George Soroka and Tomasz Stepniewski – Ukraine After Maidan

Because the President is likely to become impeached due to a phone call with the Ukrainian President, it might help readers to have a little background on this little-known country. Just thirty years ago it was a part of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t simply part of the Warsaw Pact like Hungary or Poland. The Soviet Union was constructed as the union of several governments in a manner reminiscent of the United States but different. Anne Applebaum has written a book called Red Famine which gives some great background on Ukrainian history.

Ukraine is lost in the accounts of European history. An intellectual will have some awareness of Poland’s struggles to maintain its independence between an aggressive Russia and Germany. Yet Ukraine has retained a sense of national identity disguised by Russian imperial governance. Nonetheless, its sense of identity has been transformed over many centuries without formal independence. Its national boundaries are now split between allegiances to a Western European tradition and Russia. Samuel Huntington predicted the breakup of Ukraine along ethnic lines in his Clash of Civilizations. His prediction fell flat until after the Maidan Revolution in 2014 when the Russians began to support separatists in the Donbas region.

George Soroka and Tomas Stepniewski offer a short text on Ukrainian politics. The book is a collection of essays from scholars of Ukraine with an emphasis on foreign policy. There was a significant interest in Ukrainian politics during the Maidan Revolution when Viktor Yanukovych was pushed out of office effectively by popular protests. Yanukovych won the presidency with the help of American Paul Manafort who went on to run the Trump Presidential campaign before Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway took over. But Ukraine has fallen out of the eye of all but specialists and the most obsessive political observers despite an ongoing civil war financed by Russia.

Despite the fact the text was published last year it may seem a little dated. Since its publication Ukraine has elected a new President who came to prominence as an actor who played the President of Ukraine on TV. It is an even more unbelievable political rise than Trump’s Presidency. Rather the book’s essays focus on the Poroshenko administration with an essay on the breakdown of the Yanukovych administration by Yuriy Matsiyevsky. Yet this is an excellent text to understand the geopolitical context of Ukraine. Many of the essays help explain its role within the conflicts between Russia and the United States.

In the next few months many Russian scholars will begin to explain Ukrainian politics and its foreign policy implications. But they are often writing about Ukraine as an afterthought within a larger diplomatic context between the United States and Russia. This text gives insights from scholars who focus on Ukraine for its own sake. It does a great job explaining the challenges of NATO expansion and Russian hegemony within the region. There is an excellent essay on Finland’s awkward position as a neutral power dating back into the Cold War. It is a part of the European Union but has never joined NATO because it has historically belonged to the Russian sphere of influence. The demarcation of Ukraine between the West and Russia has placed Finland into new foreign policy challenges. Jussi Laine goes farther to explain how there is anxiety of future Russian interference into their own governance.

I do not want to pretend this work represents a landmark study. Rather it provides context for those who want to understand Ukrainian politics. It places these ideas within the larger security dynamics of Russian and American diplomatic relations. But the most important essay is the last one where Andrzej Szabaciuk explains the demographic context which made a civil war possible. As I already wrote, Huntington predicted its inevitability. George Soroka gives some context in his description of an argument between two Ukrainian women on a street. One yelled in Russian while the other shouted back in Ukrainian. Both understood each other. Yet neither was willing to make concessions even in the language they chose to communicate their frustrations.

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