Ukraine is still burning. Just as things had begun to go back to normal in the capital Kiev, trouble brews on the southern Crimean peninsula. Russian militias have taken over the airport and the parliament of Crimea. Are the militias egged on by Russian President Vladimir Putin? It is too early to tell, but the militias certainly have his tacit permission.
The crisis has provoked a plethora of analyses in international media. There is talk of a dividing line between East and West - Russia versus Western Europe and the USA– with Ukraine coveted by both sides. It is claimed that Western Ukraine wants to be part of the West, that Eastern Ukraine wants to be part of Russia and that we are dealing with nothing less than the future of Ukraine; with a geopolitical tug-of-war. Should the country belong to Us or to Them? A popular question that, unfortunately, is misguided. If we should try to explain current developments in Ukraine – and the developments we may witness in the near future – we have to be aware of four points:
1) Ukraine is not divided between East and West
The notion that Ukraine is divided between East and West, that international allegiances change dramatically between Ukrainian regions, is a myth that was developed jointly during the modern era by the Soviet Union and by Ukrainian nationalists. Both parties had an interest in presenting Ukraine as a place to defend against virulent nationalism or Soviet imperialism, depending on your point of view. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union international media then found this myth very helpful in trying to make sense of the new state, particularly after Russia and the West again began to challenge each other. Russia still wanted to be a great power and – as was often repeated in Moscow and Washington alike – Russia cannot be a great power if it loses Ukraine. And when Ukrainians and Russians at the same time happily yelled at each other – in different languages, no less – well then Ukraine had to be split between the West and Russia – right? International affairs in a reductio ad absurdum… But as so often happens, the rest of the world paid attention to those who were shouting the loudest and forgot the silent majority in Ukraine.
Ukraine is divided into at least four parts: Western Ukraine, Eastern Ukraine, the Middle, and Crimea. What does this mean? It means that Western and Eastern Ukraine, as such, and their alleged geopolitical allegiances to the West and to the Russian East, have little influence; that a Ukraine-centred Middle is increasing in importance; and that Crimea is a completely different issue, not least due to the Tatars. I will develop this point a bit later.
Western Ukraine, centred on L’viv and Galicia, was never particularly prominent in Ukrainian politics. Well, you say, what about the heroes of the Orange Revolution in 2004? What about Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko, those vanguards of Ukrainian attempts to become part of the West? Tymoshenko, as it so happens, is from Dnipropetrovs’k, one of the largest cities in eastern Ukraine. And she was part of the business elites from eastern Ukraine, running the country at the end of the 1990s. Certainly, she did then fall foul of the authorities and, yes, she was prominent in the Orange Revolution and its aftermath, but she was never a Ukrainian nationalist. On the contrary, she has repeatedly shown herself very willing to cooperate with Russia. She does not care for the now deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, but, then again, no one does – not even in Russia. If Tymoshenko succeeds in regaining the power she craves, cooperation with Russia will certainly be on the table. And as for poor little Viktor Yushchenko, whose bid for a renewed presidential term was democratically crushed in 2010… Well, Yushchenko – who talked so much about Ukrainian entry in the European Union – was last seen accompanying Yanukovych in Kiev at the international football game between Ukraine and England in the autumn. It seems clear that neither Tymoshenko nor Yushchenko is prepared to do battle for Western Ukraine, or for the West, against “wicked Russia.”
Well, in that case everything is run from Eastern Ukraine, right? This is the homeland of Yanukovych, the bugbear of our tale, who has now departed to Moscow. In eastern Ukraine people still long for Russia, Moscow and the Soviet Union, right? Erm…no. When Yanukovych was elected Ukrainian president in 2010 his campaign was supported by business elites, who, indeed, mainly originate in the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine. But these people do not love Russia; and neither does Yanukovych. Yanukovych is in many ways an incompetent politician, but since he had now succeeded in becoming president he certainly had no intention of just following Putin’s lead. And his wealthy supporters never had an interest in being swallowed by the big business beasts in the Russian pond. During Yanukovych’s presidency Ukraine has repeatedly sought further economic integration with the EU, which would benefit the economy of Ukraine and its elites alike. As a consequence, Russia has repeatedly attempted to force Yanukovych to split with the West – and this plan succeeded a few months ago. Yet Yanukovych and his supporters only cooperated with Russia for their own material benefit as rulers of Ukraine; not because they are fond of Russia (that bumbling Yanukovych has now lost a lot of his Ukrainian support through his tactical and strategic errors is a different matter).
