Looking at the roots of the issues
At least 70 people are dying every day, according to a report released in August by the United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, as a result of the conflict in Ukraine. The crisis, and all the deaths that accompany it, comes as a reaction by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and what he perceives as not only a threat to Russian regional authority, but also his authority as Russia’s leader.
Scars of this ancient divide between communists and capitalists have survived even the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to an article by Max Fisher on Vox.com called “What is the Ukraine Crisis? Everything You Need to Know about the Ukraine Crisis,” Ukrainian politics of the last half-century have centered on their relationship with Russia. Ukraine has gradually begun a slow shift away from its historically strong ties with its former controlling country. Russia is no longer the sole regional authority, while western European influence expands. Political leaders have, as a result, been tasked with deciding between an old partner in Russia and a new opportunity in the European Union, according to the article.
In 2013, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych rejected a deal presented to him for increased economic ties between Ukraine and the EU, Fisher said. Yanukovych’s decision to choose Russia over the EU sparked protests in the capital of Ukraine. Yanukovych responded with violence against protesters. Fisher claimed that pro-European citizens chose to rally behind the death of the peaceful protestors, and start a revolution. Their efforts proved fruitful when president Yanukovych was removed from power in February.
Putin saw the removal of Yanukovych as a direct threat to Russia’s regional security and supremacy, claimed Fisher. In response, a report released by the UN revealed that Putin deployed covert units to incite rebellion in the Ukrainian region of Crimea.
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, civil war has persisted in eastern Ukraine. The rebels continue to receive support from Russia through the form of surface to air missiles, 1,200 troops and even tanks. Putin has continued to deny involvement in the military conflict, claiming that all Russian citizens fighting in Ukraine are simply “retirees” or “on vacation.” Putin likely hopes to support rebel efforts, while avoiding all out war with NATO.
Zenon Wasyliw, professor of history at Ithaca College and an expert on Russian History, said, “[Putin] has developed this cult of leadership.” He added, “[Putin] really turned to extreme Russian nationalism to cover up any problems that might be there.”
The use of strong nationalism goes hand in hand with Putin’s proposed authority for the annexation of Crimea. It is Putin’s claim that the Russian military was involved in order to protect ethnic Russians. Wasyliw said that Putin’s claim is “not legitimate because you don’t have to speak Ukrainian to be a Ukrainian citizen.”
“I have contacts with Ukrainian citizens of Russian background and they’re very much in support of a Ukrainian government,” he said.
Dominique Arel, chair for the department of Ukrainian studies at Ottawa University, claimed, “Ukrainians have made a conscious decision to move away from their traditionally close ties with Russia, and this scares Putin.”
Wasyliw explained there is the potential for Putin to continue down the warpath. “Russian nationalism is a good cover for economic problems… as long as he can distract the population [he will continue],” he said.
Arel also stated Ukraine’s historical ties with Russia have often lead to political leaders who rely on Russian trade for a majority of international trade. When Yanukovych’s corruption was exposed, the Ukrainian people decided they desired a change from their current leadership, and consequently move away from Russia.
Media coverage of the crisis has varied considerably from both sides. The West has painted Putin as the next Hitler with headlines like Fox News’ “Could Ukraine crisis bring nuclear standoff to Europe?” and the UN’s “weak” response as appeasement. Putin has deployed his well-developed cultural management machine to spin Russian media in favor of military involvement. Independent Russian media outlets that oppose Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis, are being forcibly shut down by Putin’s administration.
“Independent Russian media is being shut down,” Wasyliw said. “The information to the Russian population is really very much inflated.”
Arel echoed this sentiment. “While Western media may have their biases, it is Putin that is censoring the media distributed to his people,” Arel said.
Putin’s policies are a call back to the leadership of communist Russia. He is seizing power through cultural sculpting and reinforced nationalism. However, unlike in the past, dictatorial tactics are being put to the test via the internet. The interconnectedness of the globe permeates even the most formidable firewalls. Putin’s propaganda machine will be tried when Russian citizens are exposed to dissenting opinions from foreign media.
According to a recent report by the UN, Putin is only now removing troops from Eastern Ukraine, to take a less direct approach to continued Russian involvement in Ukraine.
Jacob Ryan is a junior history major who isn’t ready for the Cold War II. Email him at [email protected].