Ukraine on the Brink: A Fragile Calm

February 23, 2014

Marc Simms

Ukraine protesters up against riot police

Despite the news from Kiev at the time of writing – that the Ukrainian Parliament has dismissed embattled President Yanukovych and secured the release of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko – Ukraine’s woes are far from over.

Protests in Ukraine have been increasing in scope and violence since President Yanukovych, under significant financial pressure from Russia, refused to sign a trade agreement with the European Union.  According to polls conducted last December, 43% of Ukrainians approve of closer links with the EU. Thus, bowing to Russian pressure was seen as a betrayal by many, and further evidence that the president favors the Kremlin over the western provinces of his own country.

Despite the presence of a clear pro-EU support base, the protests in Kiev remain contentious, with half the country opposed to them and only one in three believing they will produce a positive outcome.  The protests have also been marred by the presence of Ukrainian nationalist groups such as Right Sector and Svoboda, as well as by accusations of brutality levelled against both the Berkut riot police and certain anti-government groups.

A Nation Divided

Divisions in Ukraine go well beyond the politics of the moment.  Although somewhat of an oversimplification given the country’s complicated history and frequently contested borders, it is not unfair to split Ukraine into a mostly Europe-leaning, Ukrainian-speaking west and a mostly Russia-leaning, Russian-speaking east.  In terms of sociocultural identity, Ukraine could almost be considered two different countries, and this is reflected in its politics.

There is also a strong economic division, though this one is less geographic in nature.  As with much of post-Soviet Russia, Ukraine saw the rise of an oligarchical class who quickly captured former state assets, and then got involved in politics to protect their economic gains.  While these oligarchs span the political spectrum (indeed, Yulia Tymoshenko is included among their number), they have mostly been a conservative force in Ukrainian politics, fearing that closer integration with the EU could damage their standing.  The allegations of corruption surrounding these oligarchs, along with the dire economic situation in Ukraine, have combined to fuel much of the discontent of recent months.

Arguably the most important divide, however, is that of the country’s geopolitical positioning: placed precariously between NATO and Russia.  While Ukraine itself, given its many economic issues and wide political and social divides, would not present much of an advantage to either side on those terms, if Ukraine could be drawn into an alliance with NATO it would allow for an “early warning system” for the missile shield in Europe.  A NATO presence would also challenge the Russian Navy and jeopardize its base in Sevastopol.

Ukraine also forms part of the transit route for Russian gas exports, so a stable, friendly government in Kiev serves to reassure European and American leaders on energy security – even if the source (Russia) remains cause for concern.

Shades of the Orange Revolution

For these reasons it should come as no surprise that the US and EU have a vested interest in supporting regime change in Ukraine.  This isn’t even the first time that events have played out like this, as it was only a decade ago that a similar power struggle unfolded with many of the same actors.

At issue in 2004 was the question of who should succeed President Kuchma, as well as the various instances of irregularities, voter intimidation, and electoral fraud reportedly perpetrated by allies of Viktor Yanukovych, who had held the position of prime minister in the Kuchma government.  As a result, protests broke out all over the country, accompanied by sit-ins, strikes, and street demonstrations.

Some of these protestors had been trained by American NGOs, political consultants, and pollsters on tactics and how to handle the media, building on assistance extended to anti-government protestors in Serbia and Georgia the previous year.  Funding had come from US government departments such as State and USAID, and the controversial exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky also contributed a significant amount.

Conversely, Russia once again supported Yanukovych, and a variety of “dirty tricks” campaigns were alleged to have taken place with the connivance of pro-Russian oligarchs with strong ties to governments in both countries.  For legal reasons, these oligarchs will remain unnamed.

Unsurprisingly, there have been many allegations of US and German involvement in the latest round of protests – not helped by the undiplomatic language of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Ambassador Pyatt – which has created a perception of high-level US involvement against Yanukovych.  German non-profit organizations and think tanks have also been mentioned as having been involved in a capacity similar to the NGOs and political consultants of the Orange Revolution, working in partnership with Polish groups (which may in and of itself indicate a deepening relationship and working agenda between the two countries on non-EU eastern states that will be worth watching).

