Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Primer on Ukraine

As CWCP’s main analyst of Russian and Eurasian affairs, I have been notably silent on the current situation in Ukraine. My main reasons for keeping comment on the situation mostly limited to my Twitter feed are that I had written an article this fall (well before the protests of the Maidan began) published in Ukrainian Quarterly in which I highlighted that Ukraine was coming upon a critical time in its geopolitical orientation, and have focused my more recent writings about countries and issues in Eurasian geopolitics, such as Moldova’s Gagauzia region and Serbia, that tend to be overlooked. Nevertheless, we here at CWCP feel it’s time to make our voice heard on the issue of Ukraine’s Euromaidan.

Ukraine seems to be something of the darling of the community of Eastern Europe/post-Soviet space analysts--even well before the protests, it seems everyone was particularly interested in Ukraine. While some may dismiss this as some sort of “jumping on the bandwagon” in the analytical community, it is not without reason or justification. Not only does the sheer geographic size of Ukraine make it among the most important states in Eastern Europe, but from the standpoint of the geopolitical analyst, in many ways it encapsulates the spirit of the grand geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West.

The media have mostly focused on the battle between protesters in the streets and the Ukrainian security services. As so much focus has tended to be on the actual domestic situation in Ukraine, it’s easy to overlook the broader geopolitical interplay and the implications for Europe as a whole.

In 1795, Ukraine was part of what was known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Throughout the 18th century, Poland-Lithuania was subjected to a geopolitical struggle between the Austrian, Prussian (German) and Russian empires. All three kingdoms sought to control the Commonwealth by installing a leader loyal to them by way of Poland-Lithuania’s elective monarchy. During the last third of the 18th century, there was a series of treaties between the three kingdoms, which led to what we call the “Partitions of Poland.” Insofar as Ukraine is concerned, the eastern half of modern Ukraine was taken by Russia, and the western half by Austria. This history accounts in part for the regional east-west divide in Ukraine today, which has pitted half of the country in favor or closer ties with Europe, and the other half inclined toward Russia. This also explains in part why we have not seen the massive protests we are witnessing in Ukraine in a place like Armenia, which has taken it a step further than Ukraine and stated that they will fully integrate with the Russia-led Customs Union, and that they will not hold bilateral trade talks with the EU, but rather that any commercial discussions between Armenia and the EU will take place in the context of the Customs Union.

A sort of lackadaisical mindset toward Europe, in particular Eastern Europe, seems to have settled into the mindset of the U.S. policy, analytical and other such communities. We tend to think that nothing bad can happen in Europe now that the Cold War is over. NATO has been searching for a purpose since that period. Particularly since so much of Central and Eastern Europe has acceded to the EU and NATO, we tend to overlook that region, and comfortably assume that those parts of the region that have not already joined the West’s supranational structures will soon follow.

I will never forget when I was preparing to apply for graduate school my adviser on the matter, who happened to be a Central Europe specialist, told me I’d be better off focusing on the Caucasus and Central Asia rather than Europe itself, because, my adviser believed, Central and Eastern Europe would be “better behaved” and that not much would come from them. To be sure, this is not 1989, and while it’s true that we shouldn’t expect throngs of protesters jingling their keys in the streets of Prague or Romanians putting their president and his wife on mock trial before live TV cameras, we are currently witnessing a major political crisis not on the periphery of Europe, but at its very heart. Crises that have occurred in Europe since the end of the Cold War have taken place in areas that many dismiss as being pseudo-European or with one foot in Europe and one in the “east” (namely Bosnia and Georgia). Now, however, we cannot deny that Europe itself is facing a majorly unsettling turn of events, and European security is being threatened in an undeniable way at its very core.

The macro-level view of the situation begs two questions: Should Ukraine split into two separate countries? And what is the likelihood of a civil war? To these I can only offer some general insights and cautionary notes. It seems that most level-headed people agree that Ukraine should stay united; this is what I have gathered from both my American colleagues as well as Ukrainians I have spoken to, many of whom are pro-European and hail from the country’s western half. The same argument against Ukrainian division seems to coincide with that concerning the possible severing of Scotland from the UK-- western Ukraine is primarily agricultural, while most of the country’s industry is in the east. A “Republic of Western Ukraine” would not likely survive on its own economically, and would have to depend on the largesse of the EU or Poland in particular.

As to the second question, some spoke of the fear of a civil war in Ukraine ten years ago during the Orange Revolution. While we are witnessing a great deal of violence, to be sure, a civil war does not seem likely or imminent at this point. Having said that, one of the main points of my article is to highlight the fact that the days of American and Western European dismissal of the possibility of violence and instability in Eastern Europe are over. There is a possibility that, if the situation escalates, senior military and police commanders may take their troops and personnel and bring them to the service of the side of the conflict they support, based on their own regional, religious and linguistic background (remember that the eastern half of Ukraine is largely Russian-speaking and Orthodox of the Moscow Patriarchate persuasion, while the west is largely Ukrainian-speaking and adheres to the Ukrainian Catholic or Ukrainian Orthodox Kyiv Patriarchate). Of course, there is the possibility of a repeat of the situation in Bosnia’s conflict when external suppliers came to meet the needs of the warring factions selling them weapons. Already there is one Russian biker gang, the Night Wolves, participating in the anti-Maidan activities.

At the end of the day, our ability to think of Europe as a sunny paradise is over. How far the situation will escalate with of curse depend on domestic political considerations as well as external diplomatic factors. One thing is for sure: the focus in Eurasian geopolitics has undoubtedly shifted toward the “Eur-“ part of the phrase.

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