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Ukraine and Its Border Problems

By       Message Frank Munley     Permalink
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Proponents of "humanitarian intervention," e.g., officials like UN Ambassador Samantha Power, are quick to use the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) provision of the UN charter for military intervention in situations where the lives and rights of masses of innocents are being violated. In a recent article, Robert Parry describes how the R2Pers, e.g. the Obama administration's UN Ambassador Samantha Power, have teamed up with Obama administration neocons to pressure Ukraine to turn to the west and away from Russia.

The neocons and R2Pers, often self-righteous to a fault, are quick to counsel meddling in Ukraine despite their failures in Iraq, Libya, and other places. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. They appear to be either willfully ignorant of the complexities and uncertainties of international relations, which often result in bad blowback effects as in Libya's continuing instability spreading to Mali, or more likely are using humanitarian concern opportunistically as an excuse for the exercise of their faith in the "benevolence" of a Pax Americana, wishing now to sprinkle it on Ukraine.

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Borders and discontents: Breaking up is hard to do

National borders are usually a result of power struggles between expansionist political/military powerhouses who don't care that much about those ensnared in borders forced on them. The bloody history of the US is a good example, with Mexican and Native American populations being taken over and betrayed for the sake of territorial expansion. Ukraine as currently constituted is another example. Prior to 1939, Ukrainian nationalism was quite active in the westernmost parts of present-day Ukraine, then under the control of Poland, but the central and eastern parts were in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). Then in 1939 Stalin forcibly took over the western parts and joined them with Ukraine to enlarge the Ukrainian SSR.

Numerous maps of Ukrain's evolution are available on the internet. The reader is referred to one map that goes back to 1654. Another map shows in more detail the evolution of borders in the 20th Century.

Territorial Evolution of Ukraine
(Image by Robb Faus)
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In the current crisis, the status of Crimea deserves special mention. Crimea, like the rest of Ukraine, was part of the USSR, but not a part of the Ukraine SSR until 1954 when Khrushchev stuck it into Ukraine with a degree of autonomy from the central government in Kiev, a decision about which the Crimeans had no say at all. Well, Crimeans had a voice a few months ago, and whatever the shortcomings of the election process were, there is little doubt they wanted out of the discriminations they have felt for years under Ukraine's Kiev government and prefer Russia instead. Will they regret this decision? Time will tell.

In spite of Ukraine's border history, neocons and R2Pers would like everyone to think the borders, like those of other countries they favor, are not to be tampered with. Referenda on May 11 gave people in several regions in eastern Ukraine--particularly the major cities Donetsk and Luhansk--the opportunity to vote on independence from the central government. The elections followed several weeks of attacks on secessionists, labeled "terrorists" by the central coup government. The attacks have resulted in the fire-bombing in several cities, including one in Odessa in which 40 secessionists were burned to death or died from smoke. Like all elections carried out in the midst of conflicts, their validity can be legitimately questioned, though it appears that there is a sizable majority of eastern Ukrainians who are fed up with the excessive power of Kiev over their regions. Indeed, regional governors are not even elected by those they serve, but are appointed by the central government.

Viable nationhood requires a sufficiently strong sense of shared cultural, linguistic, and political appreciation and tolerance, plus a system of uniform economic and legal treatment of all regions. Foolishly, the knee-jerk reaction of neocons, R2Pers, and their naive if well-intentioned supporters in the public is to treat every popular uprising against a government the US doesn't like as an expression of "democracy in action" worthy of moral, if not material, support by the American superpower, supposedly the world's beacon of democracy despite the high hypocrisy of this claim. Needless to say, Ukraine as currently constituted is a mixed bag in all these regards.

Never mind if the Maidan protesters represented only a specific geographical portion of the country plus a self-interested group of oligarchs and right wingers/fascists, while other regions oppose the coup government and continued domination by Kiev. Like it or not, we should avoid referring to "Ukraine" as a single country when discussing the current crisis. "Eastern Ukraine" and "western Ukraine" is a necessary distinction, which is not to say that every one in Ukraine would want to be cast in these terms. For example, older folks in the east might want to be part of Russia, but there is evidence that the younger ones prefer a western orientation for the country.

Czechoslovakia peacefully broke up into two nation-states after the fall of the USSR. This might be the best solution for a number of countries around the world with post-colonialist borders. But when their governments and/or big outside powers desire turf control more than democratic rights, the borders are "sanctified," which appears to be the case with Ukraine.

Of course, there are good reasons to preserve and respect many national borders. Germany is Germany, Italy is Italy, and France is France, despite overlap regions like the Savoie and Alsace regions of France which were once Italian and German respectively. Whatever anomalies exist, the people and the governments have learned to live with them. And it isn't always wise to support splitting a country. Look at South Sudan right now, not that the situation it recently came from was any better and arguably worse. Wise decisions on national borders neither treat them as sacred nor change them casually. In the Ukraine crisis, the challenge is to resolve the conflict in the interests of Ukrainians, eastern and western, not provoke them by invoking the sacredness of national borders that have little or no basis.

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The Obama administration's response to Ukraine's political turmoil is to blame it all on Russia. Russia, Russia, Russia--if only Russia were "nice," everyone in Ukraine would be happy in the fantasy world promoted by the US national security state.

A coup made in the US (with the help of an EU provocation)

The big divide between eastern and western parts of Ukraine in the recent conflict came on the heels of a trade agreement with Ukraine proposed by the European Union (EU). Stephen Cohen, in a "Democracy Now!"interview, said the EU wanted an exclusive trade agreement which would freeze out Russia. Of all people, Henry Kissinger was also critical of the EU's trade proposals and negotiations with Ukraine. Given the close economic relations between Ukraine and Russia, the EU proposal was unnecessarily provocative and even stupid. Ukraine is currently on the brink of bankruptcy, owing some $200 billion with about $15 billion of debt servicing due in the coming year. Early in the crisis, the EU offered Ukraine a paltry $600 or $700 million in aid, while Russia offered $15 billion. No contest, you'd think, but pro-western, anti-Russian protesters didn't care.

Short of breaking up, the best solution for Ukraine might be to keep it intact as a neutral state between Russia and western power blocs. This reasonable prospect was contained in the February 21 agreement hammered out by France, Germany, Poland, and Russia. The democratically elected president of Ukraine, Yanukovych, signed onto the agreement even though it stripped him of much power and proposed presidential elections in May, well before his term should have ended. The US, of course, was opposed to the February 21 agreement. (That's what Victoria Nuland's "f*ck the EU" amounted to in her early February phone call to the US ambassador in Ukraine.) And what did the pro-EU Ukrainian protesters in the Maidan think of the February 21 agreement? By the time it was presented, the Maidan protest had dwindled to the hard core, which unfortunately included an excessive number of fascist-leaning right wingers. They were adamantly opposed to the agreement and booed down Vitali Klitschko, the moderate politician who, despite his pro-EU orientation, advocated resolving the crisis by acceptance of the February 21 agreement. The right wing had the backing of the US and they prevailed. Within hours Yanukovych fled for his life, following a phony "impeachment" proceeding in the parliament surrounded by right-wing protesters at the time. According to some accounts, the right wingers controlled which members of parliament went into and out of the building.

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I am a retired physics professor. I have been concerned about the Palestinian-Israeli situation for years and have authored a number of op ed pieces on the subject, often in response to other pieces giving a distorted picture of the Middle East. (more...)

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