The flight of President Viktor Yanukovich and the takeover of the government in Kiev by protesters does not mean that the revolution in Ukraine is over. The bloody battle in Independence Square was just the conclusion of Act I in a long play. Much is yet to come after the intermission.
Politicians are likely to begin jumping from their seats, marching down the aisle and shouting at the characters on the stage. They will inevitably boo those actors they consider villains, cheer those they see as heroes and heckle our own government for its actions or lack of them in regard to the crisis. Before they do, it might be a good idea to consider history and the motivation of the characters.
This is a critical moment in world history. Ukraine is not some little, out-of-the-way republic; with 45 million people, it is the size of France. Its industry, agriculture and natural resources are already formidable, its potential great. But it is also a country deep in debt, crippled by government corruption, and it is split by ethnic, cultural and linguistic traditions.
Ukraine has little experience as an independent nation. At various times over the past thousand years, it has been ruled by the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Mongols, tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. Its land has been trampled by invaders and laid waste during World War II. Its people have been the victims of pogroms, famines and communist dictatorship.
Kiev is central to Russia and its history. It was the capital of Russia, or Kievan Rus, from 882 to 1169. Kiev and Ukraine came under the control of the tsars in 1686 and completely lost autonomy under Catherine the Great in 1775. Ukraine became an independent state late in the 20th century, but to suggest that Russia has no legitimate interest in it is to ignore a millennium of history. Much of the population of eastern Ukraine and the south, where Russia maintains a naval base, is ethnically Russian and speaks Russian. Many of them remember when Ukraine was called the breadbasket of the U.S.S.R. and Nikita Khrushchev, a fellow Ukrainian, was the Soviet Union’s top man.
It is no wonder that many Ukrainians and Russians are alarmed at the country’s separation and drift to the West. It should come as no surprise that Russian President Putin wants to maintain influence and control of Ukraine. We wonder how an American president would act if Texas, for example, were to declare itself an independent nation, or if California were to withdraw from the union and begin cozying up to China.
What will happen in Act II is anyone’s guess. Counter-revolutionaries in Eastern Ukraine could split the nation in two, but not before a civil war. Putin might send in troops to reinstall a government of his liking. And if he did, what would the United States and the European Union do about that?
A more likely scenario would be the emergence of a government in Kiev that is willing to cooperate with Russia while at the same time move the nation more toward democracy. Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister freed from jail a week ago, has had a working relationship with Putin, according to an Associated Press article in this paper Tuesday. Should there be elections in May, and should Ukrainians choose her, she could be the one to guide her nation away from civil war and the world out of crisis.
That’s the final scene of Act III we’d like to see.