Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Along with the Malaysian Airlines plane crash, the Ukrainian crisis has been at the forefront of media coverage for several weeks. The situation first attracted international attention in early December, when over 100,000 Ukrainians gathered in Kiev’s Maidan (Independence Square) to protest President Viktor Yanukovych’s abandonment of a deal to strengthen ties with the European Union. Yanukovych had been elected on promises both to move the country closer to the West and to forge closer relations with Russia. After he approved anti-protest legislation, several protesters were injured or fatally shot by the military. In view of rising unrest, Yanukovych fled his country and President Vladimir Putin of Russia expanded the number of troops stationed at a Russian military base on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. This March, Crimean citizens reportedly voted overwhelmingly in favor of annexation to Russia, and Yanukovych called Saturday for similar referendums to be held throughout the other Ukrainian territories.
This situation stems from the tension between Ukrainian independence, a relatively new status for citizens who experienced the country under communism, and an intense fear of Russian takeover stemming from the countries’ entangled histories and borders.
Starting in 1922, Ukraine was largely under the authority of Moscow as part of the Soviet Bloc. Under this control, Ukrainians experienced famine, as well as political and artistic censorship and repression of the Ukrainian language. Though certain forces within the nation attempted to gain independence during World War II, Ukraine remained under Russian authority until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, when the nation established itself as an independent republic. Though the experience of living under the Soviet Bloc has sparked strong feelings of national pride among some Ukrainians, citizens in certain parts of the country, predominantly southern and eastern regions, still hold Russian customs and use Russian as their dominant form of communication. The Russian government is thought to be supported by many in these regions, as evidenced by Crimea’s recent vote on annexation, in which 97 percent of the population voted in favor of becoming part of Russia. The legitimacy of the referendum is, however, disputed by some.
In addition to creating a fear of eventual Russian takeover of Ukraine, these events have sparked apprehension regarding a Cold War revival between the West and Russia. In my next post, I will discuss corruption in Ukrainian politics and feelings toward Yanukovych with Ukrainian and Russian students and staff members at the University of Missouri. I will also examine the likelihood of a Russian takeover, consequences of Western intervention and whether Ukraine is headed in the right direction.