What is quickly becoming apparent is that the situation in Ukraine is not a clear-cut issue. This is at least in part due to the divided nature of Ukraine itself – having only been independent for 22 years and at best a loose coalition of vastly different regions spouting contrasting languages, histories and ideologies. With such a broad scope of interests it is impossible to discern what is the ‘right’ course of action for the West.
The media continually presents the events through a humanitarian lens: that the Ukrainians’ sovereignty is being trampled by an ever-expansionist Russia and that the West must act as a protector of the weaker party. But does this take into account the large amount of Russian-speaking affiliates still in Ukraine? Are they voices that truly reflect Ukraine’s position? Is it realistic to think that Ukraine could ever survive economically as a member of the EU and not as a Russian ally? Is there still a stigma on Russian actions that affecting Western perception?
A constructivist approach is useful when considering these events – by nature constructivism explores political relations in a sociological manner by examining the historical, cultural and ideological motivations behind each actors. It endeavors to explain the why, not just the what. Using this more discursive analysis is invaluable in wading through such a complex issue as Ukraine.
Consider the divided nature of Ukraine itself. The tensions between the two clearly separate regions go much deeper than political leanings. Above is an image depicting the electoral votes of the 2004 presidential election, with the Eastern Ukrainian speakers vying for joining the EU and the Western bloc largely-Russian speakers fighting to maintain ties with Russia. We have to examine events nearly 80 years ago to fully comprehend how profound this conflict is. Stalin deliberately engineered a famine in 1932 which killed up to 10 million people in order to rid himself of a historic foe and replace the region with deported Russians. This was a calculated, politically motivated ethnic-cleansing and is the reason behind the divisive nature of East and West Ukraine. It would seem more prudent for Ukraine to cut links with Russia, a state that has in the past systematically eradicated its people. Furthermore, these conflicts seem to be unlikely to ever be resolved – two entirely different nationalities coming together unanimously under one flag seems improbable.
Then becomes the question of Western intervention. Particularly where the US is concerned, it does seem to be a knee-jerk reaction to support pro-Democratic revolutions so as to have a political ally. This is only exacerbated when age-old enemies like Russia are involved. There remains a perennial fear of a Russian empire – an already formidable force. The US has thus far remained cautious about wading into such a complex issue – a good thing – and has imposed the bare minimum of sanctions, something Putin has found laughable. Although it would seem that Russia has acted brashly in sending troops into Crimea, the US is no stranger to violating sovereignty. On top of invading Iraq on dubious grounds that Hussein had a nuclear weapons arsenal, the US invaded Grenada to protect US hostages (although they hadn’t been taken hostage), invaded Panama to apprehend Noriega, etc etc. As Jack Matlock points out, “for the U.S. to preach about respect for sovereignty and preservation of territorial integrity to a Russian president can seem a claim to special rights not allowed others.”. In essence, pointing out that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Finally it is important to address the reality of Ukraine separating from Russia in favor of the EU. On the surface this move has clear advantages – a move towards a prosperous Ukraine, enforced tightened standards, and a step away from the historically threatening Russia. But is this really a viable option? With the open trade agreement between Russia and Ukraine, Ukraine’s manufactured exported goods have an enormous market in Russia because of their finer quality and competitive prices. Losing Russia as a market will raise prices and could paralyze their manufacturing sector. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian goods will even have a market within the EU. Furthermore, Russia is the Ukraine’s main provider of natural gas, and could very well tinker with market-prices of that necessary resource if angered.
It therefore is much more than just a question of ‘what is right’ for the West, and a constructivist approach is useful in trying to discern what the motives of the political actors are. This is invaluable in making an informed decision, and the US would do well to keep these factors in mind.