The Ukraine that existed last summer, was a space on the map whose boundaries were drawn by Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev. Not, perhaps, the people you’d pick to draw the boundaries of your country, but that’s what happened. In this space lived people who certainly regarded themselves as “Ukrainians” but also people who regarded themselves as “Russians”, “Tatars”, “Greeks”, “Hungarians” and all the other nationalities recognised by the Soviet system. The Russian Empire of 1917 had possessed much but not all of the territory known as Last Summer’s Ukraine. In particular, St Petersburg possessed most of central Ukraine as well as south and east Ukraine (a territory known as Novorossiya when the Empress Catherine conquered it from the Ottomans). The west was then part of the Austrian Empire. But, after the collapse of the Russian Empire and the First World War, it was taken by Poland. After the attack on Poland in 1939 Stalin incorporated it into the Ukrainian SSR. Some small territories were taken from Romania and added as well. Krushchev’s addition of Crimea rounded out the territory the world recognised as independent Ukraine in December 1991.
In simple terms, the present effect of these completely different histories of the parts of Last Summer’s Ukraine is that the south and east tend to look towards Russia while the west looks towards Europe and the centre has a certain ambivalence. And so, if you wanted to keep Last Summer’s Ukraine together, there was a central prohibition, a “First Rule of Ukraine”: “do not attempt to force a choice between east and west” or, more plainly, “do not demand that one half of the country swallow what only the other half wants”. Violate that rule and the whole thing could tear apart. Ukraine could stay together so long as, for example, no government in Kiev tried to make Ukraine a formal military ally of Russia. Such an idea would be welcomed by many in the east and south but would be anathema in the west and, to a lesser degree, in the centre. In short, the only choice for a stable Ukraine would be neutrality, or, more grandly, to proclaim itself a bridge between Russia and NATO. Likewise an exclusive trade agreement with Russia would be welcome in the south and east but unacceptable in the west. So, again, the correct stance, the one that would preserve Ukraine, would be to advocate trade agreements with both. The “bridge” concept again. Everyone who knows anything about the realities of Ukraine knew this. I can’t stress this enough: this sort of understanding would have been Lecture 1 of Ukraine 1011. So long as one half did not have the other half’s preference shoved down its throat, the two halves could rub along together. But that is precisely what the West did. Twice. The West pushed the NATO option in the so-called “Orange Revolution” of 2005 and pushed an exclusive trade deal with the EU in 2013. If one wanted to tear Ukraine apart, two more explosive issues than military alliances and exclusive trade could not be found. When last Summer’s Ukraine survived the first Western attempt to blow it up, the West tried again2, this time with trade.3
The second attempt to destroy Ukraine succeeded: Last Summer’s Ukraine will never appear on a world map again. Crimea is gone forever and, by all accounts, quite happy to be back in Russia (where, it should be noted, it was for 171 years until Khrushchev’s whimsical gift). Donetsk and Lugansk have indicated their unwillingness to follow Kiev in its present form. They will, no doubt, soon be followed by other oblasts in Novorossiya unless Kiev changes its behaviour4.
And the probabilities of Kiev changing its behaviour are, at present sight, very low; its use of the absurd word “terrorist” to describe the resistance, apart from the cringing obeisance to Washington, is all that we need to know. People with a different opinion of the constitutional structure who noted that the very first thing the new power in Kiev did was ban their language5 are not “terrorists”. Thus the end of 2014 is likely to find a good chunk of the south and east of former Ukraine either independent de facto or part of the Russian Federation. There is a very good chance that Rump Ukraine will be in civil strife – not everyone in central Ukraine is as enamoured of Stepan Bandera and the SS Galician Division as the members of Pravy Sektor and Svoboda. Added to which there will be some level of fighting along the border of Novorossiya and Rump Ukraine because the “opinion border” is not clear-cut. The economic future of Rump Ukraine is hardly brighter. Today’s Ukraine is broke, the east and south are its most productive parts; if they’re gone to independence or to Russia, then what’s left? Ukraine’s neighbours are starting to eye territory – the leaders of Hungary are speaking about the rights of Hungarophones in Ukraine; others will no doubt follow as the prospects of profit grow higher. After all, Rump Ukraine is full of bits of what were in other countries only a century ago and, if its leaders are lost in a Ukrainian super-nationalist dream, many of its inhabitants are not. In that part of the world, the Second World War was only a few moments ago and emotions set then are still strong.
