The political upheaval that has bloodied the streets of Kiev this week is largely viewed in the Western media through a Cold War prism that pits the West against Russia, but the unrest in Ukraine has been many years in the making — a reaction to rampant corruption, lawlessness and deep domestic divisions within the country.
President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision in November to shun a trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union in favor of a $15 billion counteroffer from Russia was the proverbial last straw for many Ukrainians longing to strengthen ties with the West.
“The anger against Mr. Yanukovich has been building for three years, but it took the decision to reject the association agreement with the EU to provide the spark for the demonstrations,” said Alexander J. Motyl, professor of political science at Rutgers University and a specialist in Ukraine and Russia.
He described the protests that continue to rage in Ukraine as “a popular uprising against a dictatorial regime that has been pilfering state finances, is immensely corrupt, and has been extremely indifferent to any notions of popular dignity.”
Meanwhile, Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, has sought to reassert its traditional influence in its neighborhood. This has meant pursuing a policy aimed at bringing former Soviet republics, like Ukraine, back into its economic and political sphere.
While western Ukraine is favorably inclined toward Europe, the Russian-speaking east shares a strong bond with Russia that is firmly rooted not just in culture, but in economics as well. Industry in eastern Ukraine is overwhelmingly tied to Russian customers for business.
A majority of Ukrainians favor friendly ties with Russia, said Taras Kuzio, a research associate at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta. “The issue is how you define those friendly relations. Most Ukrainians want to keep their sovereignty and have good relations with Russia. They don’t see a contradiction between wanting good relations with Russia and integrating into Europe.”
“Putin, on the other hand, is for zero choice: You either choose one side or the other,” he added.
Mr. Yanukovich, who is himself from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, was initially reluctant to formalize his embrace of Russia, but the threat of losing his biggest trading partner and vital supplies of oil and natural gas in part prompted his decision to spurn the EU.
The notion that a geopolitical game is being played in Ukraine was fueled by the leak earlier this month of a taped conversation between the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
“[T]he essential revelation was that high-level U.S. officials were plotting to ‘midwife’ a new, anti-Russian Ukrainian government by ousting or neutralizing its democratically elected president — that is, a coup,” Stephen F. Cohen, a scholar of Russian studies and former professor at New York University and Princeton University, wrote in The Nation this month.
But U.S. officials, from President Obama on down, have fought the tendency to view Ukraine through a Cold War prism.
“Our approach in the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia,” Mr. Obama said after a North American summit in Mexico on Wednesday.