have voiced their concern about the growing violence and repression, it’s not clear what concrete action they can actually take. Sanctions are the obvious step, but there’s a persuasive argument that Western sanctions would only drive Ukraine further into the hands of Russia.

And who should the West be working with in Ukraine? As Ilkiv notes, the formal opposition in the country has been divided and ineffective compared to the street protests. There are some unsavory figures among the opposition leaders too, as Senator John McCain discovered as he visited the country and stood onstage with a man accused of being an anti-Semitic neo-Nazi.

Let’s remember what the worst case scenario is here. Ukraine is a huge country, and a huge country with a well-developed military industrial complex. If chaos truly spread throughout the country, Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and former editor at the Moscow Times says, the country could become a failed state and a “giant bazaar for customers seeking ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missiles] and other deadly technologies.”

“Whether they are proponents or opponents of playing a lower-budget version of the Grand Game in the post-Soviet neighbourhood,” Saradzhyan says, “Most U.S. policy-makers would probably agree that a failed Ukrainian state is worse than either pro-Russian or pro-Western Ukrainian state.” Of course, that’s a worse-case scenario, and — thanks in part to the announcements today — the hope among observers now is that Ukraine might become united against Yanokovych and his tactics. Right now, all we can do is watch and hope.

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