Friday, March 14, 2014

150.8 - Some thoughts on Ukraine

Some thoughts on Ukraine

Updated Okay. Ukraine.

I said last week I haven't talked about it and that I felt that I should. There are two reasons I haven't.

One is practical: This is the kind of setting where things happen fast and what I could tell you today could easily be obsolete by the time you hear it - in fact, it could be obsolete by the time I say it. It's a topic not well-suited to a weekly show.

Just as an example, that "referendum" in Crimea on the question of leaving Ukraine for Russia is taking place on March 16. Depending on when in the week you see this show, it may have already happened. In fact, you may already have the results, since the results of "voting" that takes place under military occupation tend to come out rather quickly because of the lack of genuine need to count the ballots.

But there's another reason, a more important reason: I don't feel qualified. I don't feel I know enough about the players, the personalities, the politics; I don't know enough about the conditions, I don't know enough about the underlying issues that provide the context in which events occur.

I don't know enough to tell you anything that would be of use to you in understanding the situation.

I do know some things:

I know for one that Ukraine in some ways reminds me of the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions. Janus is usually depicted as having two faces, with the idea that he is looking to the future and the past simultaneously. Ukraine also, in that sense, has two faces, except that it's not looking to the future and the past but to the east and the west. It's looking in two directions simultaneously.

The eastern and southern part of Ukraine look more toward Russia; in fact, a good number of people in that area are ethnically Russian and a number of them speak Russian. The western part looks more toward Europe. This has been the basic division, with one part of the country looking one way and the other part of the country looking the other way.

Specifically in the Crimean peninsula, which is the focus of the current tension, a majority of the people - a small majority, but still a majority - are ethnically Russian.

This doesn't mean that those people want to leave Ukraine and join Russia: There is, after all, no contradiction between seeing yourself as ethnically Russian but nationalistically Ukranian. In fact, a poll taken before the Russian invasion said that a majority in Crimea are against uniting with Russia and support for that idea continues to drop the further you move away from Crimea.

But whether or not you want to leave Ukraine, that ethnic identity can and does affect whether you would prefer to see closer cultural, economic, even military, ties with Russia or whether you'd prefer closer cultural, economic, military, ties with the European Union.

Also, Crimea is a place Russia has long felt to be part of Russia. And Russia regards the area as militarily and strategically important. The Black Sea, where the Crimean peninsula is, provides Russia's only realistic water access to the Mediterranean. So the Russians regard this as strategically vital.

Another thing I know is that the protests that brought down President Viktor Yanukovich were sparked by genuine outrage over his cancelling of an agreement involving trade with Europe in favor of a deal with Russia and those protests included, especially in the early going, many progressive people and groups genuinely concerned about the future of political freedom in Ukraine - but it's also true that the protests, especially in the later stages, also included a number of extreme right-wing individuals and parties, including the overtly anti-Semitic party Svoboda.

That's pretty much all I know. That's pretty much it.

Even at that, I'd be willing to speculate that this little bit is more than at least 90 percent Americans know. And that's all surface stuff; that doesn't get into the underlying issues that provide the context for events. It's all surface stuff. But even at that, it's more than most of us know.

Because - and if you want, you could consider this the Outrage of the Week - in foreign affairs and even in domestic affairs, but right now I'm concerned with foreign affairs, in foreign affairs we as a people are uninformed, misinformed, and malinformed. And we won’t be able to understand things like the events in Ukraine, understand what's going on, understand what we should or even can do - which quite frankly in the case of the Russian seizure of Crimea is probably nothing - but we won't have any chance of understanding events, again of what we should do and what we can do, until we change that fact of our profound insularity and ignorance about the world beyond our borders.

And there's one other thing. Something else. Something I don’t need to know underlying facts to know, something I don't need to know the context to know.

I don't need that context to know that military invasions are wrong. I don't need that context to know that seizure of land by military force is wrong. That military occupation is wrong. That it is unethical, it is immoral, it is cruel.

I don't need to know all of the details of the history of Ukraine and the complicated ethnic divisions and ties that drive the protests and drive the counter-protests. I don't need to know any of that to say that what Russia did is morally, ethically, and politically wrong.

And if there is something that can be done within the realm of economics or politics, if there is something that can be done to express a national and an international contempt for this, it should be done.

It should be done.

Update:  I suspect that at least some people are going to question that poll I mentioned saying a majority of the residents of Crimea are against joining with Russia, especially since The Week is not the most reliable source and the link it provided was to a page in, I believe, Ukrainian. This appears to be the English version of that page, describing the poll and its results. Also, both and a guest post at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog have referred to the poll.


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