Violence in Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine, has taken dozens of lives, as desperate authorities struggled to suppress growing protest demonstrations. The European Union (EU) mediated a truce announced on Feb. 21, which has brought temporary calm and should facilitate early presidential elections.
Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, now a fugitive on the run, tried frantically to survive in office. On Jan. 28, he removed loyal but ineffective Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, along with the rest of the government. Yanukovych is now believed to be in pro-Moscow Crimea, where the Russian Black Sea fleet is headquartered in Sevastapol.
In mid-January, Yanukovych forced comprehensive dictatorial powers through Parliament. Basic freedoms and human rights were curtailed. There were no public hearings, no debate and no actual vote, just a show of hands that authorities immediately announced ratified the sweeping new executive authority.
The violence within Ukraine reflects a wider tug-of-war for alliance and influence between the EU and Russia. So far, the latter, led by President Vladimir Putin, has held the upper hand. Protests began in November, when Ukraine’s government rejected a historic agreement to associate closely with the EU and opted, instead, for expanded ties with Moscow.
While the violation of human rights should be denounced, effective policy requires putting current events in broad historical context. George Kennan, probably the most perceptive American analyst of Russia, wrote in 1954 that Soviet leaders “are not like ... us.” War to the death with Nazi Germany has had a profound continuing impact on the nation, including the current generation. Totalitarianism fed traditional anxieties regarding territory and national security.
Contemporary Islamic extremism adds to ethnic tensions. Putin has successfully contained various separatist movements in Russia, notably in Chechnya. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov was previously a powerful separatist leader but has been persuaded to change and is now allied with Moscow.