Not that Rump Ukraine’s new friends are offering it much money. The USA and the EU between them have offered about as much as China is suing Ukraine for. The IMF only gives loans; and, if there is any reality to these loans, much of them will have to cover the billions Gazprom is owed . But, in reality, that money is likely gone. Gazprom understands this and, starting next month, further gas will be on a cash in advance arrangement. I am amused to see the BBC saying: “There is a danger for EU nations that Ukraine will start taking the gas Russia had earmarked for its European clients, something it did when it was cut off from Russian gas during previous disputes in 2006 and 2009.” I say “amused” because my memory last time was that the BBC was reporting on the sinister “Russian gas weapon6”; not that the Ukrainians were stealing Europe-bound Russian gas. But, and this is easy to predict: Gazprom will demand cash in advance; Kiev will promise, bluster, but pay nothing; Gazprom will cut Rump Ukraine’s share of the supplies going west; Kiev will siphon off what it needs7; Europe suffers. Will Europe this time blame Moscow? If it does, we know, thanks to the BBC’s admission, not only that it it’s lying but that it knows it’s lying. Perhaps it will “lend” Rump Ukraine the cash to pay Gazprom. Which would be ironic. In short, the West broke Ukraine, it now owns it. Or, to put it more precisely, it owns that part that Moscow doesn’t want. And what part that is is entirely up to Moscow to choose. So, an operation that may have had its origin in a desire to weaken Moscow (see Brzezinski’s argument below) has actually strengthened Moscow by adding to its territory, influence and security. And, also – this will be the next shoe to drop – adding to its influence and respect in the world8.
In 1997 Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire”. And Brzezinski keeps it up today: in a March piece in the Washington Post, while managing to compare Putin with Hitler, Mussolini and a Mafia gangster, he called for full Western support for the self-appointed government in Kiev; while the West should not “threaten war”, it should assure Kiev that the “Ukrainian army can count on immediate and direct Western aid”. Apart from the fact that there is no Ukrainian Army any more, such assurances are, in fact, exactly how wars get started9. Notable in this piece is his complete disregard of the existential problem of Ukraine: namely that lots of citizens of Last Summer’s Ukraine would rather be in Russia. No doubt this First Rule of Ukraine escaped his attention in his eagerness to block Putin’s imagined desire to create a “Eurasian empire”. But, nonetheless his equation that Russia+Ukraine=Empire while Russia-Ukraine=something else (but evidently a something else no less threatening) is having an influence in Washington these days.
If Victoria Nuland and her bosses had in mind to deny Ukraine to Russia, they have completely failed. A peaceful, non-aligned, prosperous Ukraine would have been all the “barrier” they imagined Russia needed – as well as having suited Moscow perfectly. But that is gone. Russia now has Crimea (and NATO does not get the port of Sevastopol10). By the end of the year it is probable that much of Novorossiya will have seceded from Kiev; whether these bits become part of the Russian Federation is Moscow’s decision to make and Rump Ukraine will be a nightmare that the West will be expected to pay for. But the West can’t afford to prop it up. If their dream was to have Ukraine in NATO, or the EU, they are welcome to Rump Ukraine; but it will be no asset. It’s rare to hear a coup d’état plotted live so it is worth refreshing one’s memory with the Nuland-Pyatt phone call in which everything had to “stick together” and “gain altitude” before the Russians “torpedoed it”. Well, everything came unstuck and crashed to the ground without the need for a Russian torpedo. And the reason is simple: Nuland & Co ignored Ukraine 101: they wanted one half to swallow something that only the other half wanted. If the EU had allowed Ukraine, as it allows Canada, to have a trade agreement with another bloc, and had Washington kept out of it, we wouldn’t be where we are today and Last Summer’s Ukraine would still exist. There was no need for Moscow to “torpedo” anything: Nuland’s mix blew up on its own.
So what for the future? It’s already clear that Crimea is and will remain part of Russia. Lugansk and Donetsk will be independent or part of Russia (although it is not yet completely impossible that they could be in Ukraine but with real autonomy). Other eastern and southern oblasts of Last Summer’s Ukraine will join them. Rump Ukraine will be a terrible place to live, even if Pravy Sektor and Svoboda aren’t ruling it. Europe and Washington are not going to spend the money to make it anything else11. NATO is not as powerful as it likes to think: the participating European members could not bring down so insignificant an opponent as Gadaffi without American support. Who expects Washington to start a new military adventure in Ukraine? With its deficit? After so many years of war elsewhere? And Russia is not an opponent to be dealt with off stage by a few drones or aircraft sorties. There is nothing to suggest that anyone in Rump Ukraine has the stomach for real fighting: it’s one thing to murder civilians in Odessa12, quite another to take on Russian Spetsnaz. And, at that, it’s not as if Kiev’s forces are doing very well in eastern Ukraine against the local militias: while 650 casualties seems improbable, the note of triumph is not misplaced. After a month, Kiev’s effort to gain control has been a complete failure.
