Last week, as three months of escalating “Euromaidan” protests ended in violent turmoil, Viktor Yanukovych, Russian president Vladmir Putin’s Puppet in Kiev, fled the Ukrainian capital.
As I write this column, the toppled Ukrainian president’s whereabouts remain a mystery. The Internet runs rife with speculation, some of it informed by a knowledge of Ukrainian-Russian historical frictions, Ukrainian demographics and the potential hideout’s territorial proximity to Russia.
All three factors influence Ukraine’s current crisis; they have influenced Ukrainian crises past and will influence future Ukrainian crises as well.
These factors also help British bookies set their betting line. Brit gamblers regard the eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk area and the Crimean peninsula as “best bet” locales for a Yanukovych hidey-hole. Both are predominantly ethnic Russian and hence pro-Yanukovych Ukrainian regions.
Eastern Ukraine borders Russia. During czarist times, the Russian Orthodox church held sway among faithful eastern Ukrainian Slavs. Western Ukrainians tended to be Catholic, like their fellow Slavs to the west, in Poland. Western Ukrainians overwhelmingly favor European Union integration.
The Crimea is disputed territory. As an act of Communist brotherhood, in 1954 then-Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine. Twenty-three years after the Soviet Navy fragmented, Sevastopol, Crimea’s major seaport, still doubles as the home port of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet.
Communism’s legacy of kleptocrat corruption and economic stupidity does contribute to Ukraine’s current economic fiasco. Ukraine is deeply in debt. Its acting finance minister estimates it needs $35 billion in loans to meet minimum government obligations through 2015. The country’s reputation for rampant bribery, financial fogginess and its failure to meet past loan obligations make it a poor credit risk. Little wonder lenders balk.
Last fall, Yanukovych backed out of an EU association agreement his government made in March 2012 in favor of a suspect deal with Putin that allegedly involved $15 billion in cash. Yanukovych also disliked EU condemnation of his blatant mistreatment of his main political rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
But reneging on the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement and his Putin-esque taste for jailing political opponents spurred the “Euromaidan” demonstrations.
Last week’s violence in Kiev pitted protestors armed with wooden clubs and slingshots against pro-Yanukovych police truncheons and sniper rifles. The demonstrators claim that pro-Yanukovych snipers killed 100 protestors.
The killings appalled Ukrainians east and west. Ukraine’s parliament demanded Yanukovych’s resignation. This week, parliament voted to ask the International Criminal Court to indict Yanukovych for murder.
Like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, Yanukovych still claims he is the legitimate president. In 2010, he won a plurality of votes in a disputed runoff against Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko claimed that some 900,000 ballots (most from eastern Ukraine) were tainted. Yanukovych had her tried and convicted for agreeing to an expensive contract for — get this — Russian natural gas. There is little doubt prison guards beat her severely after she protested her incarceration. On February 22, Ukraine’s parliament voted to release her, with all charges dropped.
In 2010, Moscow and Europe’s elite media interpreted Yanukovvch’s election as a victory over the West. Elite media initially proclaimed Yanukovych’s flight as a victory for pro-EU Ukrainians.
Unfortunately, Ukraine’s east-west tug of war is a long game where any victory is tentative. Agreed, the Ukrainian military has stayed in the barracks, so far. The Russian Army has not invaded Ukraine, yet. Eastern Ukrainians have not (yet) demanded, en masse, that Yanukovych return to Kiev as president — but stay tuned.
In October 2013, NATO did not offer Ukraine membership. In retrospect, it appears Putin and Yanukovych interpreted NATO’s careful diplomatic decision as appeasement. Returning Ukraine to the Kremlin is key to building the RUBK, pronounced “rubik,” like the cube puzzle game. A Russia-Ukraine-Belarus-Khazakhstan state would have superpower economic heft and population. Putin knows it. The Ukrainian struggle isn’t over.
Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist.