The hot topic this week is what is happening in Ukraine so I will try to give a very brief summary. Explaining foreign policy in less than a thousand words is always risky especially since the situation is so fluid. By the time this is read, Ukraine could be in a very different situation – either better or worse.
As of this moment, the capital, Kiev, has been abandoned by government troops. The military and police seem to have either deserted the President, or since Yanukovych is nowhere to be found, they may just be leaderless and have given up defending a corrupt central government.
Ukraine is the largest country on the continent of Europe. It has more than 44 million people living in it and has been independent since 1991. Before that, it was a member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It houses the Russian fleet in Sevastopol and is the bread basket for Russia, and is the third largest exporter of grain in the world. It borders both European countries and Russia. Russia, and certainly Putin, have not wanted to lose the close relationship that existed when Ukraine was part of the USSR.
Many Ukrainians had counted on their country becoming a member of the EU, but Yanukovych refused to sign the agreement although most thought it was overly favorable to his country. The agreement even allowed a special relationship for Ukraine to have with Russia which is unusual for EU member states. Putin, however, did not want to “lose” one of the original parts of the Soviet Union and exerted his influence on his ally, Yanukovych, to refuse the EU membership. Many observers, both Democrat and Republican, feel that Putin has been taking advantage of weak leadership from the United States, to try, in essence, to bring back the Soviet Union relationships.
The protests against the government began in Kiev last November and have continued to grow. Originally, it was thought that the Yanukovych government and its Russian supporters would be able to break up the protests. Putin and his government made many public statements supporting Yanukovych and urging him to stand firm against the protesters. It was also assumed that the protesters were from the western part of the country and not from the ethnic Russian population and those who live in the eastern half of Ukraine would support the existing government. Instead, the protests got stronger with some joining who were from the eastern part of the country and were of Russian ethnic background. It seems that the corruption of the government added supporters to the cause to have new elections.
After four months of the constant protests, and more than 100 deaths, the EU with Russian acquiescence arranged a truce which Yanukovych signed on February 21st. He then vanished from the capital and his presidential residence. All troops have disappeared from the streets of the capital.
As some have called it, the “Arab Spring” of Europe, Ukrainians seem to have the opportunity to construct a new future for their country. The question will be whether Putin will allow Ukraine to “look West” or will help shape the next government to be an extension of Putin’s power. If the EU with U.S. support can keep the pressure on, we might see free and fair elections and Ukraine could have a very bright future. If the world loses interest, Putin and his allies could step into the temporary void and assert Russian interests again especially if the eastern part of the country is roused to support Russia. Stay tuned!