The Current State of Play

Evidence of foreign involvement will serve to undermine the credentials of the protest movement and the ousting of Yanukovych, which will play into the hands of his supporters and Russian backers, allowing them to paint any new government as illegitimate.  Despite the assistance rendered to the Ukrainian anti-government protestors, the movement did not require an external impetus to organize and protest – the conditions in the country were motivation enough to do so.  In particular, Nuland’s professional past threatens to lend weight to accusations of a new version of the neoconservative “freedom agenda” being applied to Russia’s near abroad and traditional zones of influence.

We should expect to see Russian assistance to their allies in the country being stepped up in the coming days.  Already the Russian-linked politician Vadim Novinsky played a “spoiler” role in derailing attempts to change the constitution a few days ago, and we can no doubt expect more attempts in the coming days to undermine the incoming administration.  In addition to this, Russia is likely to exert significant political and economic pressure over Ukraine, though it is not entirely clear what form this will take.  Putin’s “hands off” approach suggests he does not want to involve Russia in an overly public way – probably a good idea, given the negative publicity this would generate in the West and beyond.

Also unknown at this stage is how groups like Right Sector and the fascist Svoboda Party will react to recent developments.  Right Sector’s leader has said his group is looking to run a presidential candidate, and that it may move towards adopting a more conventional political party structure. Right Sector also requested that protestors be represented in any negotiations with Yanukovych, reflecting the distrust between the liberal parties and protestors.  That they did not have a role in such negotiations implies a rift in the opposition movement, which would indicate that future protests are not out of the question. But for now, it seems like most actors are willing to give a new provisional government a chance. Just how long their patience lasts remains to be seen.

This article is the first in a series. For the second piece, entitled ‘Great Power Politics,’ please click here

Marc Simms is a contributor to

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  • Madimilien;
    No comment to add especially as I just mailed a few minutes ago a rather long article just enlarging what you wrote.
    To sum it up and without heaping your article with exaggerated praise, it is an excellent one.

  • I live in Kyiv and I honestly think the East/West divide of the country is exaggerated. It’s real, no doubt, but, here, people were just fed up with the corruption.

    As they were back in 2004 with the Orange Revolution…

    My own take:

  • reinhold


    FREE UKRAINE! Never allow another nation to fall into the hands of the Predator!


    Russia is kin to Ukraine. The USA – Bolshevist WEST have no business obstructing the nations of Europe from liberating themselves.

    Americans cannot repent because Americans will not confess.

  • Remember how wildly successful the Wesern-backed Arab Spring was?
    Ghadaffi was overthrown and Libya was thrown in to a chaos that has not let up since.
    Egypt’s Mubarak was overthrown with the help of Western busybodies including US-backed Belgrade-based community organizer CANVAS (, to install Morsi, who instantly unsheathed his claws, banning the old Constitution, institutionalizing religious intolerance and making himself such a nuisance that another, second revolution erupted, bigger than the first, and he now sits in jail.
    All thanks to Western intervention. So what have we learned since then?
    To be careful about interfering in other people’s civil wars?
    Why no, not really.
    The same US sponsored CANVAS was busy in Ukraine as well.
    So was the German backed Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which helped groom EU-friendly Vitaly Klichko in hopes that he would edge out the current president and usher his country into the nearly bankrupt EU (European Union).
    Looks like Western ‘leaders’ were so thrilled with the chaos that arose from the Arab Spring that they cheerfully spawned a Ukrainian Spring.
    And while they’re at it, they figured they’d add a whiff of the German past:
    Below you will find more commentary that you won’t find elsewhere, not because I think differently but because I believe in strict objectivity. No one pays me a dime, no one owns my thoughts.
    Don Hank

