Ukraine: Then and Now

There is, shall we say, a certain irony in the fact that the Ukrainian government has chosen late November to “pivot East.”

As the BBC notes, Ukrainians mark the anniversary of the Holodomor on the fourth Saturday in November. The Holodomor? A man-made famine inflicted on Ukraine (then, of course, a part of the USSR) by Stalin. 

Some historians, like Yale University’s Timothy Snyder, who has done extensive research in Ukraine, place the number of dead at roughly 3.3 million. Others say the number was much higher. Whatever the actual figure, it is a trauma that has left a deep and lasting wound among this nation of 45 million.

Entire villages were wiped out, and in some regions the death rate reached one-third. The Ukrainian countryside, home of the “black earth”, some of the most fertile land in the world, was reduced to a silent wasteland. Cities and roads were littered with the corpses of those who left their villages in search of food, but perished along the way. There were widespread reports of cannibalism…

But the pain of the Holodomor comes not only from the unfathomable number of dead. Many people believe the causes were man-made and intentional. A genocide. They say that Joseph Stalin wanted to starve into submission the rebellious Ukrainian peasantry and force them into collective farms. The Kremlin requisitioned more grain than farmers could provide. When they resisted, brigades of Communist Party activists swept through the villages and took everything that was edible….As the hunger mounted, Soviet authorities took extra measures, such as closing off Ukraine’s borders, so that peasants could not travel abroad and obtain food. This amounted to a death sentence, experts say.

As to what Russia is up to now (no Bolshevik revival, to be sure, but something far older), this lengthy article in the Daily Beast by Michael Weiss is well worth reading in full (for example, check out the accounts of the Zapad-13 military exercise earlier this year for a better understanding of the current unease in northeast Europe ).

This passage sets out some useful background to what is now happening between the EU, Russia and Ukraine:

Former Eastern bloc countries…view the EU as a more reliable partner for international business and trade than they do Russia. That’s why the Kremlin has created a shadow EU known as the Customs Union, which includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and whose sole mission seems to be keeping ex-satellites from being lured into Brussels’ orbit. Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan were set to sign an Association Agreement with the EU at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius on November 28-29, which would offer them economic incentives amounting to free trade and possibly pave the way toward full membership later on. Such incentives, however, come with political preconditions related to freedom of speech, human rights and standards of living. Russia not only wants a neo-Soviet protectorate with these countries—one enforced by tariff arrangements instead of tanks—but it also wants them to behave more like Russia, which is to say dictatorially and outside the confines of international legal norms.

 Armenia…was going to sign the Association Agreement until Putin brought President Serzh Sargsyan to Moscow for a private conference. Whatever occurred between the two has not been publicly disclosed, although no doubt Russia’s military support, upon which Armenian is heavily dependent (Armenia’s sole air defence is provided by the Russian base at Gyumri), was raised as a reason to resist the westward pull. Armenia has now decided to join the Customs Union.

Russia’s Department of Public Health also proscribed the importation of Moldova’s wine, just it had previously done with Georgia’s, citing a pretext of unmet sanitary conditions—though fermented Moldovan grapes were evidently hygienic enough for Russian consumption before the Association Agreement was mooted. Sergei Glazyev, an advisor to Putin, left no room for second-guessing this hostile gesture when he said that Ukraine’s tropism toward the EU was “suicidal,” perhaps only leaving out that the suicide would be assisted. In fact, Glazyev threatened to partition Ukraine as punishment, ominously warning that the Kremlin would be “legally entitled to support” ethnic Russians in the country who did not wish to move closer to Brussels—exactly the kind of language Moscow has used to justify a de facto military annexation of Georgia’s breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia. So starting in August, Ukrainian goods were halted for a laborious inspections regimen at the Ukraine-Russia border (though no such restrictions apply to Russian goods traveling the opposite direction), creating what Ukrainian officials refer to as a “customs terror” that could cost Kiev as much as $2.5 billion by year’s end…..

To repeat myself, read the whole thing. This matters. 

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