Q&A: What exactly is happening in Ukraine?

I chatted with Hannah Thoburn, a Eurasia analyst affiliated with the Foreign Policy Initiative, whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The National Interest. I asked her to give me a down-to-basics explanation of what’s going on in Ukraine, where she also lived for two years. Her talk with me is very closely paraphrased, but not precisely quoted, below.

What sparked protests?

There were actually two sparking events.

1) Protest movement started back in November when the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, decided not to sign an association agreement with the EU, which had been planned for for many, many years. The Ukrainian people, at least half of them, got understandably extremely angry because they had seen all the things that their Polish friends have next door. They see, they came from the same place 25 years ago and they have the EU and Ukraine doesn’t, and they see how much better off they are. They took to the streets in November and it was generally a very peaceful sort of thing.

2) The second spark, the one that started the violence, was Jan. 16. In a show-of-hands-only, illegal, unrecorded vote in Parliament, which is called the Verkhovna Rada, the ruling party, which is called the party of Regions (its base of power is in the East, the more Russian-leaning part of Ukraine), pushed through a series of laws that were basically targeted at ending the protests. For instance, you’re not allowed to wear helmets; you’re not allowed to wear masks; If you drive in a line of five cars or more you can have your license taken away and your car impounded for up to two years. Ridiculously large jail terms were on offer for anything and everything. They passed a foreign agents law very similar to the one Russia passed last year, forcing everyone to register. There were additional restrictions on media. That blatant restriction of their freedoms is the thing that really sparked the violence that started a little over a week ago.

What was the reason for Yanukovych’s rejection of the EU deal? Is this just another story of a former Russian satellite cozying up to Putin?

There are a lot of factors, but at the end of the day, they have in fact chosen to go with the Russian offer to buy $15 billion of Ukrainian credits. The Ukrainian economy is in a really, really, terrible state and they need that money to stay afloat. They could have an equal amount of money from the IMF, but [Russian money is] easier and it doesn’t come with any of the restrictions that Western money does. The West wants you to do these reforms and end corruption. The administration now, corruption is what makes them tick. They’re in it to get rich and going with Putin means they don’t have to give it all up. I personally think it’s very short sighted. but they’re doing whatever works for them.

Is the opposition growing due to the heavy-handedness of Yanukovych?

We actually don’t know. Ukrainian polling is not necessarily at a level where they do a very good job of going out in the streets during an event like this. We have polls from a couple of weeks ago. As far as we can tell, it looks like that President Yanuchovych does have at least half the people on his side, as of about two weeks ago. It’s very hard to tell whether the violence has turned it one way or the other. It’s not shown very much on television, which is now almost entirely controlled by the government or friends and allies of the president. On national TV you’ll see things presented as nice Ukrainian citizens bringing cake and cookies to the riot police.

Opposition media is really based online. There are two relatively widely watched online TV stations. Facebook, and the Russian-language version thereof, are really important organizing tools for them. Twitter, not as much as other countries where we’ve seen.

What, if anything, is the U.S.’s stake there. How should it be responding?

The US has made a lot of statements about it. The State Department is very, very aware of what’s going on. It something we really can’t turn a blind eye to. The U.S. has spent 20+ years really working to help build Ukraine and help educate Ukrainians on democracy, etc. I don’t think [the U.S.] feels like we can turn our backs on it. On the other hand, there is the thought that, the U.S. had a Civil War, and if that’s the way this is going to go in Ukraine, that’s their issue. They elected this guy and they need to figure it out. We can’t solve their problems for them. The U.S. and the EU really want Ukrainians to take control, take responsibility for their own country.

Beyond statements, there are holds on visas of some Ukrainian officials who are involved in the violence. There’s a really strong desire amongst Ukrainians I’ve talked to to have more action. They’re really getting fed up with what they see as hypocrisy; they see the West as talking, and talking and talking and not really doing anything. I think more sanctions on leadership in Ukraine would be a good thing if only just to say, “Ukrainians, we understand your problem. We’re gonna stand with you on this. We’ll do something, you do the rest.” I think that would go a long way.

I hear there is a Klitschko brother involved in this story?

The opposition situation is complicated, but there are three leaders of three opposition parties. One of them is Vitali Klitschko, not Wladimir. Wladimir is the one who’s engaged to Hayden Panetierre. Vitali now runs a party that goes by the acronym, UDAR, which in Ukrainian and Russian means “punch.” He’s really done well over the last couple of years playing off of this boxer persona and he’s proven to be reasonably popular. What a lot of people are seeing now is that none of the three leaders of the opposition parties are actually leading and there’s really great frustration among Ukrainians that there’s such a deficit of leadership., The other day they were all three speaking on the main stage in Independence Square in Kiev, and Ukrainians were chanting, “Give us a leader!”

All three of them would be perfectly happy just to lead. But for those who want to go in a democratic direction, it’s very difficult for one of them to shove the other two aside. What it has ended up meaning is there really is not leadership of the opposition. That’s another reason they’re looking to the U.S. and EU.

Where does the country stand now? The president has literally called in sick. What is the status of the protest laws that started the violence?

The offending protest laws have been repealed, but tensions remain high. Many cars belonging to activists have been burned. A prominent activist disappeared, then was dropped outside of Kiev to freeze to death, but survived to tell a story of a week of torture, even crucifixion. There was also an amnesty of sorts offered to opposition, but it came with conditions, so the opposition rejected it. It’s sort of a calm before the storm in the streets.

Hannah also wrote on Ukrainian upheaval, here.