  • While I have yet to see an objective evaluation on the economic balance or imbalances (pro’con’s)of choosing to side towards the EU or Russia at this time, I must say that the constant repetition of unilateral political bias appears to reduce the clarity or fallacy of distinctions involved to a cold war rhetoric. It would be nice to know if the decision to side towards the West at this moment in history could court economic disaster with outside interests having a capital advantage over authentic internal economic development capital. The trend has been asset stealing and capital flight and this current interest of getting Ukrainian into the (still wavering) unsettled European markets should be something of an issue, if not a controversy, in itself.
    On the other hand, this report is one of the few objective news summaries of the violent reactionary and counter-reactionary interests that are playing out without real clarity at the geopolitical level.
    Of some surprise is the fact that (as democratic count goes) only 43% is displaying interest in the EU connection at the moment. This is a fairly large margin from the majority and no assessment of the voting patterns themselves has been noted by objective observers either. While the ideals of past divisions are clearly being placed up front and center, the largely hypocritical nature of both sides seem to be the silent reality at play. The critical question we must ask is why open political discussions were never forced into play rather than violent stand offs that appear to have suspicious ground? If the international community had opened public global opinion and provided proper information to advise the Ukraine of its options, and stood by this as a good will sentinel might; the violence would have been averted and a new process / model of transition might have appeared for both the Ukraine and the obvious paths of transition that the regions of the world are deciding and must continue to adjust to peacefully. What are we now to expect; seasonal violence and uprisings every month to change course as in Egypt? It is high time we begin to have truth out in the open, and people need to speak politically together without being terrorized from all sides.

  • @ Don Hank: Thanks for the links. This is a paper written in 2010 by academics (Volodymyr V. Lysenko and Kevin C. Desouza) at the Information School, University of Washington, Seattle.

    It takes up the question of the earlier Orange Revolution and use of the internet (at that time) to influence the Ukrainian movement. It also suggests that social media could influence transitions, but the inference that social media can be manipulated as a significant force. It is a well done study and worth studying. Considering the evidence for outside intervention in all of these ‘spring uprisings’ and ‘color revolutions’ that to back to the 1950s, perhaps some open scrutiny is long overdue?
    Here is the link to the study: Electoral (“color”) revolutions, info-flow & Internet–based communication technologies (ICTs)

  • US Sponsored “Democracy”: A Tale of Two Protests. Ukraine and Thailand Part 2 By Tony Cartalucci, December 21, 2013 Global Research
    [excerpted introduction]:
    "As unrest continues in both countries, a sharp, hypocritical divide widens for the “intentional community.”

    For audiences around the world watching pro-EU protests unfold in the streets of Ukraine’s capital of Kiev, they may have noticed flags bearing a lifted hand giving a “three-fingered salute.” This is the reformed Nazi salute of right-winged nationalist group Svoboda.

    Along with other racist, bigoted, extremist political parties including “Fatherland,” Svoboda has filled the streets, clashed with police, occupied government buildings and called for the overthrow of the elected government of Ukraine – for the sake of joining the European Union. The EU, for its part, awaits these mobs with open arms."
    go to the link for the full article coverage by Tony Cartalucci at Global Research

  • The Struggle for Ukraine – Protests Made in Germany, America and the EU
    By Peter Schwarz
    Global Research, December 06, 2013
    World Socialist Web Site
    [important excerpt]:
    "The EU Agreement excludes simultaneous membership in a Russian-led customs union and would thus cut off Ukraine from its main trading partner, with which Ukraine’s industry and transport routes are closely connected. The abolition of customs duties on European goods would also mean bankruptcy for many Ukrainian industries.

    The terms of the agreement, which include the introduction of EU rules for labor market deregulation, the privatization of state enterprises and a reduction in the public debt, would have a social impact similar to the EU austerity programs imposed on Greece, Romania and other countries. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is already denying Ukraine a much-needed credit because the government refuses to hike the price of gas by 40 percent—a move that would inevitably result in the death of many unemployed people and pensioners unable to pay their heating bills."

  • Study:
    About the author
    Mridula Ghosh
    heads the East European Development Insti-tute, an Ukraine based international NGO, whose projects won
    national and international recognition. She has authored and
    edited monographs, articles, policy papers and many UNDP
    Ukraine publications
    access link:
    The Extreme Right in Ukraine INTERNATIONAL POLICY ANALYSIS
    October 2012

  • VaskaT

    "According to polls conducted last December, 43% of Ukrainians approve of closer links with the EU. "

    Could you please give a source for this claim.

