Taking Cover: Drawn up in the classical testudo (tortoise) formation, Ukrainian riot police await yet another onslaught from the militant members of the far-right Ukrainian nationalist organisation known as the "Right Sector". Of mysterious provenance, the Right Sector is the group primarily responsible for the eruption of deadly violence on the streets of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
AS THE UKRANIAN RIOT POLICE reinvent the Roman testudo (“tortoise”) under a hail of thunder-flashes and Molotov cocktails, it is probably timely to review who is fighting who and for what.
The Ukraine remains one of the great prizes of European statecraft. It has been fought over for centuries not only for of its grain and minerals, but also for its strategic location. Whoever controls the Ukraine is well on the way to dominating all of Russia.
Which is why the Ukraine has changed hands several times over the past century.
In March 1918 Lenin’s Bolsheviks relinquished control of the Ukraine to the German Empire. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk carved a strategically fatal (to Russia) chunk out of the old Tsarist empire, perfectly positioning the Germans (assuming their 1918 military offensive against the Entente Powers was successful) to roll-up and crush Lenin’s newly-formed revolutionary government.
Though the Brest-Litovsk treaty only remained in force from March until November 1918, the victorious allies were no less aware than the Germans of the strategic threat even a nominally independent Ukraine would pose to the Bolsheviks. Accordingly, for the next five years Britain, France and Poland directed considerable (if clandestine) effort towards keeping the Ukraine out of Russian hands. By 1923, however, Lenin’s communists wielded sufficient power to ensure the Ukraine, once again, fell under Russian suzerainty.
Initially, Soviet policy in the Ukraine was highly sympathetic to its people’s national-cultural aspirations, but the triumph of Joseph Stalin brought with it a savage reversal of the Ukraine’s fortunes. Between 1932-33, upwards of 10 million Ukrainians starved to death in a famine deliberately created by the Soviet authorities to snuff out peasant resistance to agricultural collectivisation, and to mask the systematic destruction of the Ukraine’s cultural and political elites.
Not surprisingly, when the Nazis invaded the Ukraine in June 1941 there were many who welcomed them as liberators. Sadly, Germany’s 1941 ambitions for the Ukrainians were little changed from those of 1918: the entire population were to become the vassals of an imported German aristocracy. Accordingly, Ukrainians played a vital role in the Soviet Union’s destruction of Hitler’s Third Reich.
In the fifty years between the Nazi invasion and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union the Ukraine grew rapidly into a modern industrial state, supplying no fewer than two of the USSR’s seven leaders – Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev.
But the disintegration of Soviet power and the Ukraine’s ultimate assertion of national independence in no way rescued it from its centuries-old strategic dilemma. Nor could it magically remove the huge numbers of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians living within its borders. To the north and west, Ukrainian-speakers dominate politically: to the south and east, Russian-speakers.
Not surprisingly, given their historical experience, the ethnic Ukrainians look to the West – to NATO and the European Union – to safeguard them from their own geography and its strategic consequences. Unfortunately for Ukrainian Europhiles, Washington, London and Paris are very far away, while Berlin and Moscow stand uncomfortably close.
Ostensibly, the battle now raging in the streets of Kiev is about which direction the Ukraine should face: west towards the EU, or east towards the Russian Federation. In reality, it is an acting out of Ukrainian nationalism’s frustration with the geopolitical facts of life.
Acting Out - But On Whose Behalf? A "Right Sector" militant in action on the streets of Kiev.
A Ukraine that is not under the suzerainty of its much larger neighbour cannot avoid being seen by the likes of Vladimir Putin as an existential threat to Russian security. From the vital economic resources of the Donetsk Basin to Russia’s naval bases on the Black Sea, Ukrainian territory encompasses strategic assets that Russia simply cannot afford to lose.
Mr Putin’s fears will not be allayed by news that the violence on Kiev's streets is being organised by a mysterious far-right nationalist group calling itself the "Right Sector", or that the United States Office of eDiplomacy recently organised an event called "Tech Camp" at which young Ukrainian nationalists were taught the same subversive internet skills that touched off the Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan and Syrian “revolutions”. With memories of the Ukraine’s US-assisted “Orange Revolution” of 2004 still fresh in the Russian President’s memory, his determination to keep his ally, the Ukrainian President, Victor Yanukovych, in place and on side is hardly surprising.
The spectacle of hundreds of Ukrainian nationalists standing outside the Kiev office of the European Union chanting “WE-NEED-YOUR-HELP!” may stir the conscience of the West. But all it stirs in the Kremlin’s heart is fear – and rage.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 January 2014.