A bit over a thousand years ago, the Vikings had taken control of northeastern Europe as well as raiding and settling in what is now Great Britain and France. One of them was the ruler of Kievan Rus, known now as Ukraine. That tied Ukraine to Europe while the rest of the Russians were isolated by comparison. Ukrainians have since been more oriented toward Europe than the rest of Russia.
The Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin did not trust Ukrainians as WWII approached; he starved some 7,000,000 of them to death in a manufactured famine to make room for Russian replacements he sent there. We are seeing his results today.
In Ukraine’s capital Kiev, we saw today some 70 dead and hundreds wounded as government snipers shot into crowds of demonstrators. The government is supported by the descendants of Stalins’ immigrants in eastern Ukraine, folk who agree with President Yanukovich that the country should dismiss Europe and turn toward its historical ties to Russia.
But Western Ukraine is still Ukrainian; its people want ties to the E.U, not to Russia. President Yanukovich has repudiated that possibility, one that had been pursued by his predecessor, who is now jailed.
At one extreme we see the largest western city, Lviv, declaring itself independent of the Yanukovich government in order to pursue European ties while at the other, the Crimea’s pro-Russian people would rather secede than join the westerners. Today’s Ukraine is truly an East/West conflict. And these differences in attitude date back all the way to the Kievan Rus. It isn’t widely recognized but when Hitler’s armies first invaded the Soviet Union, they were treated by the Ukrainians as deliverers.
Ukraine sits on a tightrope across a civil war. President Yanukovich has just replaced his army chief, probably to assure that his military is ready to shoot Ukrainians with aplomb. President Obama has reprised his earlier “line in the sand” speech to Syria, warning that Yanukovich needs to be nice to his people or suffer “consequences.” It is not obvious what those may be, other than ordering Yanukovich sent to bed without his supper.
“The Economist” wrung its hands over the mess, essentially concluding that Russia’s Putin will snatch back his lost satrapy while hapless Europe looks helplessly on and the U.S. deplores. The Economist is likely correct. If western Ukraine is going to free itself from authoritarian government and join Europe, it is going to have to be accomplished by the Ukrainians. Once, they were the “breadbasket of Europe.” That was a long time ago, predating Stalin. Now, they look to remain imprisoned in authoritarian government from the East. The largest imponderable seems the number of dead bodies that will be required.