As the world eagerly watches from afar to see what unfolds in Ukraine, the University of Michigan’s Ukrainian Student Association is particularly concerned with the recent turn of events. Many of the 15 student members have relatives in Kyiv (Kiev), as well as other Ukrainian cities. According to the association’s president, Ivanna Murskyj, the greater Ann Arbor area has about 30-40 Ukrainian residents, with many more in metro-Detroit.
In November of 2013, then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych turned down a trade deal with the EU under Russia’s coercion. Three months of protests followed, as Ukrainians called for membership and democratic representation. On February 22, Yanukovych was forced to flee his office while Moscow denounced the growing protests and coup, according to Reuters.
Unlabeled “armed men” took over the Crimean Parliamentary and raised the Russian flag on February 27, with more military presence entering Crimea in the following weeks and thousands of Russian troops gathering at the Ukrainian border (Reuters). In response, the U.S. denounced Russian actions, threatening “repercussions” and sanctions while Russia claimed the invasion was in “self-defense” of persecuted Russians in the Crimea peninsula.
Most recently, Crimea passed a secession referendum by 97% of voters that favored union with Russia rather than staying with Ukraine, according to the Associated Press. In response, the US announced sanctions to freeze the assets of several Russian officials. Although as much as 60% of Crimea’s population is Russian, many have questioned Putin’s influence in the referendum vote (US News).
Even before the crisis, President Yanukovych was under much criticism and suspicion, and was often considered to be Putin’s henchman in the Ukrainian government.
“When Yanukovych was president, Putin bribed him with money and promises for the future. The impact of Putin’s effect on Yanukovych was clear, shown by the presidential position in Ukraine gaining more power and ultimately bringing the nation closer and closer to Russia. Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU deal was only a catalyst for the mass protests seen in Kyiv” Murskyj told the Review.
After a restored hope amongst Ukrainians following the ousting of Yanukovych, Russia’s invasion was a major setback.
“Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula crushed the universal relief that was felt after Yanukovych’s impeachment. I think that Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was one of desperation,” Murskyj remarked.
The desires and aspirations of Ukrainians, both abroad and in the center of the crisis, is evident. It is also simple. Ukrainians want a new Ukraine, one where every citizen’s voice is heard democratically, without the infringement of their Russian neighbors.
“Ukrainians want a new Ukraine, one that is free from corrupt Russian influence,” said Murskyj. “Now, Yanukovych is gone and Putin has lost control over the leader of Ukraine. With that close and influential relationship severed, Putin is now foolishly trying to gain direct control over a portion of the country,” exemplifying Putin’s desperation to retain some power in Ukraine by entering Crimea.
It is evident to Ukrainians that Russia’s action are unjust and do not align with Ukrainian sentiments; however, in an attempt to fracture Ukraine, Putin has brought Ukrainian nationalism to fruition.
“Ukrainians know that Putin’s goal is to divide the Ukrainian people and seize as much Ukrainian land as he can. Contrarily, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has united its people now more than ever. For hundreds of years, Ukraine suffered under Russian rule and influence. The Ukrainian people have had it.”
“Together, and to the end, we are fighting for a brighter Ukrainian future, for a government that truly represents its people and for the recognition of Ukraine as an autonomous and western nation,” said Murskyj, in the effort to identify the goals of a united Ukraine.
Throughout this crisis, Ukrainian students at the University of Michigan have taken action, working “to foster interest and understanding of the Ukrainian language and culture. We organized a fundraiser for EuroMaidan humanitarian aid ($400) and organized a few protests on the Diag,” Murskyj told the Review, attempting to foster outreach and support with fellow Ukrainians beyond campus.
Ron Weiser, a UM alumnus, spoke to the Review regarding the significance Ukraine and was critical of President Obama’s actions (or lack there of). Weiser founded the Center for Emerging Democracies and is former Ambassador to the Slovak Republic, which borders Ukraine.
Last year, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko spent several days with Ambassador Weiser at the Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. Yushchenko led the Orange Revolution and Viktor Yanukovych once served as Prime Minister under Yushchenko.
Yushchenko told Ambassador Weiser that Putin’s power grab was “something that he thought was very possible. He (Yushchenko) said that ‘Putin will do everything within his power to keep Russian influence in the Ukraine’”.
Russia’s influence over Europe is not necessarily militarily; rather, Russia is Europe’s primary source of natural gas. As Ambassador Weiser explained, Ukraine acts as the middleman for the movement of natural gas from Russia to the rest of Europe; practically all the natural gas in the region flows through Ukraine. Other economic factors include Ukraine’s agricultural significance and the Crimean peninsula’s coal production.
“The importance of Ukraine to Russia and/or to the West is that Ukraine is the bread basket,” said Weiser. “It’s where all of the farming was done during the days of the Soviet empire… and now they (Russia) don’t want to loose that. Crimea is their main source of coal as well.”
However, Russia’s interest in Ukraine is much more than merely economical.
“The main interest in Ukraine is more historical in nature. The Russians call it ‘The Ukraine’ meaning it’s part of [Russia]; it’s just another area to Russia. They’ve always considered it something that should be under their sphere of influence and control,” said Weiser.
Besides Ukraine’s economic and historical significance to Russia, Putin’s thirst for power is the driving factor for the invasion of Ukraine and Crimea. Russia is an old and extremely nationalistic country – no one knows this better than President Putin – and he knows exactly how to appeal to Russia’s nationalistic sentiments to gain support in his country.
“Putin wants to establish the old Soviet Union if he can; so this isn’t the final chapter [of the Cold War], this is another chapter of the Cold War. I believe if Putin has the opportunity… he wants to be President for life… I wouldn’t be surprised if the constitution was changed and take off the limits on presidential power and control.”
Ambassador Weiser was critical of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy regarding Russia. Both Obama’s actions and lack there of have opened the door for Putin’s bullying in eastern Europe—similar to the 2008 invasion of Georgia in which case President Bush was able to halt Russian advancement.
The administration’s “reset button” policy is what has set the precedent for Putin to invade Crimea. “We basically told the Russians, ‘don’t be concerned,’” Weiser noted.
“You take a step, if no one stops you, you take another step,” Weiser explained, which is exactly what Obama’s inaction has welcomed. “What kind of guy is going to bring any kind of concern or trepidation or fear to the Russian president? It certainly isn’t Obama.”
Weiser also recommended strong-armed, “peace through strength” tactics to bolster the Ukrainians, in case Russia were to further invade Ukraine. Aside from economic sanctions, Weiser suggests “we should be giving them military assistance so they can upgrade their armed forces and protect themselves.”
This military assistance would provide support “through training and so forth, to help them protect the rest of the country from the Russians if they decide…to take all the food-growing region back which is the real value of Ukraine.” Again, much like Bush’s actions following the Russian invasion of Georgia, which compelled Russia to withdrawal.
Aside from Bush, yet another president’s handling of the “Russian Bear” would be important for President Obama to consider and learn from: Reagan.
“When Gorbachev looked into Reagan’s eyes, he saw something and knew what he couldn’t do. When Putin looked into Obama’s eyes, he saw something and knew what he could do.” Simply put, according to Ambassador Weiser, America—not any European nation—is the last barrier to any further Russian incursions in the Ukraine, and Obama must lead the way.