On Friday, 7 March, Dr. Marek Chodakiewicz, professor of history and current holder of the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies, delivered a presentation–entitled “Ukraine: Code Orange”–on the current crisis in the Central-Eastern European nation.
The narrative was firmly grounded in the history of Ukraine. Dr. Chodakiewicz discussed the most important historical milestones, such as: the establishment and Christianization of the Medieval Eastern Slavic polity of Kievan Rus; the Mongol conquest; the heritage of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the aftermath of its partition; Muscovite rule and Russification; the rise and development of Ukrainian nationalism and the fight for independent statehood; Sovietization and the Terror Famine (Holodomor), which killed from 2-6 million Ukrainians, compared with relative freedom in Poland; the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland/Western Ukraine, followed by the Nazi German invasion, and the reimposition of Soviet tyranny; and, finally, the implosion of the Soviet Empire and Ukrainian independence, which was approved by 92.3 percent of voters in the former Soviet republic in December 1991.
The collapse of communism-proper did not necessarily translate into freedom, democracy, and independence. Post-communism in Ukraine-as in all other “transitioning” countries previously ruled by Marxist totalitarians-was characterized by numerous pathologies. Former communist apparatchiks and secret policemen retained much power and influence. The system they managed, a kleptocratic oligarchy, was defined by corruption, embezzlement, and poverty. Nationalists were further angry by the fact that the post-Soviet kleptarchs-mostly Russified post-communists from the east and south of the country-were quite close to Moscow, in spite of the fact that Ukraine had just thrown off occupation by the Kremlin.
Mounting discontent culminated in the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, which brought pro-Western forces to power. The Orange coalition proved unable to solve many of Ukraine’s problems, although, as Dr. Chodakiewicz noted, the new government finally managed to develop a common historical narrative to reconcile the memories of nationalist Western Ukrainians and their Russian or Russified fellow countrymen in the east and south by commemorating the Holodomor. As a result of the generally disappointing legacy of the Orange years, Dr. Chodakiewicz added, the revolution’s most prominent leaders (such as Yulia Tymoshenko) were not very popular among the Maidan protestors.
Although Viktor Yanukovych and the post-Soviet oligarchy, under the banner of the Party of Regions, returned to power, the president lost his legitimacy by violating the constitution in his attempts to strengthen his powers. The decision to reject a trade agreement with the EU in favor of closer ties to the Russian-dominated Eurasian Customs Union in November 2013 proved to be the “last straw,” igniting three months of protests and demonstrations, which soon evolved into another Orange Revolution. Dr. Chodakiewicz emphasized that the Maidan revolt-which succeeded in replacing the Yanukovych-Regionnaire regime with an opposition government-was propelled not so much by enthusiasm for the European Union, but rather by nationalism, patriotism, discontent with post-communism, and opposition to growing Russian influence. In other words, a key driving force was the desire for self-determination; the Ukrainians would like to decide for themselves for a change.
Events transpired at an increasingly rapid pace, surprising many observers and politicians. Dr. Chodakiewicz discussed the manner in which the Maidan uprising unfolded, in addition to the nature and motivations of the diverse panoply of participants.
Russia’s president perceived the Maidan revolt as a threat to the Kremlin’s hegemony. Ukraine is, after all, the key to rebuilding Moscow’s empire, which-Dr. Chodakiewicz demonstrated-is Vladimir Putin’s main strategic objective. The invasion of the Crimea Peninsula and the fomenting of pro-Russian demonstrations and secessionist forces in southern and eastern Ukraine is an attempt to punish Kiev, and to demonstrate to other “near abroad” capitals, that Moscow will not tolerate full independence on their part. The aggression is also a test of American resolve and Western (i.e. NATO) solidarity. So far, the Obama administration and Western European governments are failing this test, reminding quite a few analysts of the dangerous situation in Europe during the late 1930s. While Dr. Chodakiewicz cautioned commentators about deploying historical analogies simply for literary effect, the annals of the past certainly demonstrate that weakness and vacillation invite aggression and contempt.
While the West dithers and toys with sanctions, the Ukrainians have found themselves in an extremely precarious situation in which, Dr. Chodakiewicz advises, they should practice civil disobedience due to the military disparity between Russia and Ukraine. Kiev should avoid reacting to Moscow’s provocative attempts to escalate the conflict, which, in the current situation (i.e. a lack of firm US and/or NATO response) would mean falling into Putin’s trap. Western leaders may believe that the Crimea is not worth the perceived costs of enraging Moscow, but they should also remember that the manner in which they handle the crisis will have an impact on international politics in the future, including in places quite remote from Ukraine. The Russian leadership, however, would also do well to consider that further escalation and aggression-including attempts to annex Crimea or any other part of Ukraine, not to mention the conquest of the entire country-might not be as painless as the Kremlin apparently assumes. Moscow’s invasion has the potential to radicalize Ukrainian nationalists, who have shown themselves willing to fight and die.
Please click here to view the PowerPoint presentation for this lecture: Ukraine: Code Orange
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