Vanden Heuvel Op-Ed Unencumbered by Facts

Publishing magnate Katrina vanden Heuvel’s recent Op-Ed in The Washington Post is an unfortunate example of Kremlin apologetics, deflecting the blame on the war in Ukraine’s east away from Putin and the Kremlin.

Perhaps one of vanden Heuvel’s most misleading claims regards the EU’s approach to economic relations with Ukraine. “There would have been no civil war if the European Union’s leadership had not insisted on an exclusive association agreement that prejudiced Ukrainian industry in the east and trade with Russia.”

This statement is simply false. The European Union never insisted that Ukraine abandon deep and historic trade relations with Russia. The EU has always insisted that an economically viable Ukraine needs to maintain close economic and political relations with both Russia and the West.

The EU did, however, make it clear that a free trade agreement and integration with Europe would be economically incompatible with an overlapping agreement with the Russian-led Customs Union. Even under former President Yanukovych, Kyiv realized that the Customs Union was a trap, designed to make Ukraine’s economy subservient to Russia. In order to placate the Kremlin, Yanukovych offered to cooperate with the Customs Union in a 3+1 arrangement, abstaining from full membership. Russia, however, insisted that Ukraine become a full-fledged member. When Ukraine refused to comply, Russia hit Ukraine with sanctions.

Vanden Heuvel’s next fallacy is the narrative of a “deeply divided and economically fragile Ukraine”. While it’s true that Ukraine is a multilingual country with political differences among different regions, these divisions are hardly unique among large countries. The majority of citizens of every Ukrainian region, save Crimea, identify as ethnic Ukrainians. Although most urban residents of southern and eastern Ukraine regions speak Russian in their everyday lives, the majority of southeast Ukrainians identify as “native Ukrainian speakers”.

Rather than fracturing under the current circumstances, Ukrainians of all regions are increasingly coming together. With the exception of Donbas, which quickly fell under the control of armed Russian-directed fighters, pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in other eastern Ukrainian cities have eclipsed the pro-Russian movement. The overwhelming election victory of Petro Poroshenko, who ran on a campaign to quickly move against armed groups, should have dispelled any notion of an irreparably divided Ukraine.

But perhaps most regretful is venden Heuvel’s support for a federal Ukrainian state. Venden Heuvel’s proposal comes straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook, designed to place Russia in control of several Ukrainian regions. In effect, this proposal gives the Russian government veto power over Ukraine’s right to pursue democratization and Europeanization. According to an April poll by the International Republican Institute, only 14% of Ukrainians prefer a federal state. Even in far eastern Ukraine, a plurality (45%) of Ukrainians prefers a unitary Ukrainian state as opposed to a federal state structure (26%). Apparently venden Heuvel believes that Russia, through force and coercion, knows how to better organize the Ukrainian state than Ukrainians themselves.

Vanden Heuvel is no expert on the Ukrainian conflict, and has displayed remarkable ignorance in even basic details on Ukraine and the events leading up to the crisis. In her view, Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory, renunciation of past agreements, support for armed fighters, and dispatch of clandestine troops onto foreign land are justified.

Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center