ODESSA, Ukraine - If the West appears confused by Russian actions in Ukraine and unable to find an adequate response to the crisis, it is because from the outset, it has misread the situation, transforming an essentially domestic dispute into one that threatens the security architecture of Europe. While all sides have contributed to the current debacle, six widely held assumptions have played an inordinate role in shaping Western discourse about Ukraine. These will need to be corrected before any real progress can be made.
1. The Ukrainians are one people, united in their support of change: This is a familiar refrain among Western politicians, yet anyone familiar with Ukrainian history knows that its borders have changed many times in the past century. As a result, millions of people without any ethnic, cultural, or linguistic attachment to Ukraine wound up in its present borders. Since 1991, the most visible division has been between Western Ukrainians, many of whom seek a Ukraine culturally and politically distinct from Russia, and Eastern Ukrainians, who want to live in a Ukraine that is independent, but that also maintains close spiritual, cultural, and economic ties to Russia. The fact that Western governments have identified the national aspirations of Ukraine with those of the Western regions of the country puts them at odds with half the country. Even if the Western regions prevail over the Eastern regions in the current struggle, choosing sides in this way has generated anti-Western sentiment in the East that is likely to linger for years to come.
2. Supporting the Euromaidan’s ouster of president Yanukovych : At the height of the Euromaidan riots, Western governments warned president Yanukovych not to use force to disband the protests, even as they turned violent. Later, during a critical phase of negotiations with the opposition, officials from the United States were taped discussing which specific opposition leaders they wanted to replace him. To a Ukrainian public already sharply divided over the legitimacy of the public protests on the Maidan ( three-quarters of the population in Ukraine’s eastern cities regarded the Euromaidan protests as illegal), this merely proved that the West was intervening to thwart the political preferences of half the country.
3. Failing to stand behind the February 21 agreement : The failure of France, Germany and Poland to stand behind the negotiated transition of power that they had called for, has been a blow to the legitimacy of Ukrainian state institutions from which it has had great difficulty recovering. The subsequent seizure of power by the opposition not only brought down the much reviled, though legitimately elected president, it also led to the collapse of the country’s largest political party which, for all its faults, embodied the political aspirations of roughly half the population. To this day, fewer than a third of the population in Russian-speaking Ukraine view the acting president and prime minister as legitimate, while in Donetsk and Lugansk, the hotbeds of armed resistance, this figure falls to less than 15 percent.
4. Ignoring the rise of the Radical Right: The Western media has slowly caught on to the fact that right-wing nationalist groups like Svoboda and the Right Sector played a decisive role in the radicalization of the Euromaidan, and in the dramatic seizure of power immediately after the February 21 accords. Officially, however, Western governments continue to insist that their role is marginal. Yet, even today, such groups wield inordinate influence within the parliament and on the streets of central Kiev, which they continue to occupy despite pleas by the acting president to leave. They intimidate politicians, judges, and journalists, indeed anyone who speaks out against the policies of the current government. Their intimidation of presidential candidates associated with the Party of Regions elicits almost no comment from Western governments. Many in the Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine see this as further confirmation of Western partisanship.
5. Labeling protesters in the East and South “pro-Russian” and “separatists.”: Both labels are misleading because attachment to Russia in these regions is cultural and linguistic, not political. Reports from the region, surveys, and statements by local and national politicians, make it abundantly clear that there are significant local grievances against the interim government in Kiev. Even firebrand Yulia Tymoshenko recently acknowledged as much on national television. The vast majority simply want their Russian heritage to be recognized as part of their Ukrainian identity. The easiest way to do this, they say, would be to acknowledge the reality of Ukraine’s bilingualism in the constitution. The interim government’s resistance to this idea only deepens their mistrust of Kiev.
As for the charge of separatism, it is worth noting that in every instance where separatism has become an issue, including Crimea, the original demand was for greater regional rights and autonomy within Ukraine. Only when Kiev responded by replacing local officials with ones loyal only to the new government, did the issue of secession arise. That is one reason why most people in the Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine (62 percent) blame the loss of Crimea on Kiev, rather than on Crimean separatists (24 percent), or on Russia (19 percent). The same approach is now being taken toward eastern and southern Ukraine, with the same disastrous results.