Ukraine: A New Battleground Between Russia and the West

Under the Soviet regime, Moscow nurtured global aspirations and managed to gather an empire that reached to the very center of Europe. The dissolution of the Soviet Union took the Kremlin by surprise. Russia is somehow the last colonial empire of Europe and it cannot reconcile with the loss of its former territories. And nowhere is this state of mind more obvious than in Ukraine.

By Nicholas Dima l March 3, 2014

Ukraine is the biggest East European country; it represents the real core of Eastern Europe; and it is currently a bone of contention between Moscow and the West. With an area almost as big as France, a population of 46 million people, with good agricultural land and huge industrial complexes, Ukraine is a country of utmost importance. Yet, recent bloody events in Kyiv’s Maidan, or the central square better known to the West as Independence Square, have shown that Ukraine is badly split and is prone to remain a problem. The solution to the current Ukrainian crisis rests with its own people, with Russia, and with the West, America included. And none of these potential solutions is easy to address.

History and geography have not been kind to Ukraine, and recent politics and geopolitics have worsened the fate of the country. To begin with, the land that is today Ukraine has been historically inhabited, conquered, divided and partitioned by a variety of peoples and invading states that have prevented and delayed the formation of a modern Ukrainian nation. In the more distant past, a good part of the land was controlled by Poland, by the Tatars and by the Turks. The rise of Muscovy gave Russia control of the eastern part of the country, while a good part of the western part fell under Austrian control.

More than three hundred years ago Ukraine decided to unite with Russia and that sealed its destiny. Throughout their domination, the Russians looked down at the Ukrainians and repressed their aspirations. An opportunity presented itself after the Bolshevik Revolution when Ukraine enjoyed a brief period of independence. That was followed by the Soviet annexation and by a new wave of repressions. In the 1930s, for example, the peasantry opposed the process of collectivization, which led to Stalin’s massive repression, mass starvation and even acts of cannibalism. So cruel was the period that when the Second World War started many Ukrainians sided with the German invaders. That led to more Soviet persecution after the end of the war. Many of those memories are still fresh in the minds of the people who after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union opted for independence. However, the 1991 independence did not lead to a break with Moscow or to real democracy and a better life. As a result, recent events represent a new attempt to break away from Moscow and to join Europe and its values. Nevertheless, there are many obstacles.

Ukraine is to a good degree an artificial country forged together by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. It consists of lands that used to belong to neighboring countries, as well as lands inhabited by non-Ukrainian minorities. The strategically important Crimean Peninsula, for example, was gifted to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine in 1954 by the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Ethnically, however, Crimea is dominated by Russians and by Tatars. While the Tatar minority was surprised by the turn of recent events and may have divided loyalties, the Russians are strongly pro-Moscow. Another region of dispute is eastern Ukraine. This region was developed economically under the Soviet regime and maintains some of Russia’s biggest military and heavy industry complexes. Moscow is not going to lose control of this strategic area any time soon, where many local inhabitants are also Russian. For the time being, however, Crimea is the hottest problem. The local Russians are waiting for any sign of encouragement from Moscow to break away from Kyiv. And Moscow under Vladimir Putin is probably the biggest obstacle in Ukraine’s struggle for sovereignty and independence. In fact, Russia considers the recent uprising in Kyiv to be instigated by outsiders and warned the West not to interfere. For Moscow, the country is within their exclusive sphere of interest. That brings us to Russia and the crux of the problem.

Under the Soviet regime, Moscow nurtured global aspirations and managed to gather an empire that reached to the very center of Europe. The dissolution of the Soviet Union took the Kremlin by surprise. Russia is somehow the last colonial empire of Europe and it cannot reconcile with the loss of its former territories. And nowhere is this state of mind more obvious than in Ukraine. To a certain point, Russia is right. The two peoples are closely related ethnically, culturally and linguistically and have developed together for about three hundred years. Psychologically, it is almost impossible for average Russians to accept the idea of a totally separate Ukraine. And it is also extremely difficult to separate physically the two ethnic groups in the eastern and southern areas of Ukraine. Furthermore, Moscow is still enmeshed in a 19th Century geopolitical mentality, and Vladimir Putin’s plan to recreate a Eurasian Customs Union embodies this mentality.

President Putin, a former secret police colonel in the Soviet KGB, has lamented openly the breakup of the USSR and called it one of the biggest tragedies of recent history. He has also reintroduced the former Soviet anthem and is playing up the nationalistic aspirations of the Russians. Apparently, the Kremlin continues to fear Europe and its democratic values and Ukraine is Moscow’s buffer to the west. Without Ukraine, Russia would no longer be the important world power that it is today. Putin understands that clearly. And if Ukraine joins the European Union and NATO, Russia would forever lose its influence over its neighbors. Consequently, unless the Russian people and leaders change their mentality, and mentalities take decades if not longer to change, Russia will not freely allow Ukraine to get away. And Putin is the man that represents current Russian nationalism.

How could events in this situation unfold in the near future for Ukraine? There are several possible scenarios: 1) Return quietly to the status quo ante, find a way of living with Russia, and keep the country together. The possibility is limited because this is why people revolted against the Yanukovych regime in the first place. Furthermore, the country is polarized deeply between pro-European Ukrainians in the west and a pro-Russian population in the east. The dire current economic situation of the country does not help either; 2) Continue the stalemate and risk civil war and a possible partition of the country; 3) Accept a partition, instigated by Moscow, with the eastern and southern regions splitting from Kyiv and uniting with Russia.

As the end of February arrived, Crimea, home to the Russian Black Sea fleet, was already considering a split from Ukraine. The new government in Kyiv had lost control of Crimea’s main civilian airport as Russian troops arrived by the thousands and attack helicopters landed. The early days of March witnessed Russian troops surrounding a Ukrainian military base and BBC News Europe reported pro-Russian activists were “blocking sailors from coming to work” at Ukrainian naval headquarters. These events followed Putin’s order for Russian military maneuvers on the Ukrainian frontier. Ukraine’s acting president Oleksander Turchynov, Chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament, described Russia’s deployment of troops in Crimea as an invasion.

Before closing this essay some questions may be asked: What did the leaders of the United States and the former Soviet Union discuss and agree upon at the Malta Summit in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush and Communist Party Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev deliberated? While the Cold War was declared at an end, was Ukraine granted to Moscow’s sphere of influence? And what is America planning to do now, if events get out of hand?

Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures and is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.