I'll make it easy for you Editor's Note: The following Geopolitical Weekly originally ran in November 2010 as part of our Geopolitical Journey series. We repost it as Ukraine's position between Europe and Russia puts it in the spotlight.
By George Friedman
Ukraine" literally translates as "on the edge." It is a country on the edge of other ometimes part of one, sometimes part of another and more frequently divided. In d 18th centuries, it was divided between Russia, Poland and the Ottoman Empire. century, it was divided between Russia and Austria-Hungary. And in the 20th e for a short period of independence after World War I, it became part of the n. Ukraine has been on the edge of empires for centuries.
as born in Ukraine in 1912, in a town in the Carpathians now called Uzhgorod. It Austria-Hungary when he was born, and by the time he was 10 the border had w miles east, so his family moved a few miles west. My father claimed to speak ages (Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Yiddish). As a deeply impressed by his learning. It was only later that I discovered that his ills extended only to such phrases as "What do you want for that scrawny nd "Please don't shoot."
deed make himself understood in such non-trivial matters in all these languages. e reason: Uzhgorod today is on the Slovakian border, about 30 miles from Poland, m Hungary and 50 miles from Romania. When my father was growing up, the ved constantly, and knowing these languages mattered. You were never sure what citizen or subject of next or who would be aiming a rifle at you.
ived on the edge until the Germans came in 1941 and swept everything before then until the Soviets returned in 1944 and swept everything before them. He was of millions who lived or died on the edge, and perhaps nowhere was there as ring from living on the edge than in Ukraine. Ukraine was caught between Stalin between planned famines and outright slaughter, to be relieved only by the isery of post-Stalin communism. No European country suffered as much in the y as Ukraine. From 1914 until 1945, Ukraine was as close to hell as one can reach
s, oddly enough, shaped by Norsemen, who swept down and set up trading posts, ruling over some local populations. According to early histories, the native tribes ollowing invitation: "Our land is great and rich, but there is no law in it. Come to ign over us." This is debated, as Anne Reid, author of the excellent "Borderland: ough the History of Ukraine," points out. But it really doesn't matter, since they erchants rather than conquerors, creating a city, Kiev, at the point where the rily wide Dnieper River narrows.
storians doubt that some offer of this type was made. I can imagine inhabitants of e Ukraine making such an offer in ways I can't imagine in other places. The flat ade for internal conflict and dissension, and the hunger for a foreigner to come e a rich land is not always far from Ukrainians' thoughts. Out of this grew the the precursor of modern Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. There are endless over whether Ukraine created Russia or vice versa. Suffice it to say, they together. That is more important than who did what to whom.
e way they are said to have chosen their religion. Volodymyr, a pagan ruler, t he needed a modern religion. He considered Islam and rejected it because he rink. He considered Catholicism and rejected it because he had lots of concubines ant to give up. He finally decided on Orthodox Christianity, which struck him as iful and flexible. As Reid points out, there were profound consequences: "By hristianity rather than Islam, Volodymyr cast Rus' ambitions forever in Europe Asia, and by taking Christianity from Byzantium rather than Rome he bound the ians, Ukrainians and Belarusians together in Orthodoxy, fatally dividing them from lic neighbors the Poles." I suspect that while Volodymyr liked his drink and his was most concerned with finding a balance between powers and chose Byzantium ace for Ukraine.
urope and Russia
n the edge again today, trying to find space. It is on the edge of Russia and on the ope, its old position. What makes this position unique is that Ukraine is t and has been so for 18 years. This is the longest period of Ukrainian ce in centuries. What is most striking about the Ukrainians is that, while they alue their independence, the internal debate seems to focus in part on what ity they should be aligned with. People in the west want to be part of the nion. People in the east want to be closer to the Russians. The Ukrainians want to ependent but not simply independent.