This means that Ukrainian politics is neither Western nor Russian. Where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with the Middle, the Ukrainian middle. And it leaves us with a situation where the vast majority of people in Ukraine have family and friends in Russia. Yet they still understand the economic advantages in cooperating with the EU as opposed to joining that palace of illusions which is Eurasian cooperation centred on Moscow. In November, when Yanukovych rejected cooperation with the EU and moved towards Russia he had precious little support anywhere in Ukraine, including in the east. Under pressure from Russia, perhaps looking to his personal interests and with no political nous whatsoever, Yanukovych managed to become unpopular with pretty much anybody in Ukraine. And, as indicated above, Putin never fancied Yanukovych, who is viewed in Russia as a weakling.
2) Russia and Putin have no strategic blueprint
During the last decade Western coverage of Russian foreign policy has been dominated by a clear theme: Russia is controlled by Putin – Putin is really clever and tough and ready to oppose the West and the USA – Putin time and again outsmarts the West. That logic is clearly present in coverage of the current Ukrainian conflict. Repeatedly, experts tell us that strategic-thinking Russia is ahead of the West in its influence on Ukrainian events. This is an understandable impression that unfortunately, is not supported by events. Indeed, it never was.
If Putin and his Russian elites were masterminds, planning everything in advance, why did the crisis escalate in Ukraine in the first place? Putin definitely did not have an interest in toppling Yanukovych’s regime. Just as Putin drew no benefits from the Orange Revolution. Or from the fact that the Olympic Games in Sochi were overshadowed by the fight on Russian gay rights in particular and human rights more generally. Since Putin came to power in 2000 he has always been reacting to events, not acting in advance. That is now again the case in Ukraine. Putin and his elites – remember that Putin is just one of many people controlling Russia – realised far too late that Ukraine had run away from Yanukovych. And this is just before and during Putin’s beloved Olympics in Sochi. And, whoops, fights have now broken out in Kiev. And Yanukovych has to run for it. And now there is a new government in Ukraine, without being legitimated by elections and pulling Ukraine to the West – the horror! We have to do something, Putin thinks – and all of a sudden militias in balaclavas appear on Crimea. Home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. OK – let us assume for the moment that Putin and Russia succeed in taking control over Crimea, in taking the peninsula away from Ukraine. Then what? How can this benefit Russia? Well it cannot – that is the point.
3) Crimean unrest is bad for Russia
Can Russia take over Crimea? Certainly! Can Crimea declare its independence under Russian protection, as happened in Georgia a few years back? Absolutely! Will such a step in any way benefit Russia, Ukraine or Crimea? Nope!
The peninsula of Crimea, reaching into the Black Sea from southern Ukraine, was conquered by the Russian Empire through battle with the local Muslim Tatars. Early in the twentieth century Crimea was then swiftly incorporated in the Russian Soviet republic, as part of the Soviet Union. Subsequently, Crimea was presented as a gift by Nikita Khrushchev to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, but that was hardly an issue as long as Crimea remained part of the Soviet Union. Similarly, the fact that Stalin expelled the Crimean Tatars to Central Asia did not really pose a problem, given the general lack of interest the Soviet regime had in promoting public debate and human rights. And then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Crimea was still populated mainly by Russians but now found itself in an independent Ukraine – and the Tatars were coming back to reclaim the property and the land the Russians had received from them under Stalin. Oh, and one of the largest Soviet naval bases, home of the Black Sea Fleet, was still situated on Crimea. So trouble was certainly brewing for the peninsula in independent Ukraine.