  • Tamtim
  • Mike

    I would suggest the Ukrainians stop reading the media and voice their own preferences for a smooth transition of their own ideal of the future Ukraine.
    From the outside looking in and no personal attachments, i would try to build on the current constitution rather than have others draw up a new one that serves their interests over the Ukrainians.
    Apply all passion to improving the status quo.
    Perhaps an east leaning half and a west leaning half collected under the same gov’t & constitution?
    Polls have more meaning to the pollsters desires unless it has 100% participation of those affected by claims, …don’t hold your breath for that to happen anywhere, it would not please the pollsters at all.

  • Frank Aguilera

    The crisis in Ukraine has all the potential for a major geopolitical confrontation between Russia and its allies, and the U.S. et al. This could well trigger WWIII. The fundamental question is, is it worth it for the West? If the Russians were to be kicked out of Ukraine, once and for all, would they be willing to live with it? There are too many elements of irrationality in this conflict, and that is where a great danger to world peace looms. To curb the growing power of new Czar Putin by stirring up old family quarrels among mutually-hating Slav cousins, is a recipe for disaster. If the West, and all its dependent allied nations, must make a case to go to war against Russia for being a maximum-alert threat to freedom and democracy, I think it is doing it the wrong way. But, like everything else in life, only time can tell.

  • Sad to say – but for me the EC is to be blamed for VERY plump and ignorant diplomacy! HOW can one offer assiciation to UA without seeking compromise and arrangements with RUS before??!
    Kiew is called "the mother of Russian cities" – but at BXL knowledge of history, relations and dependencies is obviously more than poor….
    That US has shipped money through diplomatic pouch to Kiew and paid 25USD per day for / to Maidan protesters ?? Many stories are circulating which nobody is able to proof and journalism is unfortunately also biased.
    I have my personal experience with Macedonia and the UCK / liberating poor Albanians…. the only thing they in fact liberated was their smuggling highway BG-MAK-KOS-Albania, which got blocked by MAK police and customs in the Tetovo area! But now we have the glorious Ohrid agreement and a 2nd language for a country that can’t afford it. Thank you Mr Solana!

  • Rick Lisak

    Democracy is hard. It is a lot more difficult than oligarchs and their henchmen creating a facade of governance. It takes time to develop institutions on a local and federal level that legislate, adjudicate and carry out laws for the overall benefit of the people. The only answer is for the citizens of Ukraine to come together and begin the tedious, time consuming process to build these institutions. But first, everyone needs to put down the weapons. The endless cycle of violence and retribution will only prolong the pain. Hopefully, the result will be a Ukraine that is not west leaning or east leaning, but a Ukraine that serves its own interests.

  • Fred Labarre

    Facts are facts. Corruption, of course, is an evil most want to see eradicated. This is why you have courts and elections – when they work. In this case Yanukovich (corrupt as he is) was elected more or less fairly and freely. How do I know? FACT: Because the EU, the OSCE and the Council of Europe said so! Now, FACT: the Ukrainian people were displeased with rapprochement with the Eurasian Union because it meant they wouldn’t get to have easier access to the EU anytime soon. That is the original reason for the Maidan. FACT: Yanukovich, after initial beatings, called for restraint of the police forces, and sought dialogue. Now, that dialogue may not have been honest, but it did lead to concessions. What did the Maidan do? Not abide by negotiations, but make more demands, namely, that Yanukovich resign, and new elections. FACT: It is mostly after it proved futile to negotiate with the Maidan that force was drastically (and illegitimately) employed. FACT: Snipers were deployed, and killings were made, and that is wrong. FACT: Yanukovich fled, and probably to his political base out east, and what was found at his lavish dacha would put him in jail. But, FACT: stately homes for leaders are not an exception; the Governor General in Canada has an even bigger one, and there are no elections – not even fake ones for him/her! So let’s not go overboard with that just yet. And now, a final FACT: Timoshenko makes a miracle appearance, in a wheelchair, but chubbier nonetheless. I guess the Oscars were a bit early this year, because make no mistake, it’s not because a corrupt oligarch has put her in jail that she is innocent! FACT: The West – and the US, including Canada – tried to stay as far as possible from this, precisely for the reasons given by another person in this thread; these "revolutions" never achieve their stated aims, and they just put more abusive people in power. Better to have slow, gradual change than a radical overthrow. Don’t believe me? Look at Georgia, look at Romania, never mind Libya! What we may end up with here is a Kosovo of massive proportions, and with no easy solution in sight. 10 million dead in the Famine. dozens of thousands killed in the Purges. Hundreds of thousands killed in World War II. And now, this, and what will follow from this. When will it end?