r an asymmetric relationship. Many Ukrainians want to join the European Union, whole is ambivalent at best about Ukraine. On the other hand, Ukraine matters as e Russians as it does to Ukrainians, just as it always has. Ukraine is as important to ional security as Scotland is to England or Texas is to the United States. In the enemy, these places would pose an existential threat to all three countries. rumors to the contrary, neither Scotland nor Texas is going anywhere. Nor is Russia has anything to do with it. And this reality shapes the core of Ukrainian life. ental sense, geography has imposed limits on Ukrainian national sovereignty and n the lives of Ukrainians.
ely strategic standpoint, Ukraine is Russia's soft underbelly. Dominated by Russia, chors Russian power in the Carpathians. These mountains are not impossible to but they can't be penetrated easily. If Ukraine is under the influence or control of ower, Russia's (and Belarus') southern flank is wide open along an arc running lish border east almost to Volgograd then south to the Sea of Azov, a distance of 1,000 miles, more than 700 of which lie along Russia proper. There are few natural
Ukraine is a matter of fundamental national security. For a Western power, f value only if that power is planning to engage and defeat Russia, as the Germans in World War II. At the moment, given that no one in Europe or in the United inking of engaging Russia militarily, Ukraine is not an essential asset. But from the int of view it is fundamental, regardless of what anyone is thinking of at the 1932, Germany was a basket case; by 1941, it had conquered the European nd was deep into Russia. One thing the Russians have learned in a long and ory is to never plan based on what others are capable of doing or thinking at the nd given that, the future of Ukraine is never a casual matter for them.
ond this, of course. Ukraine controls Russia's access to the Black Sea and therefore iterranean. The ports of Odessa and Sevastopol provide both military and l access for exports, particularly from southern Russia. It is also a critical pipeline nding energy to Europe, a commercial and a strategic requirement for Russia, y has become a primary lever for influencing and controlling other countries, kraine.
the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 was critical in transforming Russia's West and its relationship to Ukraine. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, d a series of governments that remained aligned with Russia. In the 2004 l election, the seemingly pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, emerged the n election that many claimed was fraudulent. Crowds took to the streets and kovich's resignation, and he was replaced by a pro-Western coalition.
s charged that the peaceful uprising was engineered by Western intelligence articularly the CIA and MI6, which funneled money into pro-Western NGOs and rties. Whether this was an intelligence operation or a fairly open activity, there is that American and European money poured into Ukraine. And whether it came -hearted reformers or steely eyed CIA operatives didn't matter in the least to tin. He saw it as an attempt to encircle and crush the Russian Federation.
the next six years working to reverse the outcome, operating both openly and split the coalition and to create a pro-Russian government. In the 2010 elections, returned to power, and from the Russian point of view, the danger was averted. A s went into this reversal. The United States was absorbed in Iraq and Afghanistan 't engage Russia in a battle for Ukraine. The Germans drew close to the Russians 08 crisis. Russian oligarchs had close financial and political ties with Ukrainian ho influenced the election. There is a large pro-Russian faction in Ukraine that ants the country to be linked to Russia. And there was deep disappointment in the illingness to help Ukraine substantially.
e Orange Revolution
we arrived in Kiev, two things were going on. First there were demonstrations protesting government tax policy. Second, Yanukovich was in Belgium for a h the European Union. Both of these things animated the pro-Western faction in action that remains fixated on the possibility that the Orange Revolution can be nd that Ukraine must enter the European Union. These two things are linked.
strations were linked to a shift in tax law that increased taxes on small-business e main demonstration took place in a large square well-stocked with national flags anners. The sound systems in place were quite good. It was possible to hear the learly. When I pointed out to a pro-Western journalist that it seemed to be a well-organized demonstration, I was assured that it wasn't well-organized at all. I have other Ukrainian demonstrations but have been present at various other ions around the world, and most of those were what some people in Texas call a ." I have never seen one of those, either, but I gather they aren't well-organized. stration did not strike me as a goat rodeo.
y matters. There was some excitement among politically aware pro-Westerners monstration could evolve into another Orange Revolution. Some demonstrators ing out overnight, and there were some excited rumors that police were blocking with demonstrators and preventing them from getting to the demonstration. That n that the demonstration would have been bigger without police interference and ernment was worried about another uprising.
