Abrupt U-Turn

Jewish Light Editorial

With a stunning speed not seen since the sudden collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989, Ukraine’s dictatorial President Viktor Yanukovych has been voted out of office by the nation’s Parliament. The coalition against Yanukovych included defecting members of his own party and lawmakers sickened by the escalating violence on the part of Yanukovych’s troops, security forces and police in responding to weeks of street protests against his regime.  

At this writing, events are still rapidly unfolding, but Yanukovych has fled from Kiev and is being sought on mass-murder charges. Oleksandr Turchynov, the Ukrainian speaker of the parliament, has been named interim president and new elections have been scheduled.

For weeks, Ukraine has been caught in a high-stakes tug of war between Ukrainian citizens who favored a formal agreement with the European Union for closer ties to the West, and Yanukovych, who was being squeezed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to restore Russian hegemony over Ukraine. Putin pressured Yanukovych not to sign the previously agreed-upon accord with the E.U. and sweetened his pressure with a $15 billion bailout of the financially strapped nation to assure compliance.

As Yanukovych was seen to buckle under Putin’s pressure, Ukrainians who opposed closer ties with Russia and favored E.U. affiliation took  to the streets to protest the president’s refusal to sign the accord.  Last week, as security forces responded with targeted, organized killings of unarmed citizens, 82 were left dead with the beautiful and historic capital city of Kiev in ruins.  Members of the armed forces as well as political allies of Yanukovych began to defect and refuse to carry out his draconian decrees, which led to his formal ouster from power.


To their credit, both the United States and the E.U. have responded by providing essential political and financial support to the new interim regime in Ukraine and warning the power-hungry Putin, who two years ago sent Russian troops into the Republic of Georgia (another former USSR satellite), not to intervene militarily in Ukraine.

Putin, basking in his megalomaniacal glory after his $50 billion Winter Olympics extravaganza, had been winning nearly every foreign policy chess game of the past few months, gaining control of the effort to have his ally, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, remove his chemical weapons and playing a major role in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.  The quick and unified response on the part of the U.S. and E.U. should send a sharp message of rebuke to Putin — a warning that he must not attempt more overreach with his neighbor.

In addition to our concerns as Americans, we as Jewish Americans are deeply concerned over the well-being of the 200,000 Jews who continue to live in Ukraine. The Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis is closely monitoring the situation of Ukrainian Jews and, with other local and national organizations, is calling for greater security protections for Ukraine’s Jews and their institutions. Already, one synagogue has been firebombed, and it is no secret that many of the ultranationalistic opponents of the old Ukrainian regime were viciously anti-Semitic. 

In a very thoughtful op-ed column headlined “What Ukraine Needs Now” in the New York Times this week, Ulrich Speck, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, applauds the sudden change in Ukraine’s fortunes and calls upon the West to continue its political and economic support for the new pro-democracy interim government and for immediate steps towards formal and full membership in the E.U. for Ukraine.

It will be a while before the dust settles in Ukraine sufficiently to assess the full implications of the dramatic and sudden changes in Ukraine and the wisest responses to them. In the meantime, it seems clear that a seemingly hopeless spiral of violence with grave implications for world peace has for now been ended. The pushback against Yanukovych and Putin is good and promising news for Ukrainians in general and Ukrainian Jews in particular.