Escalation in Ukraine: 2/19/14

After the streets in Kiev erupted yesterday (February 18th), more bad news from Ukraine.  President Yanukovich has sacked the army chief and replaced him with one more loyal to him personally.  This is generally a prelude to his probable next move – deploying the army to stop the protests.  Most likely this was either a pre-emptive move, or a response to the former army chief refusing.  Right now it’s 9 PM in Kiev on February 19th, and I would be surprised if the army isn’t sent out within the next three to thirty hours.  Without necessarily taking the side of the protesters, more violent escalation is unequivocally a bad thing.

This incident is being criminally underreported in America, I must say.  I think that the attention being paid to the Olympics has displaced a lot of the appetite for serious and depressing foreign news, which is scant in the first place.  But the situation in Ukraine is extremely volatile, especially now that the President is preparing for a more direct exercise of authority.  Protestors in Lviv (western Ukraine) have declared autonomy or independence and are likely attempting to marshal support among the conscripts in the army and security forces.  Some, like Poland’s Prime Minister Tusk, are warning of a civil war.

The geopolitical situation could get very hairy very quickly.  If Western Ukraine moves towards secession, they are very likely to look to Europe and potentially NATO for support.  Yanukovich could decide to let them go, or to send the army to lock down central control on the region.  While Yanukovich and his party are strongly pro-Russia, it would still probably be over the line of political acceptability for him to ask for an armed Russian intervention to bolster his forces.  But it might not be.  The situation in Ukraine is deeply divided and complex, and it has the misfortune of sitting right between the Western alliance and Vladimir Putin.

Fun fact: “Ukraine” is Russian for “borderland”.  This isn’t the first time it’s been in this situation.

The bright side of this underreporting is that it hasn’t yet become a political issue in America.  If and when it does, certain American politicians are likely to reflexively take an aggressive anti-Russia, anti-Yanukovich line.  As long as the Ukraine protests and disturbances fly under the radar, the United States may yet hope to play a productive role in resolving the crisis.  If it becomes politicized, President Obama may find himself forced into a series of escalating actions that could have horrible consequences.  This crisis is just too complex and ugly and boiling it down to a good-guys-bad-guys narrative will lead America horribly astray.

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