Wednesday, December 13, 2017
News Roundup

Here's what you need to know about the crisis in Ukraine

Over the past few days, Slate has done a number of posts following the ongoing, fast-moving situation in Ukraine. Here are answers to frequently asked questions:

Is Russia taking over Crimea?

Russia dispatched its military to seize Crimea on Saturday after denying it would do so. So far, the Crimean government isn't actually calling for Russian annexation — though some of the more hard-core street protesters are — just greater autonomy. The most likely scenario at the moment, which could change in a heartbeat, seems to be that Crimea will remain outside Kiev's control but still be recognized as part of Ukraine by most of the international community.

Why is Crimea part of Ukraine in the first place?

The peninsula, connected to the Ukrainian mainland by a narrow isthmus, does have close cultural ties to Russia and it's the only part of the country where the majority of the population is ethnic Russian. In 1954 the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, then part of the Soviet Union, was given Crimea as a "goodwill gesture" by Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Along with the rest of Ukraine, Crimea had suffered horrifically under Josef Stalin, particularly the Tatars — a Muslim ethnic group that was deported in its entirety to Uzbekistan. Khrushchev's gesture didn't really mean all that much politically until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

It should also be noted that former Russian President Boris Yeltsin did not protest Crimea remaining part of Ukraine and that Moscow has signed a number of treaties recognizing Ukraine's sovereignty within its current borders.

Wouldn't it be easier just to split Ukraine in two?

Ukrainian politics do tend to divide rather cleanly along the Dnieper River, with most of the support for European Union integration in the primarily Ukrainian-speaking west, and most of the pro-Moscow sentiment in the Russian-speaking east. There's a decent argument to be made that Ukraine might be better off — or at least have an easier time joining Europe — without its less economically developed and politically distinct eastern half.

Unfortunately, it's not really that simple. Ukraine's population is more intermingled than political maps make it appear. Even Donetsk, former President Viktor Yanukovych's home region and political base, is 24 percent Ukrainian-speaking and more than 50 percent Ukrainian. And even among Russian speakers, it's not clear that there's widespread support for actually splitting the country.

The protesters who overthrew Yanukovych have been called fascists and anti-Semites. Is there any truth to that?

Some, but not as much as Russia would have you believe. By all accounts, most of the protesters were supporters of closer integration with Europe angered by Yanukovych pulling out of a political association agreement with the EU, but there were also significant far-right elements in the movement. One of the three main leaders of the protests was Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the far-right ultranationalist Svoboda party that has its roots in a Nazi-allied partisan army during World War II. Tyahnybok has, in the past, blamed Ukraine's problems on a "Jewish-Russian mafia" running the country. He is now the deputy prime minister in the country's new government.

That said, quite a few Jews also took part in the protests and Ukraine is hardly the only country in Europe with a flourishing far-right movement.

So who's going to be in charge now?

The prime minister is Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former foreign minister from Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland party. Tymoshenko, the leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution and former prime minister who was freed last month after more than two years in jail, is not currently in the government, but could compete in presidential elections now scheduled for May 25. Heavyweight boxing champion-turned-opposition leader Vitali Klitschko has also announced his candidacy.

Whoever takes over has a tough road ahead of them, even without the ongoing Crimea crisis. The country is billions of dollars in debt, ranks 137th worldwide in per-capita output, is 144th out of 175 in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, and has a rapidly declining population.

Is Vladimir Putin eating the West's lunch again?

Hardly. The $15 billion loan that Putin negotiated with Yanukovych in December was supposed to ensure that Ukraine — all of Ukraine — remained safely within Russia's orbit, rather than developing closer ties with the EU. The government with which he negotiated that deal has now been overthrown by staunchly anti-Russian leaders, and de facto control over Crimea isn't much of a consolation prize. Putin can still inflict pain on the country's new leaders, but this isn't the arrangement he had in mind.

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