What the Heck is Going On with Ukraine?

What’s the fuss about?

Since late February, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly sent about 16,000 Russian troops, military ships, helicopters and cargo planes into Crimea, a peninsula in neighboring Ukraine, launching a global panic and sending Ukrainians into a frenzy. Ukrainian officials say that Russia has also demanded that Ukrainian forces in the region surrender or face armed assault. The move by Russia followed months of escalating protests in Ukraine stemming, primarily, from the Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to accept $22 billion in aid from Russia, thus aligning Ukraine with Russia instead of with the European Union.

The Background:

You know how the United States has “Red States” and “Blue States”? Imagine if the Red and Blue States spoke different languages and came from different ethnic backgrounds, with all the people in the Red States sharing a background and language, and all the people in the Blue States sharing a different background and language.

In other words, the Ukrainian situation is like our immigration, gun rights, same-sex marriage and abortion debates rolled into one – and then multiplied by 10.

About four out of every six people in Ukraine are ethnic Ukrainian and speak the Ukrainian language. Another one in six is ethnic Russian and speaks Russian. The last one-in-six is ethnic Ukrainian but speaks Russian.

Eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula on the northern coast of the Black Sea have more of a cultural connection to Russia. Eastern residents speak Russian interchangeably with Ukrainian, and their political ideals more closely align with Russia. Western Ukraine residents more clearly identify with Eastern Europe.

Ukraine declared independence from Russia in 1991 and the country has been divided along these ethnic-linguistic lines ever since. The country became even more divided when pro-Russia Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych became president in 2010.


But, a pro-Russia president is not the only reason Russia has inserted itself, literally and politically, into Ukraine. As you might expect, there’s money involved. A majority of Russian gas exports to Europe pass through Ukraine and many suspect that Russia hopes to simply expand by claiming the Crimean peninsula for itself. Moreover, Ukraine is broke, and everybody knows it.

The decades of divisions and tensions came to a head last fall when Yanukovych accepted a cushy offer of $22 billion in favorable loans with no strings attached from Russia’s Putin instead of loans from the International Monetary Fund, which would have required Ukraine to enact strict reforms.

When Yanukovych, who was already unpopular with the ethnic Ukrainians because of his past pro-Russia stances, accepted Russia’s offer, ethnic Ukrainians reacted with violent protests. Many had wanted Ukraine to align itself more closely with the European Union so they could secure a more European way of life. On February 28, the Ukraine Parliament voted Yanukovych out of power and he fled to Russia and a new interim government was put in place in Ukraine. The U.S. and other Western countries are now pledging financial support to the newly pro-Western government and earlier this week U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, to offer $1 billion in U.S. aid.

Why should Americans care?

In short, because Russia still scares us and some see Putin’s push into Ukraine as being not unlike Hitler’s push into Austria. The longer, more eloquent, answer is that the U.S. and most of our allies believe that Russia did not have a right to send the troops to Ukraine and that doing so was an act of aggression.

Besides … we sorta promised to look out for Ukraine.

In 1994 leaders of Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom signed The Budapest Memorandum, which laid out a set of assurances for Ukraine. These included commitments to respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and existing borders; to refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence; and to refrain from economic coercion against Ukraine.

Now U.S. officials believe that Russia is responding to its own sense of place and prominence and doesn’t want Ukraine falling under European or Western influence.

In other words, Russia is flexing. And Russia flexing could lead to another Cold War.



What does this mean for American troops?

Right now, nothing. The U.S. has not committed to send troops and has not indicated that sending troops is even being considered. The Budapest Memorandum, while offering undefined assurances, specifically does not obligate us to provide military support. But…

…the military situation in Ukraine is not good. Like, really not good. Ukraine’s troops, just like its population, are ideologically divided. Units stationed in Russian-speaking regions are mostly manned by local residents who don’t necessarily support the post-Yanukovych, government in Kiev. It’s doubtful that they’d remain loyal to Ukraine if forced to fight against Russia. In fact, it is being reported that thousands of Ukrainian servicemen have already switched sides.

Moreover, just last year Yanukovych ended the nation’s draft and turned Ukraine’s military into an all-volunteer force. The last wave of conscripts is half way through its one-year term, and their morale is likely low. The new Ukrainian government has tried to call up some reservists, but it’s unclear if they can be counted on to respond.

At the same time, The Russian military has undergone a major modernization in recent years, receiving large supplies of new weapons and conducting massive exercises. Ukraine couldn’t afford those kinds of improvements and its forces have slowly degraded. The Russian military is also much, much, bigger, with about one million men, compared to Ukraine’s 180,000 men. At every level of comparison, Ukraine is at a huge military disadvantage.

If your best frame of reference for Russia is Rocky IV, then the Russian military is the giant, well-financed and well-trained Ivan Drago and the Ukrainian military is the short, impoverished, understaffed – but all-heart – Rocky.

Still, there may not be much Obama and other world leaders can do. In addition to military aid not being promised in The Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine does not have full member status in NATO, meaning that the U.S. and Europe are not obligated to come to its defense. And, since Russia has veto power as a member of the UN’s Security Council, it’s unlikely that any military action in the area will be approved.


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