Ukraine has become a geopolitical game of chess between Russia and the West | Bulent Gokay

The so-called pro-democracy opposition parties and leaders in Ukraine are to a large extent the political face of a social network that is closely tied to the interests of Western military geostrategists, neoliberal technocrats, Polish irredentists and Ukrainian ultra-conservative forces – writes Professor Bulent Gokay


The recent fight in the Ukrainian capital Kiev between Russian-supported Viktor Yanukovych and his opponents has been presented by the Western media as a simple struggle between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism. We are told by both journalists and politicians that the opposition movement on the street is characterised as Western and pro-democracy, and Yanukovych’s regime as the incarnation of Soviet-style authoritarianism. However, behind the simplicity of this presentation a different narrative is unfolding.

In reality, the conflict has very little to do with democracy versus authoritarianism. The opposition bloc, supported by the United States and the European Union, represents the modern face of a conservative – to some extent ultra-conservative – Ukrainian nationalism that has been progressively revived in the western portions of the country since the declaration of Ukrainian independence in 1990. Meanwhile, Yanukovych is little more than a typical post-Soviet petty capitalist oligarch – of which there are dozens of examples in the region that generally, but not always, enjoy the backing of Western powers.

For all his faults the ousted president Yanukovych, unlike real dictators including Gaddafi or Assad, had come to power in internationally monitored free elections; replacing in 2010 a profoundly corrupt and dysfunctional pro-Western coalition. Yanukovych and his party were elected by a majority of the vote both in the 2010 presidential elections – 49 per cent as opposed to Tymoshenko’s 45 per cent – and in the 2012 parliamentary elections. His party won 187 seats as opposed to Tymoshenko’s 102. These elections were judged by all Western observers as fair and democratic in line with European standards. Many of those, however, went to protest and fought against Yanukovych.

There is little to choose from between the leading parties in Ukraine, as the biggest pro-government and opposition parties have their roots in the same brazen oligarchy that divided the wealth of the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In December last year, the West was ready to embrace president Yanukovych and his unsavoury oligarchs, if only they would sign an association agreement with the European Union.

Two months later the story has changed completely and since then we are seemingly witnessing yet another battle in the global struggle between tyranny and democracy – with blood-thirsty authoritarians on one side and peaceful protesters on the other. Yanukovych only turned down the association agreement with the EU because he feared that he would not survive politically the social consequences of the harsh economic measures demanded by Europe.

The so-called pro-democracy opposition parties and leaders in Ukraine are to a large extent the political face of a social network that is closely tied to the interests of Western military geostrategists, neoliberal technocrats, Polish irredentists and Ukrainian ultra-conservative forces. The alliance of this constellation of forces with powerful conservative interests in successive US administrations during and after the Cold War is well documented.

The violence on the streets of Kiev is far more than just an expression of popular anger against an allegedly authoritarian government. Explicitly neo-Nazi paramilitary groups not only form a significant and highly visible part of the ‘pro-democracy movement’ in Kiev but in many ways these groups are leading force in the protest movement. Channel 4 News recently reported that such groups have assumed a ‘leading role’ in the street protests in Kiev, with affiliated paramilitary groups prominently involved in the disturbances. The same gangs of armed paramilitaries are currently controlling all official buildings and the street in Kiev.

Former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski noted in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard that neither the West nor Russia can afford to lose Ukraine to its strategic and economic adversary. “If Moscow regains control over Ukraine, with its 52 million people and major resources as well as access to the Black Sea, Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia,” the text stated.

So far from being a struggle between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism, the battle being fought in Ukraine boils down to a typical conflict of geopolitical interests based on the country’s importance as a large agricultural and industrial region – plus its crucial position in an important gas transportation network, its proximity to key oil resources in the Caspian Sea basin and its general geostrategic location as a country bordering the emerging regional giant Russia.

Ukraine is already a member of GUAM – a loose North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-supported alliance essentially dominated by Anglo-American oil interests and ultimately aiming to exclude Russia from the Caspian Sea. Vladimir Putin’s Russia wants to pull Ukraine into its sphere of influence through various political, economic and military agreements – most notably through the giant gas monopoly Gazprom and the Unified Energy System. At the same time, the US and Western Europe are aggressively pushing Ukraine into NATO and the EU – ignoring the wishes of at least half of Ukraine’s population who speak Russian. In so doing, they are risking a conflagration – not only in Ukraine but also across the entire region.

Professor Bulent Gokay is the head of the school of politics, international relations, philosophy and environment (SPIRE) at Keele University

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