Friday, 24 January 2014

The Ukraine's Unfortunate Geography

Taking Cover: Drawn up in the classical testudo (tortoise) formation, Ukrainian riot police await yet another onslaught from the militant members of the far-right Ukrainian nationalist organisation known as the "Right Sector". Of mysterious provenance, the Right Sector is the group primarily responsible for the eruption of deadly violence on the streets of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

AS THE UKRANIAN RIOT POLICE reinvent the Roman testudo (“tortoise”) under a hail of thunder-flashes and Molotov cocktails, it is probably timely to review who is fighting who and for what.
 
The Ukraine remains one of the great prizes of European statecraft. It has been fought over for centuries not only for of its grain and minerals, but also for its strategic location. Whoever controls the Ukraine is well on the way to dominating all of Russia.
 
Which is why the Ukraine has changed hands several times over the past century.
 
In March 1918 Lenin’s Bolsheviks relinquished control of the Ukraine to the German Empire. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk carved a strategically fatal (to Russia) chunk out of the old Tsarist empire, perfectly positioning the Germans (assuming their 1918 military offensive against the Entente Powers was successful) to roll-up and crush Lenin’s newly-formed revolutionary government.
 
Though the Brest-Litovsk treaty only remained in force from March until November 1918, the victorious allies were no less aware than the Germans of the strategic threat even a nominally independent Ukraine would pose to the Bolsheviks. Accordingly, for the next five years Britain, France and Poland directed considerable (if clandestine) effort towards keeping the Ukraine out of Russian hands. By 1923, however, Lenin’s communists wielded sufficient power to ensure the Ukraine, once again, fell under Russian suzerainty.
 
Initially, Soviet policy in the Ukraine was highly sympathetic to its people’s national-cultural aspirations, but the triumph of Joseph Stalin brought with it a savage reversal of the Ukraine’s fortunes. Between 1932-33, upwards of 10 million Ukrainians starved to death in a famine deliberately created by the Soviet authorities to snuff out peasant resistance to agricultural collectivisation, and to mask the systematic destruction of the Ukraine’s cultural and political elites.
 
Not surprisingly, when the Nazis invaded the Ukraine in June 1941 there were many who welcomed them as liberators. Sadly, Germany’s 1941 ambitions for the Ukrainians were little changed from those of 1918: the entire population were to become the vassals of an imported German aristocracy. Accordingly, Ukrainians played a vital role in the Soviet Union’s destruction of Hitler’s Third Reich.
 
In the fifty years between the Nazi invasion and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union the Ukraine grew rapidly into a modern industrial state, supplying no fewer than two of the USSR’s seven leaders – Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev.
 
But the disintegration of Soviet power and the Ukraine’s ultimate assertion of national independence in no way rescued it from its centuries-old strategic dilemma. Nor could it magically remove the huge numbers of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians living within its borders. To the north and west, Ukrainian-speakers dominate politically: to the south and east, Russian-speakers.
 
Not surprisingly, given their historical experience, the ethnic Ukrainians look to the West – to NATO and the European Union – to safeguard them from their own geography and its strategic consequences. Unfortunately for Ukrainian Europhiles, Washington, London and Paris are very far away, while Berlin and Moscow stand uncomfortably close.
 
Ostensibly, the battle now raging in the streets of Kiev is about which direction the Ukraine should face: west towards the EU, or east towards the Russian Federation. In reality, it is an acting out of Ukrainian nationalism’s frustration with the geopolitical facts of life.
 
Acting Out - But On Whose Behalf? A "Right Sector" militant in action on the streets of Kiev.
 
A Ukraine that is not under the suzerainty of its much larger neighbour cannot avoid being seen by the likes of Vladimir Putin as an existential threat to Russian security. From the vital economic resources of the Donetsk Basin to Russia’s naval bases on the Black Sea, Ukrainian territory encompasses strategic assets that Russia simply cannot afford to lose.
 
Mr Putin’s fears will not be allayed by news that the violence on Kiev's streets is being organised by a mysterious far-right nationalist group calling itself the "Right Sector", or that the United States Office of eDiplomacy recently organised an event called "Tech Camp" at which young Ukrainian nationalists were taught the same subversive internet skills that touched off the Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan and Syrian “revolutions”. With memories of the Ukraine’s US-assisted “Orange Revolution” of 2004 still fresh in the Russian President’s memory, his determination to keep his ally, the Ukrainian President, Victor Yanukovych, in place and on side is hardly surprising.
 
The spectacle of hundreds of Ukrainian nationalists standing outside the Kiev office of the European Union chanting “WE-NEED-YOUR-HELP!” may stir the conscience of the West. But all it stirs in the Kremlin’s heart is fear – and rage.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 January 2014.

15 comments:

Brendan said...

One might have hoped that the USA, given it's dismal failure to produce a humane outcome in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria, with all of its meddling, regime change and ‘nation building’, would have learned to leave the good people of the Ukraine alone to resolve their own internal political differences.

Davo Stevens said...

Ukraine is one of the third group of countries. They are: Oil Producers, Oil consumers and the third group of 'Oh Crap' countries. Afganistan, Chechnya and Ukraine are of the last group.

