By Mark Morrison (commentary)
Editor: The recent troubles in Ukraine drew a lot of attention over the last few months. When I heard Yanukovich fled the country, my first thought was what ‘would the pro-Russian half of the population think.’ My second thought was ‘what will Russia do.’ And that, I would posit, is the real issue: domestic Ukrainian politics are nowhere near as important as the broader geopolitical issues.
Those of us who advocated for NATO expansion into central Europe in the 1990s were concerned about, and could easily foresee, that precisely this type of situation would occur. Russia was weak, but that, inevitably, would change; best to advance the eastern reach of NATO while we could. Russia wasn’t going away, and the small states of central/eastern Europe understood this.
Fortunately, NATO did advance, all the way to, indeed into, the borders of the former Soviet Union (to incorporate the three Baltic states). But there it must stop. Ukraine is outside the western world’s sphere of influence. Indeed Ukraine is not only thoroughly within Russia’s sphere of influence, it has for centuries been an integral part of the Russian Empire itself. For the West
to encroach any farther is to force Russia’s hand — hence our current predicament.
One has to stop and evaluate the situation from a Russian perspective. After the trauma of the Second World War, Stalin assiduously assembled the conquered nations of Eastern Europe into a protective glacis in an effort to prevent being subjected to such an attack (as Hitler’s) ever again. To lose this glacis in the ’90s was traumatic, as Putin has indicated. This needs to be understood, whether we agree with it or not.
I think Putin was previously content to pull Ukraine into his budding Eurasian (former Soviet) Union. But when the political situation exploded as it did, Putin saw Western influence encroaching into his front yard. This was too much. In this light, Putin’s actions are eminently understandable. Indeed, to this point I can only commend his restraint.
‘Ukraine’ is a rather nebulous political entity at best, with a limited claim to any historical legitimacy. While there is a distinct Ukrainian people, culture, and language, these have little historical connection to any independent territorial sovereignty and integrity. ‘Ukraine’ has for centuries been swapped and subdivided between a variety of different regional empires.
This is not to denigrate the desires of the Ukrainian people for their own nation-state, merely to state that it is hard to define what really constitutes ‘Ukraine’. It has to be understood that most of the current states that evolved out of the former Soviet Union have very little claim to real territorial integrity.
Most of these borders were arbitrarily drawn up by Soviet leaders for their own political and administrative reasons, with very little reflection of cultural, ethnic or linguistic realities. No one ever envisaged they would be meant to represent sovereign international borders.
I think we are witnessing the residual death throes of the former Soviet Union. I think Putin is acting every bit the strong, coherent, strategic statesman. I do not believe Ukraine in its current form represents a legitimate nation-state.
Finally, I would suggest Russia has legitimate claim to the Crimea, and that we will likely see Ukraine split in two, with eastern and southern portions returning to their legitimate rulers, the Russians.
Apparently Ukraine means ‘buffer’ in Slavic. If so, the West would be well advised to let Putin take what he wants, and leave the rump western half of Ukraine as a ‘buffer’ between Russia and NATO. To do otherwise is only to poke the resurgent Russian bear, and he’s already been subjected to too much poking.
Mark Morrison, Charlottetown, has studied strategic studies at UPEI, York, and George Washington Universities