It will not be easy for Washington and Brussels to back themselves out of this mess they have created. Too much has been said to suddenly “discover” that the Kiev government is riddled with unpleasant characters. Or that worshippers of Stepan Bandera don’t really “share Western values”. The issue has been made into a light show of good and evil and the compliant Western media has been shouting out its assigned lines without pause13. Ukraine is too big and too close to home to forget as Libya, Kosovo and other catastrophic results of Western “humanitarian interventions” have been forgotten. Its a serious problem. And so casually started.
There is possibly one way that that Washington and Brussels can get out of this mess. If the election this week is vaguely credible, (and we may be confident that, despite the fact that one candidate has pulled out because he kept getting beaten up by Anne Applebaum’s “patriots” and another has dropped out because he sees the election as illegitimate, that the east and south have no candidate and that their political party has effectively been banned, that many areas in the east won’t vote at all and that they are under attack, that one of the two likely winners, neither of whom could be called “new”, says, if not elected, there will be a “third round of revolution”; despite all that, we may be confident that the USA, the OSCE, EU and so on will say the election was perfectly acceptable) then the winner, if it is Poroshenko, could take the only possible way out. This is, as Moscow has been saying from the beginning, a united Ukraine (minus Crimea of course – that is too late) which is not in NATO (or the Russian equivalent) and is not exclusively attached to the EU (or to the Russian equivalent). In short, a Ukraine that, as this paper began, hews to the First Rule of Ukraine: neither the one nor the other but something of each. Then – another if – if the neo-nazis can be reined in, then possibly things can get back to some sort of cautious coexistence. But – another if – the regions must be given a good deal of real autonomy14. And the final if, the most important one – Washington shuts its mouth and keeps out of the whole tortuous process of reconstructing Ukraine. A lot of ifs here and therefore a small probability but not completely impossible. Otherwise it’s more secessions – especially as the economic disasters bite – and Rump Ukraine sinking into chaos and misery.
1It is interesting to see a prominent American think tank finally (finally) getting it: Ukraine: A Prize Neither Russia Nor the West Can Afford to Win. Of course, the point is that it’s really the West that can’t afford it.
2Were they actually trying to tear Ukraine apart? Who can say; the First Rule of Ukraine is so plain to see that it is hard to believe that anyone can be that stupid.
3But there was something in the lengthy document about “gradual convergence on foreign and security matters”. So the first was not forgotten.
4Not utterly impossible; see last paragraph; but a lot of ifs, not least that Washington steps back completely.
5The fact that the Acting President immediately vetoed it does not mean that the message was not received and understood.
6I challenge the reader to find, anywhere in this BBC report, the blunt admission that Russia sent enough gas westwards to fulfil its obligations to its European customers but Ukraine “took it”. Which is what the BBC now says happened.
7Unless, of course, Pravy Sektor blows up the pipeline as its leader threatensto do. (Typical of the Western selective and intentionally misleading coverage of the actual reality in Kiev, search this piece for any mention that Yarosh is Deputy Secretary of National Security.)
8The UN General Assembly vote of 27 March is revealing. Despite the widespread assertion of the Western media that Russia was “isolated” when the condemnation of its annexation of Crimea passed 100-11 it is more significant that 82 countries either abstained or didn’t do anything. Israel being one of the latter to Washington’s “surprise”. Not so condemnatory.
9A host of assurances, Russia for Serbia, Germany for Austria, Britain for France, were instrumental in transforming another Balkan squabble into the First World War.
10Did the US military have plans for Sevastopol? This writer thinks so. EUCOM denies it but does admit to a “humanitarian facilitation project”. “Humanitarian” of course has acquired some interesting meanings of late in places like Libya.
12Since the Western media carefully avoids discussing the slaughter in Odessa on 2 May , we must rely on other sources for “Bloodbath in Odessa guided by interim rulers of Ukraine”.
13The New York Times set some sort of record: 20 April “Photos Link Masked Men in East Ukraine to Russia”; 24 April “Aftermath of Ukraine Photo Story Shows Need for More Caution”. As often in these cases, the readers’ comments are illuminating.
14No more governors of regions appointed by Kiev. Something, that when Russia did it was much condemned by the West, but not even mentioned in the case of Ukraine.