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Ukraine has had two weeks to find a compromise in its Russia versus the West dispute. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been focused on promoting his soft image with the Winter Olympics in Sochi. With the games ending today, Sunday, however, time has run out and the crisis in Kiev and other cities is only getting worse.
If Putin uses Russian history as a guide, it would not be out of the question that Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. After all, Soviet leaders did just this to retain control during the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the 1968 Prague spring in Czechoslovakia.
For Putin stands to lose influence and his ability to affect policy in Ukraine if the opposition gains control. This is at the core of the current Ukraine crisis.
Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich disregarded a much-anticipated association agreement with the European Union in November to sign a US$15 billion bailout deal with Russia. It was this Kremlin-influenced act that sparked the protests — first peaceful but now increasingly violent. Ukraine now appears divided into an eastern part that supports Yanukovich and the Russian deal, and the Europe-prone western half.
So the real question may well be: What does Russia want?
Looking to history, Moscow wants what it has always wanted — Ukraine, translated as the Edge (of Russia) and also known as Malorossiya or Small Russia. Not that it’s small, occupying central European lands of about 230,000 square miles — larger than California but not as big as Texas.
The Harvard historian Richard Pipes long claimed that Russia won’t amount to much without its Ukrainian neighbor. When threatened with Ukraine’s effort at independence, Russia hasn’t hesitated to suppress it. Modern Russia, after all, derived from Kievan Russia in 880. The Ukrainians have contested their supremacy and independence ever since.
In the 1930s Joseph Stalin tried to suppress the republic through collectivization. He collectivized all Soviet land and farming, but Ukraine’s collectivization was particularly drastic. For it was also an attack on Ukrainian nationalism. Farmers were forced to give their private lands and all crops to the state. The result was Holodomor — the Great Famine of the early 1930s, which claimed many millions of lives. At the start of Holodomor, in January, 1932, Ukraine’s population was 32.7 million. By 1937 it was slightly more than 28 million.
Stalin then sent the first secretary of Ukraine’s Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev (full disclosure: my grandfather), to revitalize the region’s agriculture. The region’s vast wheat fields had long served as the breadbasket of the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union.
Khrushchev, though Russian, had strong personal ties to Ukraine, dating back to his days as a miner in Donbas during the 1910s. His wife, Nina, was an ethnic Western Ukrainian. And he often wore brightly embroidered Ukrainian folk shirts.. But even as he helped to rebuild the land, Khrushchev brought in the communist agenda of curtailing the Ukrainian national heritage, especially in culture and arts. He was still mindful, for example, that literary works should be Soviet first and Ukrainian second. This continued after he became the Soviet head of state.
Leonid Brezhnev, Khrushchev’s successor in 1964, came from Ukraine, yet he also demanded the primacy of Russia within the Soviet Union. The two following leaders, Konstantin Chernenko and Mikhail Gorbachev, although both born in Russia, also had Ukrainian roots. But the power of Russia still held.
This finally changed when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s. Small Russia was no longer seen as small — or even Russia for that matter. Boris Yeltsin’s government eased its claims on Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.
Since Putin came to power in 2000, however, he has increasingly acted in the traditions of a Big Brother. In 2004 he tried to influence Ukrainian politics through a then-unsuccessful installment of Yanukovich. He was more successful at manipulating the new nation’s oil and gas prices though.
Putin’s interests in Ukraine may be similar to those of his Soviet predecessors — its size, skilled population of 45 million, and wheat fields are all enticing.
But it may also be that Ukraine has been under the Russian sphere of influence for a millennium. Putin, prone to the imperial inclinations, undoubtedly wants to continue this trend. He has supported the pro-Russian government in many ways.
Still in the Sochi soft power mode, the Kremlin is now saying it will not intervene in Ukraine. But the escalating violence in Kiev may force its hand. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that his boss “believes that the ongoing situation in Ukraine is the fault of the extremists and their actions can be treated and are treated in Moscow solely as an attempt at a state coup.”
For a KGB man, as Putin once was, words like “extremists” and “state coup” have often served as indicators of future actions. Harsh reprisals often follow these kind of warnings.
To free itself from Russia’s control, Ukraine’s only option may be for Yanukovich to resign. Then the Russian president may back off — since he won’t have a state ally to defend.
Even if Yanukovich resigns, however, Putin may still share in that sinister KGB skill to come out on top. Ukraine’s split may likely be assisted by Moscow, which is eager for its eastern territory — just as Abkhazia and South Ossetia were absorbed during the 2008 war with Georgia.
History would come full circle: Ukraine, even if in part, will again be under the Kremlin’s control, expanding the new Russian empire. — Reuters