You can never understand a nation’s crisis without understanding its history. 6.8 million Ukrainians were killed in World War II: 16.3 percent of its population at the time, a proportion only exceeded in neighbouring Belarus (25.3%) and Poland (16.4%). Russia lost far more (almost 14 million) but was a smaller proportion of the population overall (12.7%). In contrast, the figure in the UK was 450,000 (0.9%).
If you thought this was all over and done with almost seventy years ago, look again. It is clear that the grim shadow of that massive sacrifice and the Nazis shapes the views on both sides of today’s problems.
The view looking eastwards
Let’s start with the hawkish Western view of Putin’s Russia. The local agitations, aided by the Russians, in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine against a repressive central government that speaks a different language seems to echo of the Sudetenland Crisis of 1938. Just as the Sudetenland Germans of 1930′s Czechoslovakia demanded annexation by Germany, Crimea has asked the same from Russia.
And are there not too echoes of Chamberlain’s appeasement in trying to find an accommodation with Russia which does not return the Crimea to the control of Kiev? Is there not a little of his infamous Kettering speech, those hawks ask, in that attitude: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
The view looking westwards
Yet the accusations of Nazi-ism are stronger still from the other direction: from ethnic Russians in Ukraine and, increasingly, Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
After all, they would argue, the only democratically legitimate decision taken by the electorate in Ukraine in the two months since the overthrow of the Yanukovich regime has been the Crimean referendum (not something that happened in the Sudetenland). The government in Kiev has no electoral mandate, although elections are scheduled for 25 May.
That government’s second-largest party is Svoboda, an extreme-right, and extremely anti-Semitic, party who make the BNP look like boy scouts. To get a hint, here is their pre-2004 party emblem:
Svoboda are not passive recipient of the fallout of the Euromaiden protest, they were key orchestrators behind it. They were at the heart of some of the violence of those protestors and 18 of the protesters killed were Svoboda members.
Since they took power, they have not mellowed in office. They boastfully put on line a video showing them beating up a TV boss and forcing him to resign last month. You won’t be reassured to know that Ukraine’s new General Prosecutor is Svoboda’s Oleh Makhnitsky.
Neither are they an isolated voice in the government: the separate but similarly far-right (although they publicly reject Svoboda’s anti-Semitism) Right Sector is also a key component of the new government, and were also key movers in Euromaiden.
The early decision of the new government to have Ukrainian as the sole official language of the state (removing Russian, Romanian and Hungarian from their similar status) seemed to show that the fears of non-Ukrainian speakers in Ukraine could be well-founded. This decision was quickly overturned by acting president Oleksandr Turchynov, but it demonstrated a clear attitude of the new government towards its minority communities.
This is all spreading a not irrational fear in the east of the country. Take this quote in today’s Guardian from a man living in the eastern town of Slavyansk, where local citizens yesterday stopped the Ukrainian army in its tracks in a sort-of reverse Euromaiden:
“I’m not a radical or a separatist. I’m actually more on the left. I didn’t much like Viktor Yanukovych. I’m for peaceful coexistence. The problem is that when the nationalists seized power in Kiev they didn’t think about the consequences. I have my own prognosis about what will happen next. It’s not comforting.”
All this suggests that the Western view that the resistance in Crimea and eastern Ukraine is purely down to Putin’s machinations is a deeply flawed one. It also suggests that Russian-speaking Ukrainians (as opposed to the Crimean Russians) are becoming increasingly worried about the Kiev government.
Yes, the Russian-speakers are probably hearing a biased view through their media of what is happening in Kiev, but probably no more biased than the Ukrainian speakers in the rest of the country are hearing from theirs, particularly if those Ukrainian-speaking broadcasters fear a Svoboda lynch mob turning up if they speak out of line. The 30 percent who have Russian as their first language have, after all, been given one of the clearest indications in history that their new government has no time for them.
A way forward
This all shows that when the USA, EU, Russia and Ukraine meet in Geneva to find a route to peace, that the West will need to concede that the fears of Russian-speaking Ukrainians are genuine and not purely something whipped up by Putin.
It also means that the West and Ukraine need to realise that the anti-government protests are likely to grow further. Although Russian-speakers are only in a clear majority in two regions (excluding Crimea) – the Dombas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, the challenge is that there are also big cities outside these regions with Russian-speaking majorities – such as Odessa and Kharkiv. Cities are far more potent for brewing up protest than the more rural Ukrainian-speaking parts of the east and south.
Six weeks ago, my colleague George East suggested a Peace Plan to move things forward. Events have moved on in that time, but I think that the West will need to put pressure on the new government of Ukraine as well as Russia to reach a peaceful resolution.
That pressure needs to include proper legal and constitutional protections for non-Ukrainian-speaking minorities in the country. There needs to be agreement that a post-election government will both include Russian-speakers and exclude Svoboda and Right Sector.
The Americans have their own constitutional lessons for us on ensuring that democracy does not impose a tyranny of the majority. It is a lesson they need to adapt here if peace is to be achieved.