Ukraine's crisis is driven by ethnic conflict

Basil Wilson's picture

Caribbean society has experienced the instability that is the outgrowth of racial struggles for control of state power. Those racial divisions have certainly stymied economic and political development in Guyana. Trinidad and Tobago has suffered from racial divisiveness but the impact has not thwarted economic growth in that twin island.

Outside of the Caribbean, racial and ethnic conflict has led to the dismemberment of governments. Unfolding in the Central African Republic is the expulsion of Muslims from that country as a backlash against a coup d’etat that was carried out by Muslim rebels. These are not wars between states but wars within states conducted by civilians butchering other civilians.

Something similar is occurring in the Ukraine and the coverage provided by American mass media has not delved into the historical circumstances that are tearing that country apart. One expects Russian media to toe Putin’s line of march but one expects more of media in a democratic society

There was a time in the United States when the foreign policy discourse was far more elevated than the saber-rattling that comes from Senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham who are always eager to shed American blood. America and the European Union have become entangled in the plural dialectics of Ukrainian society. Both entities could have played a more constructive role.

The Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union of Socialist Republics and that union largely based on coercion, fell apart in 1991. Unlike the other Eastern European countries, sizeable number of Russians became an integral part of Ukrainian society. Russians constitute a majority in Crimea and a sizeable minority in Eastern Ukraine. Voting blocs in the Ukraine are split along pro-Ukrainian lines or pro-Russian lines.

Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin define Crimea as constituting a vital part of Russia’s national security interest. It is in Crimea that the Russian have their sole warm water fleet. Crimea, until 1954, was a part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev in an act of socialist solidarity ceded Crimea to the Ukraine.

Russia’s age old dominance of the Ukraine has fostered a deep-seated resentment of things Russian and Ukrainian nationalism tends to manifest itself in extricating the country from the Russian bear hug. And that tension became uncontainable when the elected government of Viktor Yanukovych opted to accept Russia’s bailout of $15 billion dollars rather than establish an associate relationship with the European Union. That is when the Ukrainian nationalists took to the streets and occupied the square in Kiev. The Ukrainian nationalist mass movement demanded the option of joining the European Union. It is apparent that western interests were encouraging on the mass demonstrators to pivot to the West.

At the turn of the 21st century, neo-Nazi forces in the Ukraine were not a mass force but as these issues of nationalism crystallized, ultra-nationalist forces captured a growing segment of the Ukrainian electorate. A new-Nazi force, Svoboda, captured 10 percent of the electorate in the election of 2010. They have watered down some of their ideological positions but this is a party that is vehemently opposed to Russia and the Russian language. They argue only Ukrainians should be working in the civil service and all old line communist should be expelled from holding office. Svoboda is virulently anti-Semitic, homophobic and is quite illusionary about the Ukraine’s role in the world. Frighteningly, their previous platform favored the Ukraine having tactical nuclear weapons.

Svoboda was in the the vanguard of Yanukovych’s overthrow and has been rewarded with important cabinet seats in the interim coalition government. The Allied nations, Britain, France and the United States fought a bloody war to defeat the Nazism that had taken hold in Germany and other Eastern European nations. Approximately 70 years after the defeat of Nazism, those belligerent forces have been resuscitated not just in the Ukraine but in France, Norway, Greece, et al. The United States has given unqualified support to the interim government of the Ukraine. It has offered economic assistance and has moved to impose sanctions against Putin’s Russia.

Putin has seen this rise of ultra-nationalism as constituting a threat to Russia’s vital national interest in the Crimea and has engineered a referendum in Crimea which will be interpreted as the right of self-determination of the citizens of the Crimea. Russian troops are already occupying Crimea and the annexation appears inevitable.

The Ukraine is to hold national elections in May of 2014. The loss of Crimea will augment the appeal of ultra-nationalism in the Ukraine and expand the political base of the neo-Nazi forces like Svoboda.

When the United States was facing an expansionist Soviet Union after World War 11, a veteran State Department diplomat, George Kennan, published a seminal piece under the pseudonym, Mr. X, that made the case that the United States should pursue a foreign policy of containment, not risk an unnecessary all-out war with the Soviet Union. Even though the containment policy led to unnecessary adventurism in American foreign policy, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 vindicated the wisdom of George Kennan.

American foreign policy is now bereft of the George Kennans of the world. It is being crafted by men who are oblivious to the vital national security interests of other great powers in the world. American policy vis-à-vis the Ukraine could have been more measured and factored in the plural nature of the Ukrainian state.

The Ukrainians are entitled to determine their own destiny but this is a tricky business in a plural society that has the Russian bear on its doorstep. Realpolitik in the Ukraine is dead and the ultra-nationalist forces could very well be unleashed in the May election further compounding the crisis with Russian nationals living in the Ukraine which will invariably lead to further breakdowns with relations with Russia.

Dr. Basil Wilson is Provost Emeritus of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Executive Director of the King Research Institute, Monroe College, Bronx, New York. He can be reached at:


Dr. Basil Wilson