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Ukraine Commentary: What Happened, Why It Matters And Dangerous Myths

World Factbook | CIA

The government of Ukraine, independent since 1991, finds itself in a position of unprecedented vulnerability. Internal disagreement over economic policy toward the European Union sparked larger discussions of identity and alignment throughout Ukraine. A pro-European movement ended up toppling the government, and deposed President Yanukovych fled the country on Feb. 22.

Less than a week later, in this time of internal instability, the Russian Federation invaded southern Ukraine and is using legal-looking procedures to legitimate its seizure. The external threat is not appeased with ceding Crimea. Reports of Russian designs on broad swaths of Ukraine appear credible, including provocations and seizures of government buildings in three eastern Ukrainian cities recently.

The invasion and war not only pose an existential threat to the Ukrainian state. They also implicate the United States.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the majority of missiles of the Soviet arsenal pointed at the United States were on Ukrainian territory. Ukraine inherited 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads; 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles; and 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons. The new Ukrainian government saw these weapons as a target more than a shield and actively negotiated for a secure path for disarming itself.

Perceiving a great risk to the United States homeland if these nuclear weapons were seized by terrorists or other hostile parties, the United States found its interests aligned with the new Ukrainian government. Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal, on the condition that the United States and others guarantee Ukraine's territorial integrity.

Russia's seizure of southern Ukraine violates that integrity and makes the United States a party to this conflict.

Under any circumstances, instability in an agricultural powerhouse the size of Ukraine would affect us by rocking world food prices. In this situation, though, there is a second layer. Ukraine's nuclear disarmament and the U.S. guarantee are two prime reasons that Russia's invasion has resulted in the sharpest great-power geopolitical crisis since the Cuban missile crisis. It is imperative that the United States government take action; it is also imperative that U.S. citizens become better educated on Ukraine and the developments there. While U.S. press coverage of Ukraine has improved, two myths perpetuated by the press need to be debunked.

-- First, most press accounts of Ukraine refer to Ukraine as a divided country, split between the "Russian-speaking East" and the "Ukrainian-speaking West." This is a reductionist picture, and it is wrong.

Most -- more than 80 percent -- of Ukraine's citizens are bilingual. Daily life in Ukraine involves a great deal of what linguists call "code-switching," switching from Ukrainian language to Russian and back again, depending on context, whom one is speaking with, the mood of the speaker or other subtle considerations. Polite conduct in Ukraine demands that a person respond in the language in which one is addressed. Language use here is not always a marker of ethnicity and it certainly is not an index of a population's policy preferences. If language here has anything to do with identity, it is a civic identity, which has as its core flexibility and tolerance. Language in Ukraine is one medium of flexibility and toleration with which a multi-ethnic population operates.

Likewise, tales of the "Russia-leaning East" and the "Europe-leaning West" are just that: tales. The last nationwide survey before the Russian invasion by the internally respected Razumkov Center showed broad support in the East as well as the West for national unity. To the question, "Would you prefer your region to split off from Ukraine and join another country?" only 2.5 percent in Western Ukraine answered "Yes." And in the supposedly pro-Russian eastern part of Ukraine? 8.6 percent.

Wait -- haven't "pro-Russia demonstrators" taken over buildings in some cities in eastern Ukraine? Be careful. The demonstrators may be pro-Russia but they are not necessarily locals: Reports from Kharkiv, for example, tell that these supposed "locals" stormed the opera house thinking it was the mayor's office and they can't find their own way to the main square of the town. Busloads of young toughs in black leather jackets are hired, including some bused in across the border from Russia, just 30 miles away. They form the core, if not the majority, of the protests hitting the streets now in eastern Ukraine. Those protests are relatively small but violent and volatile.

-- Second, the press has reported that the portion of southern Ukraine called "Crimea" voted in a referendum March 16 to secede and join Russia. No such thing actually occurred. Yes, in Crimea on March 16 there was an exercise with voting booths , ballots and ballot boxes. Does that mean there was a referendum held? Let's inspect more closely.

The week before, voters from communities prone to vote for staying with Ukraine had their voter i.d.s confiscated. Those who did show up to vote were voting at the point of a gun. The ballots had two choices: #1, to secede and join Russia, and #2, to secede and become an independent country. There was no option on the ballot for Crimea to stay in Ukraine.

The only "international monitors" monitoring the vote count were a few far-right extremists brought in by the government of Russia. The ballots, by the way, were printed and brought in from Russia. Some, unloaded at the docks, were photographed in their sealed cellophane-wrapped stacks showing the option to join Russia already marked, days in advance of voting day. Which leads us to ask Why was Russia sponsoring a referendum in another country anyway?

It's clear why the Ukrainian government wasn't doing it: because under the Ukrainian constitution, for one region to secede takes a national referendum. The so-called "referendum" in Crimea was a sham, held against Ukrainian law and with no legal effect, with lopsided ballots and intimidated voters.

Ukraine is scheduled to hold a legitimate presidential election on May 25. Let those who prefer to split the country run on that platform, and let the voters decide.

In the meantime, when you hear news that thugs have taken over government buildings in eastern Ukraine or calls for eastern Ukraine to split off or be joined to Russia, remember that they speak for less than 9 percent of the population of their region.

If you hear news soon that supposedly "Russian-leaning" eastern Ukraine has requested, or held, a referendum on joining Russia, don't believe it.

While some local score-settling or opportunism could always come into play, what we need to be alert for is a re-enactment of the Russian Federation's Crimea game plan: Conduct a plain-clothes invasion and stage a sham referendum as prelude to a full-dress military invasion -- against the wishes of the local population.

Why should we care? Beyond the principles of respect for borders and sovereignty that the international system is built on? These attempts at dismemberment are happening in a state where our government has specifically committed itself to preserve territorial integrity.