't seem that way to me. There were ample police in the side streets, but they were not in riot gear. I was told that the police with riot gear were hidden in and elsewhere. I couldn't prove otherwise. But the demonstration struck me as anized. Passionate and near-spontaneous demonstrations are more ragged, the re restless and growing, and the police more tense. To me, as an outsider, it re an attempt by organization leaders and politicians to generate a sense of sion than a spontaneous event. But there was a modicum of hope among anti-t factions that this could be the start of something big. When pressed on the s, I was told by one journalist that there was a 5 percent chance it could grow into .
ion was that it was a tempest in a teapot. My perception was not completely ukovich announced later in the week that the new tax law might not go into aid that it would depend on parliamentary action that would not come for another e gave every indication that he would find a way to at least postpone it if not learly, he did not regard the demonstrations as trivial. Regardless of whether he ly bend to the demonstrators' wishes, he felt he needed to respond.
e day the demonstrations began, Yanukovich left for Brussels for talks about ering the European Union. I had an opportunity to meet with an official of the Foreign Affairs before he departed for Brussels as well. The official had also been nistry during the previous administration. He was a member of the group that had f the numerous programs run by the United States and Europe for turning Eastern into proponents of the West, and he was certainly that. My meeting with the ht me one of two things: Either Yanukovich was not purging people ideologically d to keep a foot in the pro-EU camp.
e I sat, as an American, the European Union appeared at best tarnished and at ring. I had met in Istanbul with some European financial leaders who had in past dismissed my negativism on the European Union as a lack of sophistication on my ime they were far less assured than ever before and were talking about the of the euro failing and other extreme outcomes. They had traveled quite a road few years to have arrived at this point. But what was fascinating to me was that an Foreign Ministry official was not only unshaken by the Irish situation but also nection between that and the EU appetite for Ukraine becoming a member. For d nothing to do with the other.
s the European Union was facing did not strike pro-EU Ukrainians as changing the . There was no question in their mind that they wanted Ukraine in the European was there any question in their mind that the barriers to entry were in the failure inians to measure up. The idea that EU expansion had suffered a fatal blow due to Greek crises was genuinely inconceivable to them. The European Union was not dergo any structural changes. Nothing that was happening in the European Union s attractiveness or its openness. It was all about Ukraine measuring up.
untries we have visited there has been a class difference for EU membership. The d economic elites are enthusiastic, the lower classes much more restrained. In ere is also a regional distinction. The eastern third of the country is heavily ward Russia and not to the West. The western third is heavily oriented toward the enter of the country tilts toward the west but is divided. Linguistic division also these lines, with the highest concentrations of native Ukrainian speakers living in d of Russian speakers in the east. This can be seen in the election returns in 2010 . Yanukovich dominated the east, Timoshenko the west, and the contested center d Timoshenko. But the support in the east for the Party of Regions and Yanukovich elming.
n defines Ukrainian politics and foreign policy. Yanukovich is seen as having been epudiate the Orange Revolution. Supporters of the Orange Revolution are n their dislike of Yanukovich and believe that he is a Russian tool. Interestingly, the view in Poland, where government officials and journalists suggested that was playing a more complex game and trying to balance Ukraine between Europe ssians.
anukovich intends, it is hard to see how you split the difference. Either you join the nion or you don't. I suspect the view is that Yanukovich will try to join but will be e will therefore balance between the two groups. That is the only way he could ference. Certainly, NATO membership is off the table for him. But the European ossibility.
