My family and I have been watching the violent political turmoil in Ukraine with a heightened level of interest. My wife is from a city in Poland a stone’s throw from the Ukrainian border. Already bloodied protesters have been bussed across the border to Polish hospitals in Laczna, Kielce, Warsaw and elsewhere. Hospitals along the border have all been mobilized to receive a flood of wounded refugees, and drop sites are being setup across Poland to accept first aid supplies, bandages, money and food to be sent to the protesters.
We have wondered how a flood of refugees crossing the border would affect our friends and family in Poland. Worse yet, could a conflict in Ukraine draw neighboring countries into the fighting? Any foreign intervention would surely bring Russia into the fray in Ukraine, and if a NATO member like Poland were pitted against Russia on opposing sides of the conflict, surely the U.S. would become involved to protect its ally. The outcome of any such violence in Europe can not be good.
The fact is that Ukraine is essentially two countries tied up in one with a number of ethnic enclaves making things even more complicated. In the broadest sense, in the Western half you have ethnic Ukraines, and in the Eastern half you have ethnic Russians. Much of Western Ukraine previously was a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and not until after WWII were all the current pieces of Ukraine amalgamated as one country.
The cultural divisions show up loud and clear in maps of Ukraine’s votes. You can see in election maps below from 2004, 2007, and 2010 that the votes split geographically from North West to South East. The same group of Ukrainians that protested against Viktor Yanukovych in the 2004 Orange Revolution are the ones protesting him again today. Until these inherent issues are sorted out in Ukraine, there’s going to be friction.
With all the internal differences in Ukraine in mind, then come the dynamics of the EU vs. U.S. vs. Russia. The EU wants Ukraine in the fold. And the U.S. definitely is on board with the revolution, but judging by the intercepted conversation between Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, and Geoff Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine (recording below), the goals of the EU and the U.S. may not intertwine completely. But there is no doubt that by freeing Ukraine, Russia’s sphere of influence would be greatly diminished.
Ukraine is an economic and strategic prize for whomever can modernize its economy. Ukraine is a veritable bread basket when it comes to agriculture. According to Ukraine Digest, 30 percent of the world’s super-productive black soil is in Ukraine, with 42 million acres of arable land. Given western style improvement, Ukraine’s food production could probably increase considerably.
Perhaps most importantly, Sevastopol, the Ukrainian port on the Black Sea, is home to Russia’s naval headquarters. This is Russia’s best port and they lease it by subsidizing Ukraine’s natural gas supplies to the tune of $40 billion until the lease expires in 2042. If Ukraine were to become reliably “western” and wanted to join NATO it would likely expel the Russian navy from Sevastopol. That would be a major strategic coup for NATO and the West. Denying the Russians their best warm water port would not only be embarrassing for them, but also strategically important for future conflicts in the Middle East in which Russian may want to join. This would diminish the Black Sea fleet’s capabilities for some time, as the Russian base in nearby Novorossiysk is still being built out.
The situation in Ukraine is rapidly changing and protesters and opposition officials seem to have taken control of Kiev, and possibly the country. President Yanukovych appears to have fled the capital and is rumored to be hiding out in the Russian speaking region of Ukraine. Opposition leaders have called for his arrest. The best possible solution for Ukraine would be a peaceful agreement that leads to the maximum levels of freedom for Ukrainians. Barring that, the conflict and strife could go on for some time.