mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
What's It Going To Take?
Kiev Is Burning


The tinderbox that is Ukraine has exploded: the latest violence in Kiev has cost 13 lives so far, and the number is likely to rise. Downtown Kiev is aflame and there are no signs of a quick end to the most serious crisis in the troubled country yet.

For a quick backgrounder on how we got to this latest escalation, take a look at this AP report. And for anyone looking for live coverage of the protests, the Washington Post has an excellent video feed showing the conflict unfolding in real time.

Ukraine had perhaps the most tragic history of any country in the 20th century. The bitter civil war between the Bolsheviks and their opponents slaughtered and starved millions in the aftermath of World War One. Stalin was at his worst here; he and his henchmen were responsible for millions more deaths in the collectivization struggles and purges of the 1930s. No sooner had the purges wound down than the Nazis invaded; between the murder of many of its Jews, the bitter partisan warfare, the full fury of the Eastern Front conflict and the starvation resulting from the war, Ukraine’s population was decimated once more.

Ukraine today suffers from most of the maladies of post-Soviet life. The old system broke down, and a stable and prosperous new system has been unable to emerge. Unprincipled oligarchs dominate political life and state institutions are weak. Divided between a Russian-speaking eastern half and a Ukrainian-speaking (and often westward looking) western half, Ukraine isn’t sure what it’s identity is going to be.

Meanwhile, most Russian nationalists consider Ukrainian independence an absurdity, and one of President Putin’s central goals is to reunite Ukraine with Russia. This is a battle he cannot afford to lose, and he is playing every card in his hand for all it is worth — at best to bring Ukraine back to the embrace of mother Russia or at least to prevent it from joining with the West.

The EU and the United States have failed to develop a coherent strategy for Ukraine. As the situation in Kiev escalates, the question now is how bad things would have to get to prompt a serious Ukrainian policy from the West, which thus far has been mostly content to utter beautiful phrases. The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine is doing his best, pegging responsibility solely on the Ukrainian government for this latest round of violence. Yanukovych and his thugs are probably not all that worried by the tough talk, however. As world leaders are sure to have taken away from Assad’s experience in Syria, this administration is fond of bluster without follow-up.

We shall see.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Andrew Allison

    With apologies to “Tevye the Dairyman”: Partition!

    • Jim__L

      For what it’s worth, the Ukrainian acquaintance of mine thinks that partition is a real possibility, and in fact continued union might just lead to decades of pain.

      • Andrew Allison

        There’s no question that the alternative to partition is decades of pain — it’s mutated from a protest to a civil war and, as I commented elsewhere, civil wars end either by one side decisively winning (US, N. Vietnam) or physical separation of the combatants (Korea, Cyprus). Most importantly, the US should under no circumstances get involved. It’s Europe’s problem.

  • Pete

    “Downtown Kiev is aflame.”

    Really? Or are there just bonfires set by the rebels burning in open spaces? Big difference between the two.

  • Kavanna

    Putin will ultimately lose this one, but not before he does a lot of damage first.

    The answer to the question is, of course, “no.”

    • Andrew Allison

      I wouldn’t bet on it. Ukraine is a must-win for Putin whereas, in Prof. Mead’s words, the West “thus far has been mostly content to utter beautiful phrases.” Is the West prepared to go to war to capture Ukraine? I think not. Is Putin? Perhaps.

    • nunyabidnessfoo

      Russia has more to lose in this fight than the west, thus there’s no reason to think Russia won’t win, at least in the short to medium term.

  • Jim__L

    So, does the West have a plan to prevent the Ukraine from becoming the EU’s next Greece?

    • gabrielsyme

      Hahahaha… No.

      Next question?

      Actually, Ukraine would probably prefer to be in Greece’s position, but I understand your point.

      • Jim__L

        Poor Ukraine. Once again, they’re looking to escape the grip of imperialist Russia… via liberation by a German-led alliance.

        Oy weh.

        • John Stephens

          This time, the Germans are sane. One of the great Ifs of World War II is how the German invasion of the Soviet Union would have gone if they hadn’t been such murderous bastards.

          • free_agent

            Decades ago, a friend of mine who had studied Russian language and literature claimed that Hitler’s biggest mistake was trying to conquer Ukraine, that Hitler should have armed the Ukranians, who would have then taken Moscow for him.

      • free_agent

        Checking the CIA World Factbook:

        Greece, per capita GDP (at PPP): $24,300, rank 62 (out of about 200 countries in the world)
        Ukraine, per capita GDP (at PPP): $7,300, rank 132

        And Ukraine’s government has already gone bust, that’s why Putin’s offer of $15 billion with no demands for political reforms is sucking in the Ukraine government.

        So yeah, turning into the next Greece would make them three times richer…

        • Jim__L

          … richer perhaps, and eternally a vassal market of German industry. I’m not convinced Greece has hit bottom yet, or that its continued participation in the Euro will allow it to recover.

          Do those GDP numbers make a distinction between Ukraine’s industrial east and agrarian west? It’s entirely possible that the erosion (or collapse) of Ukrainian industry would not be offset by any gains the west might see.

          I honestly don’t think that it’s been persuasively demonstrated that joining the EU is good for any given prospective member. Good for Germany maybe, but anyone else?

  • gabrielsyme

    I see this strict cultural and linguistic division mentioned again and again; but my limited understanding is that most of eastern Ukraine does not speak the main dialect of Russian, but a dialect of Ukrainian, albeit one that is closer to standard Russian than other Ukrainian dialects. In a similar manner, western Ukraine shares a significant cultural legacy with Russia, just as does Eastern Ukraine.

    The political differences are large, but I think the cultural divisions are often overstated. Perhaps someone with a great deal of experience in Ukraine could give a deeper understanding of the cultural, linguistic and religious differences in Ukraine’s regions.

  • free_agent

    I still want to see a detailed analysis of why we need to care. Ukraine is a dagger pointed at the heart of Romania, a country that is poor even by Russian standards.

    Similarly, I can imagine American Presidents praying every night to not have to care about the Arab/Muslim world. If we didn’t have to import oil, we could just ignore the Saudis and the rest of them. Wouldn’t that be a better way to live?

    • rheddles

      We don’t import very much middle eastern oil and haven’t for a long time. But the Japanese and Europeans do. And if someone else is policing the Persian Gulf, say the Chinese and Iranians, we can expect to see the price of oil rise. Everywhere. That’s why we have an interest regardless of how much middle eastern oil we directly import.

      Your point is much better suited for the Ukraine. Do we really care whether Ukraine falls under Russian control? It will provide much more food for Russia and give it a dagger as you point out. But how much to we care about the Romanians. It’s such a small country, far away, about which we know so little.

  • qet

    What sort of plan, what sort of strategy, does Via Meadia have in mind? Does Via Meadia actually have any such in mind, or is it just sounding the words for effect? The only strategy I can see is the strategy of the better bribe. Here, in Russia’s own neighborhood, there can be no question of force, and, as according to Adam Garfinkle diplomacy without the backing of force is useless, no question of diplomacy either. Instead of the baguette-to-the-knife fight metaphor Via Meadia is so fond of, instead of channeling Sean Connery in The Untouchables and advising that when Yanukovych and/or Putin hits, we hit back twice as hard, we should adapt that image to reality, and say that when Putin bribes, we should bribe back twice as hard. America through the EU should have just kept upping the bid until the gavel came down. Of course, where we would get all that money I have no idea, as we are beyond insolvent at the moment, as is Europe. So much for our only plausible strategy. So perhaps we should just passively observe. After all, they also serve who only stand and wait.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service