American media coverage of the Trump-Ukraine scandal has focused primarily on the U.S. implications, for obvious reasons. The mainstream press is naturally most concerned with American affairs, has little understanding of foreign countries (especially because tight budgets have required many publications to cut back or close their overseas bureaus), and is in many cases downright chauvinist.
Yet it is worth considering how Trump’s cynical manipulation of Ukraine is only the capstone of decades of maltreatment the country has endured, both from Western powers and elsewhere. If any country deserved lenient, generous treatment it is this one, yet it has been abused like a rented mule. It is shameful.
It’s hard to imagine a country whose last century of history has been harder than Ukraine’s. First, it was the site of major conflict in World War I, which only got worse during the ensuing Russian Civil War. An independent Ukrainian Republic existed briefly, but was conquered by the Bolsheviks who established a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic puppet state. Only a few years later, Stalin’s ruthless effort to collectivize agriculture created a gigantic famine that killed roughly 3.5 million Ukrainian civilians. His secret police murdered approximately 130,000 more during the Great Purge of the late ’30s, including nearly the entire communist leadership of the region.
Just a few years after that, Ukraine was conquered and occupied by Nazi Germany, where they carried out much of the Holocaust. Then it was re-conquered by the Soviet Red Army — which while surely an improvement from Nazi occupation, still required some of the most brutal fighting of any war in history. Perhaps seven million died during the conflict, including about a million and a half Jews at Nazi hands.
Now, Ukraine did relatively well under subsequent Soviet rule, becoming a center of heavy industry and military research. But the side effects of communist dictatorship were still sometimes devastating — especially the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which contaminated a big chunk of northern Ukraine and required an entire city of 50,000 be abandoned. As the USSR became progressively more sclerotic and dysfunctional, the Ukrainian economy stagnated.
The collapse of the Soviet Union led to Ukrainian independence as a democratic republic, and a glimmering of hope that the country might finally get a fresh start and start climbing up the development ladder. But it was not to be. The rickety Soviet-style economy had severe structural problems, and crash privatization recommended by Western economic advisers only made things worse. Vast wealth was scooped up by a new oligarch class, while the broader economy suffered a shattering crisis of recession and hyperinflation, only returning to positive growth in 2000.
Extreme inequality combined with a history of dictatorship meant rampant corruption, and Ukrainian politics became marked by embezzling strongmen and assassination attempts.
All this got little attention from Western powers, who kept pushing their institutional boundaries eastward with little consideration of what it would actually require to bring the post-communist countries into the fold. The United States kept mindlessly advancing NATO — an organization dedicated to countering a country that no longer existed — further and further into the former Eastern Bloc, while the European Union did much the same. The supposed objective was to unify Europe as a prosperous, unified continent. But the further Western institutions went into former Soviet territory, the worse the results were.
All this infuriated Russia, setting the stage for yet another disastrous diplomatic and economic crisis. Ukraine grew steadily from 2000 to 2008, but its economy was once again crushed by the global financial crisis, suffering a Great Depression-scale hit to output. In particular, it had significant debt denominated in foreign currencies it did not control. It was only saved from default by a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2008 — that came with the usual austerity requirements attached, which only further weakened the economy.
As historian Adam Tooze writes in his book Crashed, by 2013 the European Union was in advanced discussions with Ukrainian leadership about joining up. Yet Ukraine’s economy was still in dire straits, and it would require major assistance to make a real recovery — while Russia, who accounted for 26 percent of Ukrainian exports, threatened sanctions if they signed the agreement.
If Western powers — above all the United States, which has by far the greatest influence over the IMF — had taken their previous commitments seriously, they would have offered Ukraine a gigantic reconstruction and redevelopment package to get their economy back on its feet and offset whatever damage Russian sanctions might have caused.
Instead, the E.U. Association Agreement came with a pitifully meager IMF loan — most of which was to be used to repay the 2008 loan. The E.U. offered only an additional 610 million euros. As Tooze notes, “In exchange the IMF demanded big budget cuts, a 40 percent increase in natural gas bills and a 25 percent currency devaluation.” It would have been political suicide to accept. “There were Ukrainian oligarchs with personal fortunes larger than this,” he writes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin pounced, offering a $15 billion loan contingent on joining his Eurasian Customs Union. Then-President Victor Yanukovych — a hugely corrupt politician who was nevertheless between a rock and a hard place — accepted. But this also caused a massive political uprising, fueled behind the scenes by American pressure. “We’ve got to do something to make it stick together,” then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt was surveilled telling the then-undersecretary for European and Eurasian affairs, “because you can be pretty sure that if it does start to gain altitude the Russians will be working behind the scenes to torpedo it.” A few months into 2014, Yanukovych fled to Russia, and was replaced by a pro-Western coalition who duly signed the onerous E.U. agreement.
In response, Putin seized Ukraine’s Crimea region, and lent support and arms to a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. E.U. membership had to be put on ice due to the active conflict. The United States responded with its own arms and support — the aid that President Trump used to try to blackmail the new Ukrainian president, former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, into ginning up a fake investigation into the Biden family.
In sum, after decades of gruesome suffering, Ukraine has been cynically manipulated by bungling American imperialists to stoke a pointless and counterproductive conflict with Russia — providing enough commitment and resources to keep the fighting going, but never enough to win. The result is yet another grinding frozen conflict with little prospect of resolution. Some 13,000 Ukrainians have died in the war, and the economy has once again been badly damaged. The only change with a new U.S. president has been an attempt to strong-arm the country into colluding in a cheap political trick.
Given that Western powers patently lack either the desire or the ability to make Ukraine into France overnight, it is an appalling crime to use that beleaguered country to repeatedly poke Vladimir Putin in the eye. It is not Americans who suffer the backlash. One feels terribly for President Zelesnky, probably the most decent president Ukraine has ever had, who by all accounts only wants to help his country get back up on its one remaining limb. “I would never want Ukraine to be a piece on the map, on the chess board of big global players, so that someone could toss us around, use us as cover, as part of some bargain,” he said in a recent interview with Time. “As for the United States, I would really want — and we feel this, it’s true — for them to help us, to understand us, to see that we are a player in our own right, that they cannot make deals about us with anyone behind our backs.”
Russia is of course every bit as guilty as the U.S. in stoking this war. Yet unlike America, Ukraine is right on its border — and Putin regards NATO and the E.U., with considerable justification, as plotting to encircle and isolate Russia. He clearly has the power to fight back if he wishes. So as David Klion argues in The Nation, there is simply no alternative to diplomatic negotiation to end the conflict and reach some kind of detente which allows some room for Russian interest, perhaps with Ukraine as a sort of peaceful buffer state. If America wishes to combat Putin’s influence, it can do that by fixing the broken U.S. tax system that allows Russian oligarchs to hide billions in ill-gotten wealth, and by pursuing a climate deal to undermine their natural gas profits — ideally pushing Russia to decarbonize its economy, and to stop meddling in foreign elections.
But at the very least we can stop treating Ukraine like a cheap toy in the imperialist fantasies of the D.C. Blob.
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