Ted Barnes: Why Americans should care about Ukraine

  • A ship under the the Kerch bridge blocks the passage to the Kerch Strait near Kerch, Crimea, on Nov. 25. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 12/2/2018 12:20:30 AM

Ukraine on Monday declared martial law in 10 regions of the country that border Russia, and those that border the Black Sea, where Russia seized three Ukrainian ships last weekend.

Ukraine is the size of Texas, with a population around 42 million. Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, roughly the size of New Jersey, juts southward into the Black Sea. The easternmost tip of Crimea is a short distance across the Kerch Strait from Russia. North of the strait is the Azov Sea, which separates the two countries and is home to two important Ukrainian ports.

The Kerch Strait, and access to the Azov Sea, are at the current flashpoint of contention. The escalation of hostilities carries lessons for America.

After Ukraine broke off from the old Soviet Union in 1991, Russia maintained a naval base in Crimea by agreement between the two countries, despite a failed Russian attempt in 1994 to drive Ukrainians off the peninsula.

As Ukraine cannot effectively transport bulk goods overland due to issues with its infrastructure and that of adjoining countries, it relies on shipping to and from its ports in the Black Sea and in the Azov Sea.

Vladimir Putin has made clear that he wants Ukraine back under Russian influence. The Ukrainian people’s desire to become more aligned with Europe, and to join NATO, have resulted in constant Russian efforts to undermine Ukrainian democracy.

Old Soviet-style governance by Communist party elite (both Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev were Ukrainian) was rife with bribery and corruption, which were widely accepted as ways to further one’s own interests. Attempts to establish democracy in Ukraine have been stymied by people who became wealthy under the old system, and who therefore remain close to Putin and to Russia. They finance political factions that sow discord and engender distrust about democratization. They exploit traditional Ukrainians’ conservatism toward political and economic change, especially along Ukraine’s 2,300-mile-long eastern border with Russia, where thousands of families have members who live in both countries.

In February 2014, a popular democratic uprising in Ukraine toppled the government of Putin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. In apparent response, in March 2014, a military group wearing green uniforms without insignia or other identifying markings spread out over Crimea and assumed control of the peninsula. Russia initially denied having anything to do with the takeover, arguing that it must have been another popular uprising, and therefore a clear indicator that the democracy movement did not have widespread support.

In April 2014, Ukrainian “separatists” took military control of the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, along the eastern border with Russia. This is where massive coal fields are located, as well as the corresponding industrial capabilities of the country. Russia again denied any involvement.

Nobody was fooled by either action, especially when it became clear that Russian weaponry, unavailable to the average Ukrainian, was being used. Ultimately, Russia admitted that it now had assumed control of Crimea, which it considered rightfully, historically, Russian territory. And as Russian trains were seen to be bringing billions of rubles into Lugansk and Donetsk to finance the local banks, there was no further dispute about control of eastern Ukraine, either.

The nearest American equivalent of the effects of the Russian takeovers would be for the United States to somehow, suddenly, lose access to the resources and production capabilities of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as access to the recreational, military and seaport capabilities of Florida and the Gulf Coast. Imagine what those losses would do to the American economy and you have some idea of the effect on Ukraine of the Russian takeovers.

To solidify Russian control over Crimea, Putin completed a project that was favored and begun by Adolf Hitler 75 years ago. In May 2018, Putin triumphantly drove a large construction dump truck over the recently completed Kerch Bridge, spanning the Kerch Strait, the only access to the Azov Sea. Russia already had control of the major Crimean port of Sevastopol, on the Black Sea. Now, Russia effectively controls access to the Ukrainian ports of Berdiansk and Mariupol on the Azov.

Not coincidentally, these major ports on the Azov are located not far to the south of the occupied regions of Lugansk and Donetsk. If Russia were to take over these ports, Putin could solidify his control over eastern Ukraine, and restart coal and industrial production, shipping it out to world markets through the Black Sea, depriving Ukraine of perhaps one-third of its total economic capabilities.

So why should Americans be concerned about what happens in far-off Ukraine?

One reason is because Russia has used Ukraine as a testing ground for interference in all aspects of national life: by energizing and arming militant dissidents; by crippling electronic controls over necessary infrastructure; supporting politicians intent on destabilizing the country; by developing and implementing cyber-warfare.

When American intelligence agencies say that computer hacking and other cyber-attacks are traceable to Russians, or that social media has been infiltrated by Russian operatives in an effort to sow discord among us, believe them. Russia has been testing and perfecting such efforts for years in disrupting Ukrainian democracy.

A further object lesson for America is that Ukraine had repeatedly relied on Russia to deal fairly in its many treaties and agreements regarding sharing Crimea, and the Azov Sea. Russia reneged on all of them, just as it has failed to honor peace agreements in eastern Ukraine.

A complete understanding and application of these lessons for America’s future dealings with Russia necessarily includes the fact that it was Donald Trump’s associate, Paul Manafort, who was called upon and paid millions by former president Yanukovych and Putin-backed oligarchs, to provide direction and support for the anti-democracy efforts in Ukraine. And it was Manafort, as Trump’s campaign manager, who induced the Republican National Convention to remove from the party’s 2016 platform any mention of protecting the sovereignty of Ukraine.

The current escalation of Russian aggression against Ukraine, and the history of events that precipitated and enabled it, must be recognized as a primer on how America deals with Russia. No matter how much Trump and Putin share smiles and casual talks, Americans must realize that Putin is nobody’s friend.

(Ted Barnes, a frequent traveler to Ukraine, lives in Concord.)

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