For many, the conflict in Ukraine is unclear. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that he does not understand the “true intentions of Russia”. Besides, after a telephone talk with Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel stated how he seemed to be living in “an another world” in regarding his views of the crisis in Ukraine.
Friedrich Nietzsche once outlined how the world is knowable, but it is interpretable in different ways, it has countless meanings. This has been experienced in the context of the Ukraine crisis. The point of departure should be about comprehending the reality that history has become a fundamental factor in Russian nation-building after the trauma of the fall of the Soviet Union. The tone of the National Security Strategy from 2009 noticeably indicates the necessity of revising Russia’s role and its place in the world, and, in a way, trying to come to terms with its Tsarist past. A strong impetus for such Russian aspiration gives a belief in the old idea of uniqueness and originality of Russia and the rejection of Western triumphalism. Russian idea (Russkaya idea) or a nation (Solovyov), when analyzed in depth, is conceived as a metaphysical reality (God's providence) assigned to the special historic mission. The pillar of such “destiny” of Russian people was constructed by Elder Filotej in the 16th century through the idea of Moscow as the Eternal city-guardian of the Eternal Truth before the coming “Evil”. During all these centuries, the Western social and political order represents that ominous frame of reference against the “Russian Third Way”.
A Shadow of Eurasianism over Ukraine
Rational guide of Russian idea constitutes the Eurasianism. Eurasia is perceived as natural area of influence through which Kremlin should detach Russia from being a perverted expression of the European civilization, as Nikolai Trubetzkoy claimed, and regain its omnipotent “self”. This is a geographical habitat of a unique and distinctive Orthodox-Tatar Russian cultural identity created in the symbiosis between Russians and other inhabitants of the steppes. Moreover, Zbigniew Brzezinski claims that whoever becomes a master of this space (heartland) will become a master of the world. Respected thinkers, such as Nicholas Spykman, Henry Kissinger, and Colin Gray hold in their strategic analyses that the principal goal of US national security policy should be the containment of Russia/USSR to potentially achieve hegemony over Eurasia. But with Putin’s siloviki way of thinking, the “Russian idea” is bolstering, thus making geopolitical equation uncertain.
Ukraine is a wagon axle of Eurasianism. It is considered crucial for Russia's geostrategic options as morphological gateway to Europe. A control over Ukraine would allow Russia to be a decisive leader of some sort in a “Eurasian empire”. Aleksandr Dugin, a very senatorial thinker close to the Kremlin, holds that Ukraine, as an independent state, represents an enormous danger for the whole of Eurasia. That the sovereignty of Ukraine represents a negative phenomenon was revealed by Putin’s most revered Nobel novelist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who emphasized a necessity to reunite all Eastern Slavic lands within a Russian Union.
More specifically, if Gorbachev's chief military advisor, Sergei Akhromeyev, concisely regarded Republics to the west as the bedrock of the Soviet Union's security, it may be summed to some extent that the current Ukraine is the foundation of Russia's land and maritime security. John Mearshimer, along this line, notices that Kremlin perceives Ukraine's flirting with the western alliance as a mortal threat near home. It is clear moreover, as Irina Bogachevskaya claims, that Ukraine since Bohdan Khmelnytsky's times has always been the arena for the conflict of Russia's continental ambitions and the Ukraine’s aspiration to sovereignty and independence.
The Geopolitics of the Ukraine Crisis
The crisis in Ukraine has started on November 21, 2013, with the Maidan protests, when president Victor Yanukovych had refused the EU Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. The Kremlin set on fiercely after February 22, 2014, when the pro-Western government finally took power in Kiev. Crisis has came to a climax in a “legally illegal” annexation of Crimea. In the period from February 26 to March 21, 2014, the post-Cold War period officially ended. Crimean proclamation of independence and finally annexation has tectonically disrupted Europe’s geopolitical landscape. It showed how the geopolitics has revived, marking the entry into the balance of the power system, exactly like it happened during the Crimean War (1853-56). By annexing Crimea, the Kremlin seriously comprehended the Potemkin’s thinking legacy “Those who hold Crimea, hold the Black Sea”, as the Sea is in geopolitical terms a pivot that lies at the centre of a Mackinder’s geopolitical heartland. Next maneuver against the post-Yanukovych authorities was to disable the state by proposing a new federal settlement. Kiev lost control when Donetsk and Luhansk held referendums which led to formation of an entity called Novorossiya in May, 2014. Kiev responded vehemently by launching “antiterrorist operations” which led to heavy clashes and bloodshed.
