Ukraine: On the Edge of Empires

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By engaging in Ukraine, the Russians are not trying to recreate the Russian empire, as many believe. They want a sphere of influence, which is a very different thing, and do not want responsibility for Ukraine or other countries, writes George Friedman.

George Friedman is founder and chairman of Stratfor, a Texas-based global intelligence company. 

The name "Ukraine" literally translates as "on the edge." It is a country on the edge of other countries, sometimes part of one, sometimes part of another and more frequently divided. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was divided between Russia, Poland and the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, it was divided between Russia and Austria-Hungary. And in the 20th century, save for a short period of independence after World War I, it became part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine has been on the edge of empires for centuries.

My father was born in Ukraine in 1912, in a town in the Carpathians now called Uzhgorod. It was part of Austria-Hungary when he was born, and by the time he was 10 the border had moved a few miles east, so his family moved a few miles west. My father claimed to speak seven languages (Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Yiddish). Consider the reason: Uzhgorod today is on the Slovakian border, about 30 miles from Poland, 15 miles from Hungary and 50 miles from Romania. When my father was growing up, the borders moved constantly, and knowing these languages mattered.

My father lived on the edge until the Germans came in 1941 and swept everything before them, and then until the Soviets returned in 1944 and swept everything before them. He was one of tens of millions who lived or died on the edge, and perhaps nowhere was there as much suffering from living on the edge than in Ukraine.

Asking to be Ruled

Ukraine is made for internal conflict and dissension, and the hunger for a foreigner to come and stabilize a rich land is not always far from Ukrainians' thoughts. Ukraine is on the edge again today, trying to find space. It is on the edge of Russia and on the edge of Europe, its old position. What makes this position unique is that Ukraine is independent and has been so for 18 years. This is the longest period of Ukrainian independence in centuries. What is most striking about the Ukrainians is that, while they appear to value their independence, the internal debate seems to focus in part on what foreign entity they should be aligned with. People in the west want to be part of the European Union. People in the east want to be closer to the Russians. The Ukrainians want to remain independent but not simply independent.

It makes for an asymmetric relationship. Many Ukrainians want to join the European Union, which as a whole is ambivalent at best about Ukraine. On the other hand, Ukraine matters as much to the Russians as it does to Ukrainians, just as it always has. And this reality shapes the core of Ukrainian life. In a fundamental sense, geography has imposed limits on Ukrainian national sovereignty and therefore on the lives of Ukrainians.

From a purely strategic standpoint, Ukraine is Russia's soft underbelly. Dominated by Russia, Ukraine anchors Russian power in the Carpathians. These mountains are not impossible to penetrate, but they can't be penetrated easily. If Ukraine is under the influence or control of a Western power, Russia's (and Belarus') southern flank is wide open along an arc running from the Polish border east almost to Volgograd then south to the Sea of Azov, a distance of more than 1,000 miles, more than 700 of which lie along Russia proper. There are few natural barriers.

For a Western power, Ukraine is of value only if that power is planning to engage and defeat Russia, as the Germans tried to do in World War II. At the moment, given that no one in Europe or in the United States is thinking of engaging Russia militarily, Ukraine is not an essential asset. But from the Russian point of view it is fundamental, regardless of what anyone is thinking of at the moment. In 1932, Germany was a basket case; by 1941, it had conquered the European continent and was deep into Russia. One thing the Russians have learned in a long and painful history is to never plan based on what others are capable of doing or thinking at the moment. And given that, the future of Ukraine is never a casual matter for them.

This is why the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 was critical in transforming Russia's view of the West and its relationship to Ukraine. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had a series of governments that remained aligned with Russia. In the 2004 presidential election, the seemingly pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, emerged the winner in an election that many claimed was fraudulent. Crowds took to the streets and forced Yanukovich's resignation, and he was replaced by a pro-Western coalition.

The Russians charged that the peaceful uprising was engineered by Western intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA and MI6, which funneled money into pro-Western NGOs and political parties. Whether this was an intelligence operation or a fairly open activity, there is no question that American and European money poured into Ukraine. And whether it came from warm-hearted reformers or steely eyed CIA operatives didn't matter in the least to Vladimir Putin. He saw it as an attempt to encircle and crush the Russian Federation.

