It is blaring on our screens. It is oozing into the daily streams of social media and written news. We watch daily as thousands of lives are destroyed or displaced and stories of starving troops and tortured citizens.
On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin initiated a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, citing reasons both wild and mundane. From radically removing Nazi regimes to imagined slights (such as minor naval skirmishes that were not an act of war but more so an act of circumstance) and everything in between. Putin has earned the ire of almost every remaining superpower on the planet, with many of the world’s citizens crying out to have him labeled a war criminal and for military action to be taken. Now, to most who do not directly relate to one or both nations, this new development may seem quite random. Like Putin woke up on that cold February morning and decided instead of taking a run, he would invade a country. However, this is not the case, nor has he done this with the support of his people. It is an event that stemmed from decades of corruption, failed politics, and promises made under duress. So let’s step back and take a further look at “The Russo-Ukrainian War.”
August 1991- Ukraine officially announced its intention to leave the USSR, a move that had been under discussion for years prior but, until 1990, had merely been quietly whispered among people in private conversation. January of 1990, I remember my mother watching the news as 300,00o Ukrainian citizens linked hands in a human chain, showing solidarity in the wish for independence. By December the following year, the USSR was dissolved, with any remaining nations signing an agreement of dissolution on December 26, 1991. They would vote in the first president Leonid Kravchuk on December 1, but he proved unequal to the task. In his three years in office, the economy sank like a stone at a rate of up to 15% per year, topping out at 20% in 1994. The Supreme Court of Ukraine determined him unfit and removed him from office. Replacing him with Leonid Kuchma, an up-and-coming politician who promised he would do everything in his power to move the newborn country forward. First to recover the economy, and then the gold ring to join the nation among the international organization, the European Union.
Kuchma, by all appearances, was just what the doctor ordered. The economy did improve in a complete turnaround. The relationships between Ukraine and major EU powers were beginning to develop and blossom, in a promising start to his presidential term. The process was an uphill climb, but both the president and the Ukrainian citizens appeared ready for that workout. He signed the Budapest Agreement in 1994, a contract of denuclearization, with a return promise of protection from the superpowers USA, UK, Russia, and in separate less obligatory agreements, China and France. This was a show of faith to the world’s major leaders that Ukraine wanted to be part of them and was willing to jump through hoops to get there. In 1994 Ukraine went from the world’s 3rd largest nuclear power to zero threat essentially “overnight.” It seemed all was falling in place for the newborn country. A leader who knew his job, had good communication skills, and seemed to hear the voices of his people as loudly as his own. Sadly, all was not as it appeared, and this decision would later come into play as one of the major downfalls for Ukraine in its current struggles.
Induction into any major international organization or committee takes time, effort, and regular maintenance to keep up once it is achieved. There are processes, approvals, and commitments made prior to joining that guarantee red tape and extensive wait times. Good or bad actions are taken into account and improve or decrease your chances of being accepted. Kuchma learned this the hard way in 2000 when a scandal would bring his name to the spotlight of the entire world. On September 16, 2000, Georgyi Gangadze failed to return calls, show up to appointments, or respond to any form of communication. He was reported missing 24 hours later. It garnered national attention immediately, with journalists from all over the country pleading for the government to investigate and cries of foul play in abundance. At first, it seemed of little interest to Kuchma, until he received a letter signed by 80 of Ukraine’s leading journalists, demanding action, accusing the president of not caring about his newscasters or the truth, with the local citizens soon supporting their demand.
An investigation was opened, but the house of cards was already shaking and set to fall. A fellow politician and opponent, Hryhoryi Omelchenko, voiced his skepticism, declaring the investigation a smokescreen to cover up the president’s own corruption. He claimed that Gangadze had been planning an expose on the president and his entourage. Within the report was proof of the illegal activity and corruption by those running the nation. Kuchma vehemently denied this, yet Parliament opted to run a parallel investigation (widely believed to be at the insistence of the president to further the appearance of all being done that could be), and neither investigation uncovered any real results nor provided any comfort to the family of Gangadze.
Then, on November 3, 2000, a body was found in a rainforest area, decapitated and appearing to have been doused in a caustic substance. An autopsy found the victim had been alive while covered by the substance before the subsequent beheading occurred. The body was then doused in petrol and set on fire, with the perpetrators most likely leaving the scene, as the body did not burn fully and no further attempt to make it totally unidentifiable was made. Several reporters would confirm it to be that of Gangadze, followed by his wife. Then for reasons unknown, the body went missing for several weeks only to resurface in the Kyiv morgue for seemingly no reason. The investigation into his death crawled to an almost stop. Later that month, a series of tapes surfaced connecting the president to Gangadze’s disappearance, recorded in the president’s office by a former bodyguard, Major Myolka Melnychenko. This would become known as the Cassette Tape Scandal and, in truth, was the first stone laid in the path we now see the country forced to walk today.
The tapes showed the president and several entourage members discussing Gangadze and his possible expose and various ways in which they could try and remove him from being a threat. While murder was never mentioned directly, ideas ranged from exile, kidnapping, and imprisonment. The most widely accepted theory is Kuchma and his staff had settled on kidnapping Gangadze, with something going wrong, perhaps a struggle, and Gangadze being shot in the head. Thus the decapitation to retrieve the bullet and caustic substance to prevent identification. The fire was most likely applied when the substance proved too weak or insufficient to finish the job. The EU and associated superpowers took a few steps back from their prior position and waited to see how it would play out. Ukraine’s chance at joining the EU was in jeopardy. Kuchma was found innocent, but one member of staff committed suicide before any formal charges could be filed, and another was sentenced to 6 years in prison for responsibility without full blame.
Further, the investigation of the tapes revealed in 2002 that Kuchma had sold a sophisticated military defensive weapons design to the tyrant and dictator, Saddam Hussein. This was the last straw, with the EU totally backing off any support and boycotting the slowly budding nation. Kuchma had killed the dream he had built his presidency on, and he knew it. Yet, he found a comforting friend in newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin, who would not only openly support Kuchma while disregarding any evidence provided as false and an attempt at a coup. He also convinced Kuchma that the only friend Ukraine could ever count on was Russia. It worked. He officially denounced his intention to join the EU and threw full support behind the Kremlin. In 2003, he sent troops to the USA-led stabilization effort in Iraq, but this was viewed as a too little too late attempt at balming the old wounds and using the takedown of the very leader he had assisted as penance. It was largely disregarded and the seen as a political move of personal agenda, not sincere intention, and with his popularity at an all-time low, he announced that he would not be running in the 2005 election and would hand over his seat in January with little to no intention of continuing his political career. The seeds for the war we are now witnessing were planted. Now it just needed A little water and encouragement.
TO BE CONTINUED……..
Sources; Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War by Paul D’Anieri Conversations with historian Mark Baye
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