Russians has always considered Ukraine to be part of Russia, the name translates to "Southern Land" (Uk=South - Raina=land).

After WW I many Germans settled in the western side of Ukraine and in WW II many of them sided with Germany which produced a virtual Brutal Civil War there.

Ukraine relies on Russia to supply it with oil and gas, something the Europe can't do, they have barely enough for themselves, so there is a tendency to lean in that direction. The President is a Russophile too.

We need to understand that the people there have never known Democracy, they went from an absolute Monarch to an absolute Dictator with nothing in between so it's going to take a while for the painful process to happen. We tend to think that a transition to democracy is easy, it is for us but our Democracy took 700yrs plus to develop.

Yes, the US should stay out of it and so should Putin who has his sticky fingers there.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

As I remember it, the Ukrainians fought a reasonably drawn out war against Russian domination until at least 1947?

Chris Trotter said...

To: Guerilla Surgeon:

Elements of the forces that fought alongside the Nazis may have resisted the Soviets during the final stages of the Second World War, but I sincerely doubt they held out against the Red Army until 1947!

Are you sure you're not thinking about the ghost resistance armies that the former Nazi intelligence officer, Reinhard Gehlen, sold to the CIA at the beginning of the Cold War?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

No, I couldn't find any references, but was googling the wrong thing. Apparently an organisation called the UPA fought against both the Germans and the Soviets, and for that matter Poles, though that was closer to ethnic cleansing than outright warfare I think. It was still fighting in the middle 1950s as were groups in just about all Soviet occupied territories I discover. I gather they were nationalistic, but not necessarily fascist.

TM said...

10 million Ukrainians died due to Stalanist policy, and about one quarter of the slave labour in the gulag system were Ukrainian.

Yet there seems to be genuine support for close relations with Russia amoung a large part of the population, probably due to the common history and culture (although other slavic countries would still run a mile from Russia).

This will polarise the country, and will probably result in a refilling of some of the previously closed labour camps.

Anonymous said...

Chris... At the risk of being pedantic (but sensitive to the preferences of Ukrainians), do we refer to 'the New Zealand'? In 1993 the Ukrainian government requested that the article be dropped, and the country's name be used in the same way as any other country: simply "Ukraine".

See also: .

Cheers,

Greg

Davo Stevens said...

The people refer to it as 'Ukraina'.

There is a large population of ethnic Russians on the eastern side, many of whom settled there after Stalin's purge. They are backing the President and are against connecting with Europe.

Putin is concerned too, if Ukraina connects with Europe then he will have NATO on his backdoor. An uncomfortable proposition for him.

The President comes from a village near Kerch on the south east. Although he is an ethnic Ukrainian most of his backers are Russian.

I don't see an end to this any time soon.

Victor said...

William Taubman's excellent biography, "Khrushchev The Man and His Era" states that the Ukrainian nationalist partisans weren't finally defeated till the early 1950s.

They were certainly one of Khrushchev's major headaches during his post-war stint as Stalin's satrap in Kiev. As Taubman points out, in 1947, nearly 70,000 crack Soviet troops and an equivalent number of local militia had to be deployed against the nationalist rebels.

Meanwhile, Davo Stevens is quite right about Ukraine's ethnic split.

By the way, both Khrushchev and Brezhnev were ethnic Russians, albeit from Ukraine.

As to the meaning of "Ukraina", Norman Davies in "Vanished Kingdoms" writes as follows:

"Its Slavonic name , Ukraina, meant 'On the Edge': a counterpart to the American 'Frontier'.

However, Davies does, from time to time, make errors of fact and tends to take a Polono-centric stance, which might affect his choice of translation.

Chris Trotter said...

I stand corrected, Victor.

A fascinating historical footnote - and a huge testimonial to the toughness of the Ukrainians!

Victor said...

By the way, I'd strongly recommend Taubman's Khrushchev book to anyone who enjoys first class political biography and/or insightful books about the USSR.

Chris Trotter said...

Grrrr! Thanks Victor, the number of people requesting the book from the library just grew longer! ;-)

Davo Stevens said...

That's true enough Victor. Some Russians regard Ukraina as a "Frontier Land".

What could happen here is the country splits into two much like Moldova did.

Crimea Peninsula was under the 'Protection' of Turkey up to the end of WW I. After which the Ukrainians took it back. The Poles controlled part of the north and the Lithuanians controlled the western side for many years.

Ukraina has very fertile land and grain has been grown there since the ancient Scythians! Combined with the Hungarian Plains, it could supply the grain needs of Europe!

Things are getting serious there right now and the protest could go in one of two ways; the Pressie resigns (no sign of that just now)or a full revolution.

David said...

"seen by the likes of Vladimir Putin as an existential threat"

Does this mean the violence in Ukraine is about differences in opinion about the meaning of life?

Anonymous said...

Will M - I am glad this is getting some attention. As bad as the Holocaust (5million) was, Stalin (10 million) and Mao (20million plus) were much MUCH worse in terms of numbers killed. Not so many Russians or Chinese high up in Hollywood/LA so these more horrific 20th century incidents don't get as much air time as they deserve.