For the most part, a so-called separatism in Eastern Ukraine does not contain a decisive ethnic component. Local population in south-eastern regions haven’t felt any threat related to their language or ethnic origin. Moreover, during my fieldwork in south-western Ukraine I noticed thousands of Russian speaking refugees from the affected areas who clearly supported the territorial unity of Ukraine. This calls into question the idea of secession.
Crisis in Eastern Ukraine is increasingly taking the form of a “frozen conflict”, despite the Minsk negotiation efforts, fulfilling Russia’s strategic objective of debilitating the country in order to deter its thriving integration with the Western alliance. Intention of destabilizing the country as a goal in itself has become apparent when Moscow moved further into force by cutting coal deliveries to Ukraine in November 2014, making it extremely vulnerable to supply shortages, despite the fact that the country used to be self sufficient when Kyiv used to have access to coal located in Donbass. Mearsheimer strikingly highlights that Putin made it clear that he will wreck or destroy Ukraine in order to hamper the EU and NATO’s relative gains.
Ukraine largely remains an object of geopolitics. But Maidan protests signified increased geopolitical motion and identification with the “West”. Maidan has changed the political balance that once leaned to the east in favor of a western Kyiv-L’viv axis. One indication is the political force “Samopomich Party”, led by Andriy Sadovyi, mayor of L’viv, that surprised with big election results on parliamentary elections held in October 2014, which brought it the place in the new coalition government. The political identity of Ukraine is a complex development with its regional variations, but Maidan made the Ukrainian nation visibly referring to the “Western”. In particular, there is a growing number of those people called svidomi who haven’t been influenced by Russian Culture and, on the other side, own substantive democratic political awareness. Strikingly, the majority of population shows strong support for the country's integration into the EU, and I believe that they would easily assign NATO the role of the protector of their own country from the Kremlin.
For the Kremlin, the European integration of its neighbors is seen a threat. EU enlargement is viewed as an indicator of NATO expansion. Besides that the EU behaves postmodern in terms of its normative power, the geopolitics of a different kind. Kremlin has seen the EU, ever since the “Big Bang”, as a geopolitical rival and consequently behaves according to the realist moralities, maintaining hostile zero-sum view of the world.
The Kremlin bolstered its resentment after NATO Bucharest summit 2008 and when the Eastern Partnership (2009), as a cover of the existing European Neighborhood Policy, came along. Georgian application for NATO membership in Bucharest was accompanied by the invasion of Russia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, killing illusion of any further accession. The Kremlin continued its policy of coercion by triggering “Gas War” against Ukraine in 2009, which led afterwards to the signing of the Kharkiv Accords that extended the presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia now controls territory in the three borderline countries willing to join the EU and NATO (Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova). The Kremlin has obviously established the ethnic “Brezhnev Doctrine” but instead of disobedient socialist states, it is now ethnic Russians who need to be protected by interventions. Thereby, it has halted NATO enlargement and disrupted the EU expanding through the form of its eastern neighborhood policy in Russia’s “Near Abroad” (blizhneye zarubezhye).
It is the old-new face of geopolitical rivalry that has become manifest. The NATO Wales Summit in September 2014 declared that the Alliance’s vision of Europe has changed and that it has increased its defense spending. In the end, Putin's speech at the Valdai International Discussion Club’s XI session in Sochi on October 24, 2014, according to Club Orlov, is probably the most important political speech since Churchill's “Iron Curtain” speech of March 5, 1946. Putin in general, stated that Russia sees that the changes in the world order would be inevitably accompanied by the outbreak of wars and, “there is no guarantee and no certainty that the current system of global and regional security is able to protect us from upheavals”. Geopolitics with realpolitik as its matrix has certainly been making its way into Europe.
Nikola Lakic, member of the international mission ENEMO in Ukraine in 2014. The views in this article are those by the author and do not represent the views of ENEMO.