Sometimes history picks up speed, as is currently the case in Ukraine. Wise prognostications one day may be made foolish by the next morning’s headlines. Even so, I want to voice a few thoughts, as we try to sort through breaking news.
In light of Russia’s invasion of Crimea (an act that I in no way condone), we will hear a lot about territorial integrity and respect for national borders and that sort of thing. That is all well and good. Borders are—or should be—real and tangible things, essential for any peoples self-understanding as citizens of a particular nation state. Even a brief review of this region’s history, however, reveals Ukraine’s borders to be less sacrosanct than some. The nation has been downright geographically amorphous. Ukraine has, quite literally, been all over the map: sometimes part of Poland, sometimes part of Lithuania, sometimes the heart of Russia, and occasionally—briefly—on its own. The boundary and size of each configuration have shifted and slid between the Baltic and Black Seas. In short, Ukraine’s borders are no more etched in stone than those drawn in 1919 on a map of Europe by Woodrow Wilson—on his hands and knees in a Versailles drawing room.
The current configuration of Ukraine is a construct of the Soviet system, and not anything rooted in much of any historical precedent. Peoples were uprooted from where they had lived since time immemorial and transplanted elsewhere. In their remaking of the world, the Soviets shifted borders and people at will, with little regard or concern for what had been. This problem persists throughout the former U.S.S.R., whether Russians in the Baltic Republics, or in Georgia with its break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, each a construct nurse-maided by Soviet internal politics.
Take Lvov, for example. The second city of Ukraine--and something of a gem, by all accounts-- has a relatively brief history as anything “Ukrainian.” For centuries, this Polish and Jewish city known as Lemburg prospered within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the fall-out following the First World War, the city was lumped into Poland, and with good reason. But 1939 changed everything. First the Germans came through going east, and then they came through again, retreating, in 1944. The Soviets took Lvov for their own and added it to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. Now in control, the Soviets shifted Poland west, adding a hunk of Germany on one side, and taking another hunk away from Poland on the east. Lvov and the surrounding territory then became part of the Soviet Republic of Ukraine in 1945. The Jews, of course, had been eliminated, and the Polish residents were relocated to what had just become western Poland, whose German residents in turn had been dispatched further west into East Germany. Only then was Lvov repopulated with Ukrainians and Russians. The most anti-Russian (and alarmingly, the most Nazi sympathetic) elements of the victorious opposition spring from this region.
Then there is Kiev itself. The capital of Ukraine was also the capital of what was known as Kievan Rus for over 300 years. This memory of Rus is the very wellspring of Russian culture, spirituality and identity itself. I cannot conceive that Russians could ever be totally unconnected to Kiev—as well as much of what is now “Ukraine”, for that matter.
I remember when the Soviet Union broke-up in 1991. Looking at the new maps, I was surprised to see that Crimea was attached to Ukraine. This peninsula has been a lot of things to a lot of people down through the centuries, but it was never Ukrainian. Crimea and its Russian population was attached to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine only in 1954, for reasons solely pertaining to internal politics and policy.
Well, what to make of the ousted Yanukovych and his backer, Vladimir Putin? No one laments the parting of Viktor Yanukovych, a classless act if there ever was one. Nor should anyone regard it as particularly newsworthy that the ruler of Russia is (was, and probably always shall be) an autocrat. We should pause to remember that Yanukovych, as bad as he was, assumed that office by an election. He lost his position--however undeserving--as a result of a revolutionary coup. A commentator in recent months noted that the U.S. and Russia have changed positions in the world. We support revolutionaries and insurgents world-wide. The Russians, for better or for worse, are the voice of conservatism, supporters of the status quo. And if Vladimir Putin was as all-powerful as we sometimes portray him to be, then Yanukovch would not be in exile.
The Russians have always been concerned with maintaining definable, defensible borders. Not every country is blessed with having an ocean boundary on each side.
Few Americans have studied Russia closer, or understood Russians better, than George Kennan. In the years following the adoption of his Containment Policy, he grew increasingly frustrated with the widespread misinterpretation of what he wrote. The containment Kennan had in mind was against Soviet Russian militarism, not an ideological war against something called “global communism.” They were communists, to be sure, but he knew that they were Russians first. Despite Soviet rhetoric, their actions were first and foremost about securing Russia, not advancing world communism. That is not to say that this Russian concern does not border on the paranoid, for it often seems that way. Their concerns are rooted in geography and history, and remain largely the same as they have always been.
This is a rough neighborhood. Despite whatever new arrangements it might make with the EU and/or the US, Ukraine will have to come to some accommodation with Russia. The same holds for Georgia and the other former Soviet republics.
In discussing Russia, most American commentators and politicians do not have to reach back for their old Cold war rhetoric, for they never abandoned it to begin with. To cast this as simply a morality tale, with the forces of progress, freedom, democracy and Western-style economics arrayed against a backward, autocratic, revanchist and resurgent Soviet system is, well, to misunderstand events as they are unfolding. The situation is far more complex than all that.
I once respected George Will as a commentator. That was a long time ago. A recent column dressing-down Putin comes off as particularly shrill, silly and disjointed. He ridicules Vladimir Putin and reduces him almost to buffoonery, in his words “a small, strutting Mussolini.” I saw the same smug condescension when Putin saved President Obama from his Syrian disaster, and then again later on in the scorn heaped on his letter to the New York Times. I thought Putin right on both counts. I do not do so in this instance. But, while we may not approve of all of his actions, Vladimir Putin is nobody’s fool. Resorting to Cold War ad hominem attacks just highlights our own naiveté in the realm of foreign diplomacy.
So, what can we do?--beyond praying for peace, not much. So what should we do?— beyond praying for peace, even less. Like I say, it is a tough neighborhood.