Ukraine heated up this weekend when Russian troops invaded Crimea and backed the unrecognized Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov, who has declared the province is now independent from Ukraine. The situation essentially pits all of Europe against Russia, with the Ukrainian people caught in the middle. It feels like the way something like World War III might start for good reasons.
Russia cannot let Ukraine go over to the West for many reasons and has been playing every card in their deck. This situation started on 21 November when Ukrainian President Yanukovych backed out of a deal to join a European Union “Eastern Partnership” under Russian pressure. Russia then sent a $15B emergency loan to Ukraine, more or less paying Ukraine to be their friend. The people of Ukraine rose in protest, eventually ousting Yanukovych and declaring an interim government with limited legitimacy.
There is a lot of background necessary to understand this from a Ukrainian, Russian, and European Union perspective. Much of this is unfinished business from the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the tortured history goes back much further.
The name itself is weighed down with the problem at hand. The Ukraina, or border region, was the buffer between Russia and the rest of Europe. It was rarely well organized into something like a nation state throughout history, and there is no ancient border.
Kiev, the capitol, was the birthplace of modern Russia. The “Kieven Rus” were Vikings who settled along the wide and navigable Dnieper River a thousand years ago. They branched out from there, intermarried with Slavic people, and generally founded what we know as Russia today.
Calling it “The Ukraine” is something of an insult to Ukrainians as it comes from the Russian perspective as “The Border”. Many Russians insist that Ukrainian is not actually a distinct language, but a dialect of Russian in the same Cyrillic alphabet. Generally, Russia has treated Ukraine as a lesser, not as pure Russia.
The people of this land have always looked to the West, and were at times encouraged to do so. Tsar Peter the Great brought German artisans to settle in the region, a people who became known as Moravians. As such they could be exploited but kept at arms’ length from the rest of Russia in an attempt to modernize the nation.
Everything changed in Ukraine, as with the rest of Europe, in World War I. Germany and Austria brought Russia to its knees, taking wide swaths of what is now Poland rather easily in the early part of the war. Tsar Nicholas eventually ceded power to a Republic headed by Alexander Kerensky as his nation fell apart. Kerensky attempted to negotiate an end to the war, but the terms offered by Germany were so brutal that they pledged to fight on.
Germany responded by sending Vladimir Lenin back from exile in Switzerland to Russia in a famous sealed train, and the Bolsheviks (Communists) started their uprising. The continuation of the unpopular war gave them a lot of support, and Russia was in full civil war. The Germans pressed their advantage in the chaos. When Lenin finally seized power he negotiated a treaty to end the war at Brest-Litovsk, but the terms were even more brutal than before. Germany had seized all of Ukraine, including the warm water ports on the Black Sea. Lenin agreed to the terms, knowing the war had to end.
This treaty is essentially established the modern border of Ukraine as the area Germany occupied.
Into the vacuum came several Ukrainian Independence movements from pieces of the old Russian and Austrian empires. They declared independence with German backing in 1917, and established for the first time a nation called “Ukraine”.
When Germany in turn fell, their troops withdrew. Ukraine was on its own from 1918 on, and by 1920 the Soviet Red Army had taken it back, nullifying the treaty with Germany.
Ukraine remained a sore spot in the Soviet Union, and was the scene of much brutal repression under Stalin. Resistance continued through the 1930s, and when the Nazis arrived in 1941 many Ukrainians greeted them as liberators. The feeling did not last as the Nazis were as brutal as Stalin. The progress of World War II split Ukraine apart and destroyed much of it.
There was renewed hope when Nikita Krunschev, a Ukrainian, took over the Soviet Union. A sense of independence was revitalized even as Ukraine was more fully integrated and modernized. The complex relationship between Russia and its “Border Region” started to look more like a permanent marriage.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Ukraine became independent once again. Since that time their government has been defined by a series of negotiations with Russia for the important pieces of the old empire that are best explained from the Russian perspective.
There is more to the complex relationship than history and shared culture. Russia has several key strategic needs from Ukraine.
The most contentious has always been the Black Sea Fleet. Russia needs a warm water port to be a world naval power, and Sevastopol has been the home to it. The brutal terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk stripped that away from Russia and established the fight that goes on to this day.
In 1992, Russia and Ukraine agreed to divide up the old Soviet Black Sea Fleet and lease the main base at Sevastopol to Russia. The Russian fleet is a small, pathetic collection of about 20 aging vessels and about 6,000 soldiers and sailors. But it is Russians’ main claim to a navy. The treaty that made this arrangement was set to expire in 2017, but in 2010 it was extended another 25 years. Most Ukrainians want to revisit this and were suspicious of Russian intent long before the recent invasion.
The ports of Odessa and Sevastopol are the gateways to Russia, and more than half of all Russian non-oil exports go through them. Access to the Black Sea is critical to the nation.
As valuable as the ports are, the critical pipelines that ship Russian oil and natural gas to the rest of Europe all cross Ukraine. The importance of this cannot be over-stated, as receipts from state owned Gazprom make up half of their federal budget.
Ukraine has always been the “breadbasket” of the region, too, producing 22M metric tons of wheat last year – 15% of the total amount produced worldwide. This is what feeds Russia more than anything else.
For all these critical reasons, Russia simply cannot let Ukraine become estranged from them and retain any hold on being a major world power.
The event that triggered all of these events is the European Union’s “Eastern Partnership”, which is a critical part of EU foreign policy. The states that broke away from the Soviet Union are typically rather lawless and are the homeland of most of the organized crime in Europe. The Russian Mafia (aka “Bratva” or “Brotherhood”) has a strong base in Kiev and has generally been a part of the corrupt and ineffective Ukrainian government since full independence.
The Bratva specializes in internet crime, such as stealing credit cards, and trafficking in women for prostitution, along with traditional organized crime. These have both plagued Europe recently and the EU is eager to prove its value by putting a stop to them. That cannot be done without cooperation from the nations to their east, and it also cannot be done without much stronger and less corrupt governments running them.
The EU is not planning to expand the Eurozone to Ukraine or the other eastern partners any time soon. The proposal is a very gradual, go-slow approach to increase trade and open borders. This would make it safer for European investment in Ukraine, which should generally improve wealth and the local stake in the EU’s goals. Democracy is naturally a big part of what they hope to achieve.
What is the Clash?
On the surface, there is no actual conflict in Ukraine. Its independence is a well established fact, and its ties to the large markets of the EU should be an obvious way to proceed.
The problem is entirely with Russia. If Ukraine looks to the West it may never come back to the fold, and Ukraine is absolutely vital to Russia. The small measures being taken to approach the EU may seem small to us, but Russian paranoia is at least partially justified.
So far, Russia has dealt with this crisis largely by throwing around a lot of money. It has also been generous with sales of oil and gas to Ukraine, which is heavily dependent on them. The escalation with military force, while shocking, has been limited and may not continue to heat up.
However, a nation cannot long exist if it cannot control its own borders. T hose borders, largely dictated by a vindictive Germany a century ago, are not necessarily the most appropriate or constructive ones. But renegotiating borders is always difficult at best – and the dysfunctional relationship between Ukraine and Russia simply does not start on equal terms, despite the codependence.
What is the conflict? It is history, logically extrapolated into the future. Russia knows it is losing its critical partner and cannot let it go. Ukraine bought a few weeks of time because action could not be taken during the Sochi Olympics, but that is now over.
Whatever comes next will be raw feelings from the darkest side of Russian national paranoia unless cooler heads prevail. Generally, Russia’s use of money to buy Ukrainian friendship is a hopeful sign that they have not decided to use only brute force. It is all we have to latch onto.