There Are No Bystanders in Ukraine's Search for Self

By Bas Willems (Contributor) 

When, on 17 July flight MH17, a passenger liner was shot down over Ukraine, the search was on for those responsible. Or was it? Within twenty-four hours the western media had reached its verdict: Putin’s puppeteering was to blame for the 298 lives lost. In what the Russian Deputy Minister of Defence, Anatoly Antonov, called ‘information warfare’, news outlets lapsed into a mantra of culpability: Putin – Russia – Putin – Russia. It was striking to see how poorly western journalists applied the adversarial principle, and instead rallied virtually unquestioningly behind the Ukrainian reading of the story. This is especially peculiar considering that Ukraine is normally treated with indifference, if discussed at all.  

Yet, this lack of objectivity is not accidental, but has everything to do with the way the West wants to perceive Ukraine. Ukraine is the largest country in Europe, and every change it makes is carefully monitored abroad. As westerners, we consider it naïve of Russians to think that their government stays on the sidelines, but it is equally naïve to assume that Europe and the United States do not seek to push their agendas in the region. Whereas Russia presently bring weapons into Ukraine covertly, the western way of influencing politics has been, for decades, to use the mass-media to promulgate certain depictions of the region. Images of heavily armed police men bearing down on protesters in Kiev’s Maidan square, published earlier this year, helped in rallying Ukrainians for the pro-western cause. More importantly, however, was the way they raised widespread support abroad. By showing such images, the media encourages foreign viewers to form their opinions based on the standards of their own society which, in turn, plays into the lack of understanding regarding eastern European attitudes. In Ukraine, as in many other countries in the region, a crackdown is much more likely to be perceived as a sign of strong leadership, rather than a characteristic of a police state. Not without reason did the newly elected President, Petro Poroshenko, advocate a strong military intervention in the east of his country immediately after his appointment.


Today’s Ukrainians are given a tough choice. Either they embrace modern culture, embodied by Europe, or they stay true to their traditional values, which many feel are safeguarded by Russia. Satisfying both power blocs is simply impossible, at least at the moment. The need to properly address this issue grew acute in 2004, when neighbouring Poland, Slovakia and Hungary became members of the European Union, while at the same time half a dozen former Warsaw-Pact members joined NATO. The new situation completely altered the sphere of influence, definitively bringing western ideas to Ukraine’s doorstep. It only took until the end of that year for a pro-western President to be elected, although it required an additional two months of protesting, known as the ‘Orange Revolution’, to ratify the election’s outcome. Under this new President, Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine repositioned itself and took a deliberate course of alienation from Russia, thereby catering to the needs of the west. The new authorities sought to distance themselves from the ingrained notion of Russians and Ukrainians as ‘Brother Peoples’, leaving the Russians in Ukraine – its largest minority – to feel rightly neglected. Although much of Yushchenko’s efforts were undone by his successor, the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, it was clear that change was among the possibilities. Pro-western sentiments resurfaced in November 2013, when after the suspension of the ‘Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement’, thousands of – primarily western – Ukrainians took to the streets, in pro-western protests known as ‘Euro-Maidan’. These protests helped to install a new, pro-western President, but also resulted in creating an incredibly unstable country.

What is happening now in Ukraine is part of the seemingly inevitable fate of a country in transition. At its weakest in decades, every major player is presently seeking to influence its policy. If Yanukovych had stayed in power, Russia’s approach towards Ukraine would have been completely different. Ukrainian policy makers would have adopted Russian economic initiatives and its intellectuals would have been kinder to their Russian ‘brothers’. With the arrival of Poroshenko, however, Ukraine is taking a clear pro-European course, intending to build on the achievements of the Yushchenko administration. If Poroshenko’s agenda is to be pursued, it would cause a massive geopolitical change, which could be disastrous for Russia. In that respect, Putin’s mingling in east-Ukraine makes perfect sense: every day of unrest in Ukraine is another day that pro-European ideas cannot take shape. News about cross-border artillery shelling has become more persistent in the last week, and leaves the possibility open that Russia will intervene militarily. Russia’s meddling should be condemned, but, to be clear, this condemnation is just as insincere as Russia’s claims to be caring for its Brother People. The political reality of 2014 is much more banal: Ukraine is up for grabs, and everyone wants in on it. In Ukraine’s search for self, neither the west nor Russia can afford to be a mere bystander.