Putin spent the next six years working to reverse the outcome, operating both openly and covertly to split the coalition and to create a pro-Russian government. In the 2010 elections, Yanukovich returned to power, and from the Russian point of view, the danger was averted. A lot of things went into this reversal. The United States was absorbed in Iraq and Afghanistan and couldn't engage Russia in a battle for Ukraine. The Germans drew close to the Russians after the 2008 crisis. Russian oligarchs had close financial and political ties with Ukrainian oligarchs who influenced the election. There is a large pro-Russian faction in Ukraine that genuinely wants the country to be linked to Russia. And there was deep disappointment in the West's unwillingness to help Ukraine substantially.

European Dreams

From where I sat, as an American, the European Union appeared at best tarnished and at worst tottering. But what was fascinating to me was that a Ukrainian Foreign Ministry official I spoke with was not only unshaken by the Irish economic situation but also saw no connection between that and the EU appetite for Ukraine becoming a member. For him, one had nothing to do with the other.

In many countries we have visited there has been a class difference for EU membership. In Ukraine, there is also a regional distinction. The eastern third of the country is heavily oriented toward Russia and not to the West. The western third is heavily oriented toward the West. The center of the country tilts toward the west but is divided. Linguistic division also falls along these lines, with the highest concentrations of native Ukrainian speakers living in the west and of Russian speakers in the east. This can be seen in the election returns in 2010 and before. Yanukovich dominated the east, Yulia Timoshenko the west, and the contested center tilted toward Timoshenko. But the support in the east for the Party of Regions and Yanukovich was overwhelming. This division defines Ukrainian politics and foreign policy. Yanukovich is seen as having been elected to repudiate the Orange Revolution. Supporters of the Orange Revolution are vehement in their dislike of Yanukovich and believe that he is a Russian tool.

I met with a group of young Ukrainian financial analysts and traders. They suggested that Ukraine be split into two countries, east and west. This is an idea with some currency inside and outside Ukraine. It certainly fits in with the Ukrainian tradition of being on the edge, of being split between Europe and Russia. The problem is that there is no clear geographical boundary that can be defined between the two parts, and the center of the country is itself divided.

Sovereign in Spite of Itself

The Russians are not, I think, trying to recreate the Russian empire. They want a sphere of influence, which is a very different thing. They do not want responsibility for Ukraine or other countries. They see that responsibility as having sapped Russian power. What they want is a sufficient degree of control over Ukraine to guarantee that potentially hostile forces don't gain control, particularly NATO or any follow-on entities. The Russians are content to allow Ukraine its internal sovereignty, so long as Ukraine does not become a threat to Russia and so long as gas pipelines running through Ukraine are under Russian control.

That is quite a lot to ask of a sovereign country. But Ukraine doesn't seem to be primarily concerned with maintaining more than the formal outlines of its sovereignty. What it is most concerned about is the choice between Europe and Russia. What is odd is that it is not clear that the European Union or Russia want Ukraine. The European Union is not about to take on another weakling. It has enough already. And Russia doesn't want the burden of governing Ukraine. It just doesn't want anyone controlling Ukraine to threaten Russia. Ukrainian sovereignty doesn't threaten anyone, so long as the borderland remains neutral.

That is what I found most interesting. Ukraine is independent, and I think it will stay independent. Its deepest problem is what to do with that independence, a plan it can formulate only in terms of someone else, in this case Europe or Russia. The great internal fight in Ukraine is not over how Ukraine will manage itself but whether it will be aligned with Europe or Russia. Unlike the 20th century, when the answer to the question of Ukrainian alignment caused wars to be fought, none will be fought now. Russia has what it wants from Ukraine, and Europe will not challenge that.

Ukraine has dreamed of sovereignty without ever truly confronting what it means.

Ukraine has its sovereignty. In some ways, I got the sense that it wants to give that sovereignty away, to find someone to take away the burden. It isn't clear, for once, that anyone is eager to take responsibility for Ukraine.

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