Ukraine’s predicament is, in essence, a product of its own geography. Nestled at the crossroads of the world, bridging the fledgling European superstate with the lethargic hulk that is modern Russia, it is a strategic northerly outlet to the Mediterranean Sea, contested for millennia. Ukrainian national identity, incorporating Slavic, Greek, Turkish, Polish, Germanic and Caucasian influences, is testament to its rich, tumultuous past; the region is simultaneously blessed and cursed with abundant mineral and agricultural resources.
The collapse of Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe was an event of unparalleled historical significance. For the first time in centuries, a traditional backyard of local imperialism was open for business, and foreign policy bureaucrats in Washington and Brussels were loath to bid the opportunity slip. Beginning with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic’s 1999 NATO induction – the first such move in twenty years –, the United States and its ever-obliging subsidiary, the European Union, executed a rapid drive eastward, with the intent of drawing the wild melange of new republics into the Western sphere of influence.
Contrary to the standard mass-media narrative, Russia’s actions in the Crimean hotbed this March represent far more than a ham-fisted incursion on behalf of local Moscow partisans. For two decades, the Kremlin has watched with bitter resentment as large swathes of its traditional dominion surrender themselves to the new heavyweights. If the dramatic flight of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is illustrative of any precedent, it can no longer fall back on customary geopolitical mechanisms (namely the installation of bluntly pro-Russian leaders – Belarusian tyrant Alexander Lukashenko typifies this –, whatever the will of the masses) when seeking to exercise international authority.
Its ‘annexation’ of the Crimea, as in the case of its 2008 venture in South Ossetia, instead panders to ethnic nationalism and a profound sense of post-Soviet nostalgia. The efficacy of this psychological method simply cannot be underestimated, but we must be equally careful when assessing the intentions of the Russian government – their concerns are, first and foremost, strategic, grounded more in the Crimea’s hosting of the Black Sea Fleet, and an effort to save face amid Western encroachment on its borders, than any serious irredentist inclinations.
The remaining chunk of Ukraine faces an economic and political quagmire. February’s unseating of the pro-Moscow regime in Kiev was motivated by aspirations of eventual EU membership, but that seems a more perverse proposition as the days drag out. Amidst a currency crisis that, in 2011, looked set to bring the Euro experiment crashing down, the EU has lost all appetite for expansion. The Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement, a technocratic framework seen by many citizens as the first step towards greater ties, actually resembles a half-hearted attempt to make neoliberal chops of the Ukrainian economy.
In effect, Jozsef Borocz of LeftEast writes, the young men and women who cast their lot with Europe in Maidan Square have been rallying for “significantly increased exposure of their economy to capital from a forty times bigger and much richer economic area; demolition of the tariff barriers that might prevent the full siphoning-off of their resources; and absolutely no promise of equality, citizenship, democracy, or even an increased freedom of movement”.
For lack of a better term, what we have witnessed in Ukraine is a partition, eagerly supervised by the pen-pushers of Brussels and the oligarchs of Moscow. The ordinary people of Simferopol and Kiev are, ultimately, set to shoulder the full burden of this scheme.