The problems in Ukraine are of global impact and local woe. Decades ago, in the couple of years following the fall of the Iron Curtain and the breakup of the Soviet Union, I wrote an analysis of Ukraine’s prospects, given the scant materials that were publicly available at the time (mostly newspaper and current affairs magazine reports).
[Note:Some lessons on leadership follow...]
In my decades-old analysis, I noted that Ukraine’s diminished economy, history of subjugation, man-made and nuclear (Chernobyl) disasters connoted a very weak capacity for long-term, democratically oriented, successful leadership and economic management. Despite its abundance of natural resources, Ukraine simply didn’t have a history of successful self-management. Further, I predicted that given its history under the Soviets, that it would eventually fall to another corrupt dictator in the future.
Indeed, Ukraine never did fully pull out of the Soviet-style regime. The West was happy to ask for all of their nukes with a ‘guarantee’ that they (and Russia) would then support Ukraine’s national territorial integrity. But Germany and the EU always resisted Ukraine’s full adoption into Europe’s economy. The US and other stronger nations worldwide essentially ignored Ukraine politically and economically.
Given the depredations that Ukraine suffered throughout the 20th Century, it was more in need of a Marshall Plan than to be viewed as a nation-state capable of self-determination.
But I got something wrong that I didn’t understand at the time: Ukraine’s Ukrainians do not want dictatorship. They had to suffer under it, yes, but I underestimated their desire for freedom. I don’t have a copy of my paper to hand (it’s in my files somewhere), but I gave too short shrift to their sense of national identity, long dormant under the Soviet Empire.
I have relatives in Ukraine. My mother is Ukrainian and I was brought up as part of the Ukrainian community here in Australia. Hence my more than passing interest in the region and its people. I have a cousin (once removed) who is a Ukrainian academic, and is politically active, had been jailed in the past by various regimes, but is a vocal advocate for peaceful resolutions and actions. He has been right in the midst of this ongoing crisis, advocating peaceful solutions alongside Ukraine’s right to self-determination and freedom from corruption. The Ukrainian diaspora has always portrayed its people as proud and desperate for freedom and the right to determine their own course. This has been borne out by their popular actions over the last decade.
Russian incursions and mass populating eastern areas with ethnic Russians has indeed generated much resentment and despair at the systematic destruction and undermining of Ukraine’s own history and culture. Even the term, ‘The Ukraine’ which was used by almost all world leaders and media up until a week or so ago, was a hangover of the Soviet Empire, with Ukraine denoted as ‘The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’. Thankfully, most of those public figures have recently found the country on the map of the globe and noticed there hasn’t been a ‘The’ for a long time. (Kudos to Australia’s ABC for realising this a while ago.)
The US and EU’s heartily belated response to the present crisis is another indication of their pressing lack of foresight: If there is no immediate financial gain, then why treaty with Ukraine? Russia was always the key player to their collective minds, Ukraine merely a route for gas pipelines to Europe, a pleasant repository of grain and a bulwark for advancement into Russia. Thus, Ukraine has been a much lesser consideration to US and European strategy. But even more than Georgia, Ukraine’s dissolution would have disastrous consequences for the region and the world.
This Slavic country has a rich, but tortured history (as have all the Slavs, let’s be honest) and its people want their freedom, self-determination and ability to govern without massive corruption. The previous leaders of Ukraine had made some progress towards economic growth, but always subsumed by vested interests and outright embezzlement on a grand scale. If you want a view of how the recently ousted Ukrainian president lived, you can visit a New York Times tour of Yanukovych’s former compound here.
Just as George Bush realised late that Vladimir Putin is not such a ‘good guy’ (you can read about Bush’s realisation in his memoirs), so Obama has come to realise that he cannot cozy up and provide Putin with ‘flexibility’ – it merely screams target to Putin. Ironically, in consideration of Obama’s statements to the contrary, Russia may well be the US’s Number One geopolitical foe.
So what can all we mere mortals who do not deal with global politics and the running of nation-states learn from the ongoing Ukraine saga?
- Culture is important. It’s the legacy of the soviet culture, its regime and its systems, that has kept Ukraine destabilised for decades.
- It’s naïve to expect long-lasting change without aggressively tackling cultural issues and creating a new culture through the creation of subsidised systems.
- Look past who is your biggest potential threat to who may be your most natural allies. The US should have been far more assertive and supportive of Ukraine. The CIA’s little cut-and-paste on Wikipedia regarding US-Ukrainian policy notwithstanding, the US’s pitiful $3 billion of aid over twenty-plus years does not indicate heartfelt support towards the second-most powerful, European-leaning, US-friendly, democratic and peace-loving (after all, they did give up their nukes) former Soviet nation. That $3b is probably less than the US spends every couple of years on toilet paper in their military.
- Faltering responses encourages bullies to step up their actions. If you act trepidatiously, someone else will jump in. I don’t mean by that that Obama should be threatening military action – absolutely not. However, his continued vacillation, weak comments and even hesitation to label Russia’s naked aggression delayed response from all quarters of the globe.
- Let’s not blame everything on the Obamas of the world. The revolution of the Ukrainian people was against a corrupt ruler. The incursion of Putin is merely to support Putin and Russia’s regional hegemony. Likewise, you are responsible for your own turf. Own up to it.
- Don’t allow corruption to infest your leadership and your leadership team. Really, there will be a revolt, some time, some how.
- Don’t underestimate people’s desire for freedom and your need to support it.
This last Sunday was the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of Ukraine’s most treasured poets – Taras Shevchenko. He was a patriot, but equally an advocate for the underdog. In honour of his birthday, here is some of his poetry, which still resonates today:
Dear God, calamity again! …
It was so peaceful, so serene;
We but began to break the chains
That bind our folk in slavery …
When halt! … Again the people’s blood
Is streaming! Like rapacious dogs
About a bone, the royal thugs
Are at each other’s throat again.
Novopetrovsk Fortress, 1854 (?)
Translated by John Weir, Toronto
And from his poem, “It Makes No Difference to Me”
It makes no difference to me,
If that son says a prayer or not.
It makes great difference to me
That evil folk and wicked men
Attack our Ukraine, once so free,
And rob and plunder it at will.
That makes great difference to me.
St. Petersburg Citadel Prison May, 1847
Translated by Clarence A. Manning Columbia University New York, 1944
Let’s hope that what happens in Ukraine now “makes great difference” to everyone involved and that peace and reason will prevail.