Ukraine has long been considered as a border land. Its very name Ukraina means exactly that. For centuries it was a battleground for influence involving the Poles, Tatars, Turks, Russians and Austro-Hungarians. The recent history belonged to the Russians and they feel sense of entitlement to that strategic territory in Eastern Europe. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine struggled as an independent country. In the early nineties of the 20th century it was considered to be one of the best positioned ex- Soviet republics to become a success transition story. With rich land, developed and diverse industrial base, tourist attractions, access to the Black Sea and mature sense of national identity, it was deemed to have all what is necessary in essential ingredients to become an economically, socially and politically independent country from Russia.
Within two decades of self-standing however, and despite strong patriotism of many of its people (proved in two anti-autocratic revolutions), it has failed to develop solid social and political institutions while its economy crumbled under massive scale of corruption, cronyism, bureaucracy and economic incompetence.
It is true that the country is ethnically and geographically deeply divided, that there is also a demographic division (older people raised in the Soviet conditions and values versus the young ones- western facing) or a difference in perception of reality by the Ukrainian province vs the people living in the big cities.
Much can be said to blame the Ukrainians for their failures but the entire transition of their country would have been much easier and effective if its big neighbor, Russia was not actively meddling in its internal affairs in order to weaken and discredit Ukrainian institutions and its politicians as well as create chaos and disrupt its economy.
Russian president, Putin explicitly expressed in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. And therefore, Russia under Putin has become an active player to restore “the old order”. Putin and his administration are persistently working on pulling ex-Soviet republics back into Russia’s sphere of influence and have succeeded in the case of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan as these countries are already part of the Russian orchestrated Eurasian Union (a project started in 2011).
All would be fine if the societies of these countries were happy to be re- colonized by Russia. The problem with Ukraine is that the majority of its citizens want to follow the western or European path of integration and aspire to be part of the European “club”.
For Russia, what happened recently in Kiev’s Majdan is a major geopolitical blow. Much was already said about selling Ukraine for 30 pieces of silver (18 bln U.S. dollar in Russian loans in the current currency terms and cheaper natural gas) by its Russian leaning administrator, Yanukovych. As the people of Ukraine dared to express their opinion about what they would like to live like in their own country and ousted Russia’s favorite administrators, Russian authorities could not tolerate it as that could mean a similar revolution on the Russian territory.
And to that theme; Russia experienced mass public discontent voicing urge for more freedoms, addressing widespread corruption, fraudulent elections and suppression of opposition as recently as late 2011. Putin is aware of the fragility of his rule and Russia’s public order. Moreover, independent, West- leaning Ukraine would block Russia’s access to the Black Sea through Crimea and additionally (what is overlooked), would cut Russia off of Transnistria, a strip of land belonging to Moldova (eastern Romania annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II) and still occupied by the Russian troops.
Therefore, manoeuvring and deployment of armed forces in Crimea as well as Russia’s preparations or threats to use armed forces should be skilfully used by the West.
Not only should the West guarantee Ukrainian economic stability (which is worth “pennies” even to Russia), arm Ukraine and exert pressure on Russia through international institutions or international public opinion to make it aware it will not tolerate military aggression. It should also oust it from G8, freeze its assets, threaten with embargo and close the Ukrainian- Russian border.
The consequences of Western inaction, lack of determination and cold blood can stretch far beyond Ukraine and the fate of its people. Once Ukraine, as it has already spoken, chooses to be part of the western structures, the same can happen to Russia and the countries it oppresses on the ex-Soviet territory. The stakes are high in this game.
But the world will certainly be a much safer and agreeable place to live in when Russia joins the democratic world and plays by the 21st century standards of international coexistence. And it will be a better world for its own people as well.
Article originally published March 12th, 2014