Farewell, Crimea

Why Ukrainians Don't Mind Losing the Territory to Russia

Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk waves as he leaves a European Union summit in Brussels on March 6, 2014. (Courtesy Reuters)

When I recently asked one member of the Lvivska Sotnia -- an ardently nationalist self-defense brigade that provided security for the months-long protests at Kiev’s Independence Square -- how he wanted Ukraine to respond to Russia’s seizure of Crimea, one might have expected a fiercely jingoistic response. This was, after all, one of those Ukrainians whom Russian President Vladimir Putin used as a pretext for his invasion in the first place. But it turns out the last thing he wanted was for Kiev to try to retake Crimea by force -- that would only risk starting World War III, he said.

Lost in the recent discussion in the West about Russian aggression in Crimea has been the question of whether Ukrainians believe that Crimea is worth fighting for in the first place. Although Westerners (and the Ukrainian government) profess the importance of defending Ukrainian territorial integrity, most Ukrainians wouldn’t seem to mind letting Crimea go. For them, the issue is much more a matter of prudence than principle.

There are three main factors that inform Ukraine’s current passivity toward Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. First, there is the fragility and disunity of the current political leadership. Until the elections scheduled for May 25, Ukraine has only an interim government -- and a weak one, at that. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who is acting prime minister, is an ally of Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and head of the Fatherland party who was imprisoned from 2011 to 2014. Moreover, only two of the four main opposition forces that toppled the previous government -- Fatherland and the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party -- have joined the current governing coalition. The former heavyweight boxer Vitaly Klitschko’s moderate UDAR (Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms) has declined to participate, as has the group of businessmen affiliated with Petro Poroshenko, who was foreign minister under former president Viktor Yushchenko. The government has also failed to reach out to eastern Ukrainian moderates affiliated with ousted Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, including Sergei Tigipko, who came in third place in the 2010 presidential elections.

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