a group of young Ukrainian financial analysts and traders. They suggested that split into two countries, east and west. This is an idea with some currency inside Ukraine. It certainly fits in with the Ukrainian tradition of being on the edge, of between Europe and Russia. The problem is that there is no clear geographical hat can be defined between the two parts, and the center of the country is itself
teresting than their geopolitical speculation was their fixation on Warsaw. Sitting young analysts and traders knew everything imaginable about the IPO market, n and retirement system in Poland, the various plans and amounts available from for private investment. It became clear that they were more interested in making oland's markets than they were in the European Union, Ukrainian politics or what s are thinking. They were young and they were traders and they knew who kko was, so this is not a sampling of Ukrainian life. But what was most interesting tle talk there was of Ukrainian oligarchs compared to Warsaw markets. The ight have been way beyond them and therefore irrelevant, but it was Warsaw, not an Union or the power structure, that got their juices flowing.
ese young financiers dreamed of leaving Ukraine. So did many of the students I iversity. There were three themes they repeated. First, they wanted an t Ukraine. Second, they wanted it to become part of the European Union. Third, d to leave Ukraine and live their lives elsewhere. It struck me how little connection etween their national hopes and their personal hopes. They were running on two acks. In the end, it boiled down to this: It takes generations to build a nation, and nerations toil and suffer for what comes later. That is a bitter pill to swallow when e option of going elsewhere and living well for yourself now. The tension in least among the European-oriented, appears to be between building Ukraine and ir own lives.
in Spite of Itself
ere members of Ukraine's Western-oriented class, which was created by the . The other part of Ukraine is in the industrial cities of the east. These people don't ave Ukraine, but they do understand that their industries can't compete with hey know the Russians will buy what they produce, and they fear that European western Ukraine would cost them their jobs. There is nostalgia for the Soviet , not because they don't remember the horrors of Stalin but simply because the of Leonid Brezhnev was so attractive to them compared to what came before or
the oligarchs. Not only do they permeate the Ukrainian economy and Ukrainian they also link Ukraine closely with the Russians. This is because the major ligarchs are tied to the Russians through complex economic and political nts. They are the frame of Ukraine. When I walked down a street with a journalist, to a beautiful but derelict building. He said that the super-wealthy buy these r little money and hold them, since they pay no tax, retarding development. For s, the European Union, with its rules and transparency, is a direct challenge, eir relation to Russia is part of their daily work.
s are not, I think, trying to recreate the Russian empire. They want a sphere of hich is a very different thing. They do not want responsibility for Ukraine or other hey see that responsibility as having sapped Russian power. What they want is a egree of control over Ukraine to guarantee that potentially hostile forces don't l, particularly NATO or any follow-on entities. The Russians are content to allow internal sovereignty, so long as Ukraine does not become a threat to Russia and as pipelines running through Ukraine are under Russian control.
e a lot to ask of a sovereign country. But Ukraine doesn't seem to be primarily with maintaining more than the formal outlines of its sovereignty. What it is most about is the choice between Europe and Russia. What is odd is that it is not clear ropean Union or Russia want Ukraine. The European Union is not about to take on akling. It has enough already. And Russia doesn't want the burden of governing just doesn't want anyone controlling Ukraine to threaten Russia. Ukrainian doesn't threaten anyone, so long as the borderland remains neutral.
t I found most interesting. Ukraine is independent, and I think it will stay t. Its deepest problem is what to do with that independence, a plan it can nly in terms of someone else, in this case Europe or Russia. The great internal aine is not over how Ukraine will manage itself but whether it will be aligned with ussia. Unlike the 20th century, when the answer to the question of Ukrainian aused wars to be fought, none will be fought now. Russia has what it wants from d Europe will not challenge that.
s dreamed of sovereignty without ever truly confronting what it means. I to the financial analysts and traders that some of my children had served in the ey were appalled at the idea. Why would someone choose to go into the military? plain their reasons, which did not have to do with wanting a good job. The gulf t. They could not understand that national sovereignty and personal service ivided. But then, as I said, most of them hoped to leave Ukraine.
s its sovereignty. In some ways, I got the sense that it wants to give that away, to find someone to take away the burden. It isn't clear, for once, that ager to take responsibility for Ukraine. I also did not get the sense that the had come to terms with what it meant to be sovereign. To many, Moscow and more real than Kiev.