Steven Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University, Alabama. He specialises in political parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. We discussed an article he wrote for Outside the Beltway.
We’ve been hearing a lot about Ukraine in the past week, and I can promise you’ll be hearing a lot more about it the coming weeks and months, and maybe even years. I’m not going to try to keep you up to date with what’s going on in the White House, that’s not really the job of a podcast, certainly not this podcast.
But, since we’re going to be hearing a lot about Ukraine, it’s worth knowing something about that country. Ukraine is big, 40 million people and about the size of Texas, it was the second-largest republic of the USSR – of course it’s vastly smaller than the largest, Russia.
And they’re poor. They’re not third-world poor, but they are poor, the GDP per capita is about $3,200 a year, but that’s the average, a few billionaires hog most of it, I’ve seen fleets of Porches and Maseratis run red lights and speed through the centre of Kiev. The typical Ukrainian is much poorer than the $3,200 a year figure.
In the Soviet era Ukraine suffered unspeakably; it took the brunt of the Nazi invasion and the Holocaust, although some Ukrainians collaborated because they saw the Nazis as opposition to the Soviets. A decade earlier the Soviets – Stalin specifically – had caused the Holmodor, a genocide the Ukrainians view as on a par with the Holocaust, and not without reason, because a roughly equal number of people died when almost all the harvest was confiscated, leaving the population to starve.
Treatment was somewhat more humane since the 1950s, although there were extensive soviet efforts to replace the Ukrainian language with Russian. One other thing that happened from the 1920s onwards was that the borders were changed pretty frequently, so that by the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, Ukraine included significant areas previously in Russia. In the Soviet times, that hardly mattered because all control was from Moscow anyway.
In some ways if you were an ethnic Russian who ended up living in an independent Ukraine, it didn’t really matter. Being poor in Ukraine is like being poor in Russia or being poor anywhere. Many, maybe even most ethnic Ukrainians spoke Russian as their first language anyway, and nobody cared or even really knew who was who.
In fact, many Russians didn’t even regard Ukraine as being a different country, not least because the first capital of Russia was Kiev, before Moscow was even built, although independent Ukraine did try to assert itself somewhat, particularly by promoting the Ukrainian language, and seeking closer relations with the EU.
But mostly it didn’t matter because the extravagantly corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych was widely seen to be little more than a puppet for Moscow. That all started to change six years ago. Yanukovych refused to sign a free trade deal which had been negotiated with the EU – Ukraine borders four EU countries. The deal would obviously have been good for Ukraine’s economy, and sharply reduce its reliance on Russia.
Thousands of protesters gathered in the bitter winter cold. They were mostly young people who barely remembered the Soviet Union and saw their future as European. They protested in the central square of Kiev, close to a million of them in total. After months of protest, they were attacked by police and snipers, hundreds were killed, but within a week Yanukovych had fled to Russia and those of his cronies who stayed behind had agreed to free elections, the restoration of the constitution and other reforms. The protestors had won, for the time being.
Watching closely from across the border was Vladimir Putin. He had seen this up close before – a popular uprising that ousted a seemingly secure puppet government loyal to Moscow. He was a KGB officer in Germany in 1989 when the Berlin wall fell, and he is acutely aware of the risk that a popular would pose for him.
A new government in Ukraine allied to the west, joining NATO and the EU was just too much. Within months he ordered his troops, mostly special forces, to take their insignias off their uniforms, paint over the markings on their vehicles and invade the area of eastern Ukraine and Crimea where there were significant ethnic Russian populations. They hired some local thugs as front men to claim that they were rebelling against Ukrainian rule, but Putin himself later admitted that most of the troops and all the weapons had been sent from Russia on his command, including the anti-aircraft missile system that was used to shoot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17, murdering all 298 people on board.
Crimea, a peninsula in the south of Ukraine was annexed by Russia after a staged referendum. About a further five per cent of Ukraine’s territory, along the eastern border with Russia, is outside the control of the Kiev government. The fighting has more or less stopped, but this has become a frozen conflict, preventing any movement towards Ukraine joining NATO or the EU.
That’s probably exactly the way Putin likes it, but if I was Ukrainian, I wouldn’t be in any way comfortable with that. Putin has dropped hints in public about how easy it would be for him to invade and occupy the whole of Ukraine.
So Ukraine desperately, desperately needs international friends, not to mention weapons and other support. Donald Trump is not so popular a figure around the world, but if you are the Ukrainian government, you absolutely can’t afford to be picky. Luckily for them, Congress had voted $250m of security aid. That’s not only valuable military assistance, it’s important as a message too. It tells Putin that the United States does not want him attacking their friends. Conversely, withholding that aid could be taken as signal that the US approves, or at least doesn’t disapprove of the invasion.
However that aid had to be approved by the president, and at the time of the controversial call between Trump and the Ukrainian president Zelensky the aid was being blocked by the White House.
That’s a pretty big incentive to cooperate with any request, however strange, from the president.