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Recent Ukrainian unrest reached its deadliest levels yet Tuesday, as protesters and police officers were killed, fires raged in Kiev and a nation divided moved closer to a national tipping point.

Ukraine is closely divided between Russian-speaking residents largely loyal to Moscow and native-speaking western Ukraine, which identified with Europe and largely despises Russia for its decades of control during the days of the USSR.

The latest volatility stems from Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rejecting an opportunity to establish closer economic ties with the European Union and subsequently accepting bailout assistance from Russia. Protests that followed were met with new laws restricting protest rights and even a ban on citizens wearing helmets.

Former Reagan administration Pentagon official Frank Gaffney told Radio America the people have very good reasons to be in the streets.

“There’s obvious frustration on the part of the people of Ukraine with their government, with the policies it’s been pursuing, particularly to the degree to which it is acceding to what can only be described as domination by Russia. I think there’s also a growing restiveness about the growing repression at home and the corruption of their government,” Gaffney said.

Now that the protests have evolved into violent clashes between protesters and police, Gaffney said violent repression of the protesters is possible, but he believes the more likely scenario is for Ukraine to reach a tipping point toward freedom.

Listen to Radio America’s interview with Frank Gaffney:

The United States is currently taking a hands-off approach, urging both sides to resolve their differences peacefully. Gaffney said neutrality has no place in this dispute. He said the U.S. policy should be obviously and boldly stated.

“We need to be unquestioningly and unmistakably aligned with those who aspire to freedom from the tyranny that they’ve been subjected to, the arbitrary, the corrupt and the increasingly repressive tyranny of Yanukovych,” Gaffney said.

“I think it is important to take sides, and straddling the fence as the Obama administration is won’t do, or worse aligning with the oppressors either out of some misplaced belief that this will buy us some benefit the Russians in this reset policy of the president’s or that it will enable us to have some sort of dialogue with the government of the state, in this case Ukraine, that is engaging in such repression. I think this is a mistake, both strategically and certainly morally,” Gaffney said.

What is at stake in terms of U.S. national security interests? What would be the result of the protesters being defeated, with or without physical assistance of the Russians?

“It is probably a step in the direction of Vladimir Putin’s longstanding goal of reconstituting, effectively if not technically, the old Soviet Union,” Gaffney said. “He has been beavering away at this for several years, using his kleptocracy to cultivate the old power structures and relationships of the previous regime. Incrementally, he has made headway in bringing people to heel who have sought their independence, who have gained their independence in places like Georgia, to the point where that independence is increasingly a thing of the past.

“This is not good for the people most immediately involved. I’m afraid it will be detrimental to the free world more broadly and to us as well.”

 

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