So far, things have gone better than might have been feared. Partly because various Ukrainian administrations have sensibly allowed Crimea a high degree of autonomy. Partly because the Russian Black Sea Fleet has, by and large, been allowed to potter along in the vicinity of Sevastopol. Developments have not been quite so good for the Tatars, who have not been able to effectively press their claims without substantial Ukrainian or Russian support. And now, masked militias – connected to (and partly supported by?) Russia has taken over Crimea. And that is bad news for Russia.
Russia and many Russians often speak loudly about the Black Sea Fleet – that symbol of Russian great power status. This is certainly right – but why has the Fleet been allowed to decay? It hosts a large number of Russian soldiers, who have reasonable conditions and pay, but the Fleet is not doing so well. During the war with Georgia in 2008, the Fleet did not exactly shine; and it is much smaller than the adjacent Turkish fleet – not to mention whatever the Americans might introduce in the Black Sea region. Oh, and the Russian Black Sea Fleet still contains a ship introduced by the emperor a century ago…
The point is that Russia needs the base, not the fleet. The base at Sevastopol is a deep-water base, providing Russia with the option to host and deploy large vessels to the Mediterranean, the Middle East and elsewhere. The base offers plenty of work for soldiers and other Russian personnel – and it thus does support Russian yearning to be a great power. But all those advantages disappear if Crimea becomes the object of a Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Unless Russia can take over Ukraine as a whole – and that is not a possibility – Kiev will forcibly resist losing Crimea to Russia. This would have been the case under Yanukovych, as well – no Ukrainian leader is prepared to hand over parts of the country to Russia. Crimea could be the centre of protracted strife, possibly armed strife, which would primarily harm those Russian civilians and military personnel, who constitute the majority of locals. That is not – and can never be – in the strategic interest of Russia or Putin. Of course, the Crimean dispute can easily escalate, nonetheless, as long as Russia, Ukraine and the West have no plan for solving the crisis. How might such a plan look?
4) Ukraine is part of Europe – and Russia is part of Europe
If the EU and the West is really going to help solving the Ukrainian crisis we have to – once and for all – view Ukraine as well as Russia as part of Europe. This does not mean that we should succumb to Putin’s great power-Russia, dominating Europe and equalling the USA and China. Russia will not be able to do that; and the sooner Putin gets that point, the better. Russia has plenty of oil and gas, but in the long run oil and gas can only be sold to customers, who trust in the reliability of Russian deliveries. Oil and gas cannot be used strategically to ensure Russian influence.
At the same time, the fact that Russia and Ukraine are part of Europe does not mean that we in the EU and the West should ignore the mainly problems still facing Russia. Persecution of homosexuals in Russia is not OK. Daily violence, bombings and general anarchy in the North Caucasus is not OK – especially not when Putin and his elites are partly responsible. And when elections are repeatedly falsified we cannot simply say: “Well, those Russians don’t know better.” Yeah, they do – and we must make sure that they – and the Ukrainians – remember it.
However, Russia and Ukraine have to be reminded of democratic norms and rule-of-law within a European community. I do not believe that Russia will ever join the EU or NATO (and Ukraine probably will not join for decades). But the EU and NATO are not Europe. Europe is, and remains, mutual frameworks of understanding, dialogue, and shared memory. Let us begin to credit Russia and Ukraine for the amount of progress, which is taking place. From both countries new generations have appeared who work very successfully in Moscow, in Kiev – and in London, in Berlin and in Copenhagen. You do not hear much about these people. The last decade, Russia in particular has enjoyed significant amounts of successful cultural cooperation with the West – yet such developments disappear under a deluge of bad news from Russia and Ukraine. There is probably little hope for Putin and Yanukovych. The situation in Crimea does currently look grim. But the crisis will eventually ease. And then we in the EU, in the West, have to start including Russia and Ukraine in our understanding of what it means to be part of our world – and not on the other side of a fictitious dividing line.