  • While the visible foreign players are those representing different countries from the West and also from Russia on the East, the facts are the undercurrents are mainly being controlled by the same dark hidden forces that control most of the world using finances and debt as their weapon.

    The disturbances in Ukraine while having a domestic cause, just like it has happened in many other countries from Egypt to Libya to Syria, Venezuela etc. they all are opportunistically being intervened by this Cabal in order to further their aims to establish a New World Order that will give them even more control over the world’s resources.

    THIS CONFLICT HAS LITTLE TO DO WITH REAL DEMOCRACY and much to do with advancing this Zionist financial Cabal’s agenda while using idealists who have genuine democratic goals, but are being played as cannon fodder to achieve totally opposite goals. In short, the democratic forces are shooting their own foot by forcing their way into a closer association with the EU.

    It is ludicrous for protesters demand "democracy" while at the same time being instrumental in bringing about a Coup D’etat against a sitting elected president.

    One wonders how is it possible millions of Ukrainians can’t see how bad Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus and even Italy are doing in the EU. Are they blind? Don’t they understand one thing is the image of the EU and another is the reality of the EU?

    The Euro is the POISON that is being used by this financial Cabal to rob the citizens of the EU from their hard earned wealth. The monetary system called Fractional Reserve is a FRAUD and it is being used as the bases of control.

    For this Cabal Ukraine and especially the Ukrainians is of no particular interest except in their plans on the chess-board to advance to the biggest price: Russia and its vast territory and resources.
    Putin knows this and it is Ironic how things are turning out when we see a Russian leader as being one of the very few INDEPENDENT leaders in the world confronting this Cabal. Obama in the US, Hollande, Cameron, Merkel are all a bunch of whores thoroughly sold out to this Cabal, being ordered and controlled by their countries’ DEBT and personal rewards.
    MOST OF THE WORLD’S DEBT IS FAKE and has been created artificially by Fractional Reserve Banking from the moment the currency was created. If the world’s money had not been produced by Fractional Reserve Banking, we would NOT be suffering this global debt crisis.

    The solution is to first understand how money creation functions now and how it is used to rob the world from its wealth, and then change the MONETARY SYSTEM to cut off the bleeding benefiting this Cabal of evil bastards.

    Video explains this here

    "It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning."
    Henry Ford

    "The study of Money, is one in which complexity is used
    to evade truth, not to reveal it"
    John Kenneth Galbraith

    "If you want to remain slaves of the bankers and pay for the costs of your own slavery, let them continue to create money and control the nation’s credit"
    Sir Josiah Stamp
    1880-1941 Former Director Bank of England

    "Until the control of the issue of currency and credit is restored to government and recognized as it’s most conspicuous and sacred responsibility, all talk of sovereignty of Parliament and of democracy is idle and futile…Once a nation parts with the control of it’s credit it matters not who makes the laws…Usury once in control will wreck any nation."
    MacKenzie King,
    Canadian Prime Minister

    "History records that the money changers (bankers) have used every form of abuse, intrigue, deceit and violent means possible to maintain their control over government by controlling Money and its issuance."
    James Madison

    "Each and every time a bank makes a loan, new bank credit is created, -new deposits- brand new money"
    Graham F. Towers
    Governor, Bank of Canada

    "I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous than standing armies…
    If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of currency,the banks and corporations that will grow around them, will deprive the people of their property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered"
    Thomas Jefferson


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