With the eyes of the world now firmly fixed upon the tense situation in Ukraine, it is quickly becoming evident that this is a far more complex equation than first depicted.
In the early days of the unrest, which was soon dubbed the Maidan revolution, Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird walked the streets of Kyiv to demonstrate his solidarity with the protesters.
While there was admittedly only scant media coverage of events at the time, the standard spin was that the Ukraine population was outraged at President Viktor Yanukovych for delaying to push his cash-strapped nation into closer ties with Western Europe.
The angry protesters occupied government offices, clashed with riot police and denounced Yanukovych as a Russian puppet. Days became weeks and then months as the outrage refused to subside.
On Feb. 20, matters came quickly to a head when security forces used lethal force. Fearing for his life, Yanukovych fled Kyiv to seek refuge in Russia. In his absence, the Ukrainian parliament stripped him of his presidential powers.
If this was a Hollywood-scripted ending, the credits would have rolled as Baird returned to the battered barricades of Kyiv’s Independence Square — wearing the yellow and blue national colours of Ukraine — to celebrate this victory for freedom.
Unfortunately, for Baird and Canada’s reputation, the ouster of Yanukovych was only the end of Act 1.
Subsequent events have served to illustrate just how deeply divided and torn Ukraine has become. With Yanukovych out of the picture, the spotlight turned to the self-appointed unelected interim government, the one to which Baird pledged Canada’s full support.
It turns out that their ranks include a large faction of extreme right-wing nationalists with neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic platforms. One of these, the Svoboda, or “freedom” party, was founded as the Social-National Party of Ukraine, but changed their moniker in 2004, when party leader Oleh Tyahnybok realized that was too close to the National Socialist German Workers Party, commonly known as the Nazi party.
The name change did not stop Tyahnybok from delivering a hate-filled speech in which he vowed to fight against the “Muscovite-Jewish Mafia.”
Svoboda currently has 37 seats in the Ukraine parliament, including four key cabinet portfolios.
Also among Baird’s freedom-loving rebels was a group called the Right Sector under the leadership of a thug known as Sashko Bily. It was Right Sector young toughs who led the battle against riot police in Independence Square. They are considered the primary force that led to the toppling of Yanukovych.
For his part, Bily was on record saying his troops would not rest until they had eliminated “every Russian and Jew in Ukraine.”
Obviously such statements proved embarrassing to the interim Ukraine government, so it transpired that Bily was instead eliminated. In an extremely suspicious altercation with special police on March 24, Bily somehow fatally shot himself in the back — twice.
It seemed that Russian President Vladimir Putin handed Baird a brief reprieve when he mobilized troops in the Crimea. This was labelled an “invasion” by Baird, and Putin was inevitably compared to Adolf Hitler.
Following a hasty referendum, wherein the majority of the Crimea population voted to join Russia, Putin was condemned by Canada and NATO members for illegally redrawing the map of Europe.
Despite the presence of some 18,000 Ukrainian military personnel in the Crimea, no shots were fired during the invasion. More tellingly, only a small minority of these Ukrainian soldiers chose to be repatriated to the mainland, with the bulk of the remainder choosing instead to join the Russian military “invaders.”
Similar defections of Ukrainian military units joining with pro-Russian protesters in eastern Ukraine are proving equally embarrassing for the interim government. These developments highlight the fact that there are about 8.3 million ethnic Russians in Ukraine, most of them in the east.
They are now demonstrating their displeasure and distrust of the new, self-appointed government in Kyiv by employing the same tactics as the Maidan rebels. Government buildings and police stations are being occupied and pro-Russian toughs — much like Bily’s Right Sector extremists — are clashing with police.
These divisions in Ukraine have always existed, but in recent years, they have been radically exacerbated by the fact that the economy has collapsed. Analysts estimate that Ukraine will need an infusion of at least $35 billion in the next two years just to see daylight.
With loans of that magnitude will come strict and unpopular austerity measures on an already impoverish population.
To diffuse the current crisis, the international community needs to find a financial solution before even attempting to impose a political or — god-forbid — a military solution.