Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Next Step in Ukraine

President Viktor Yanukovych, the ally of Vladimir Putin of Russia, signed an agreement with the opposition that provided for anmesty for the protesters, freed political opponent Yulia Tymoshenko from prison, and generally eased the way towards a genuine transition to democracy--if the Ukrainians are capable of it. At last report Yanukovych was said to be in Kharkov (Kharkiv in Ukrainian), the main city in the eastern half of the country, which is home to the Russian-speaking population. He fled his palace in Kiev (Kyiv in Ukrainian). Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is likely to try to return to power. But many of the protesters from Maidan square in Kiev reject her as both corrupt and autocratic. She was also closely linked to Putin.

I remember years ago a conversation with a fellow military linguist who had just returned from some time spent in Ukraine shortly after independence. He was Polish-American and a Russian linguist and told me that Ukrainian seemed to be about halfway between Polish, a western Slavic language, and Russian, an eastern Slavic language. The same thing could be said of Ukraine itself. Poland is clearly a western country that has identified its place with the West. Russia is a mixture of Asian and European influences and culture. Ukraine is somewhere in between these two (and Belarus, which is like Russia) in terms of readiness for democracy and political culture.

Historically Ukraine and Russia have been linked. The first Russian state, which existed around the turn of the millennium in 1,000 A.D., had as its capital Kiev, the capital of present-day Ukraine. Under the Czars Ukraine was the breadbasket of Russia providing it with the grain for its population as the Midwest does for the United States. It was known to imperialists as "Little Russia" signifying that they considered it to be both Russian and subordinate. During 1918 the western part of Ukraine was occupied by the German army as part of the settlement of Brest-Litovsk. Under German occupation Ukrainian nationalists came to power and the country gained independence from Russia during the Russian Civil War. There was a three-way war taking place between Ukrainian nationalists, Russian monarchists, and Bolsheviks.  But in 1919 the Bolsheviks managed to reconquer most of the country. In November 1920, the Red Army conquered the Crimea ending the monarchist threat to Communist rule. During World War II much of the manpower for the Soviet Red Army was provided for by Ukrainians and Belarusians and it was in these now independent countries where much of the fighting took place from 1941 to 1944.

During both the Czarist and the Soviet periods, the Black Sea provided Russia with its only warm-water ports that did not freeze over during the winter. The Russian navy was anchored in Crimea, which although attached to Ukraine was a Russian enclave until 1954.   So the Big Three Yalta Summit of February 1945 took place in Russia in a place that is now part of Ukraine. Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine as a birthday present to mark the 300th anniversary of Russian control of Ukraine, never suspecting that in less than 40 years Ukraine would be independent again. Today the Russian and Ukrainian navies share the Black Sea (along with the Romanian and Bulgarian navies) and both share anchorage at Sevastopol, the old Russian and Soviet naval base. When the Soviet Union broke up Moscow claimed Sevastopol under the argument that it was never integrated into the Ukrainian Republic. In 1997 Ukraine agreed to share the port with the Russian navy until 2017, and in 2010 this was extended by Kiev for another 25 years as part of a gas deal between Moscow and Kiev. If Russia under Putin has been so reluctant to give up Ba'athist Syria with its Russian anchorage at Tartus, just think about how Putin will feel about sharing the Black Sea with an anti-Russian, pro-Western Ukrainian government in Kiev. Putin can afford to lose control of Syria, he cannot afford to lose control of Ukraine.

In Georgia  Putin was quite willing to exploit ethnic divisions to back minority groups against the Georgian government. In Ukraine where some 45 percent of the population is made up of native Russian speakers, these groups will not be hard to find. Expect the battle for Little Russia to continue.

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