As violence and mayhem surge in Ukraine’s capitol, Kiev, fear is growing that Europe, the United States and Russia may be on a collision course.
Ukraine’s latest crisis began last November after Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an economic cooperation/integration pact with the European Union. Instead, near bankrupt Kiev accepted a Russian offer to supply heavily discounted natural gas and a pledge to buy billions worth of its shaky bonds.
Demonstrations erupted in Kiev and, later, Lvov. The Russian-backed Yanukovich government reacted with brutal police repression. Violence has mounted in recent days, with at least two demonstrators killed and scores injured on both sides. Moscow is making warnings.
This spreading crisis is of utmost geopolitical importance. It will determine the fate of 46 million Ukrainians, Russia’s future, and the stability of Eastern Europe.
Ukrainians are bitterly divided: western Ukraine, which mostly speaks Ukrainian, looks to the west and borders on Poland, a member of the EU. Predominantly Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine looks east to neighboring Russia. The Crimea was Russian until Nikita Khrushchev gave it in 1954 on a whim (some say fuelled by vodka) to Ukraine. Crimea’s large Muslim population was destroyed or exiled by Stalin.
Ukrainian and Russian speakers understand one another’s tongue. The problem is more about economic and mentality than language, ethnicity or religion.