Ukraine’s umbilical cord to Russia

By Jonathan Power
February 25, 2014

Thank heavens for the Sochi Olympics. Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was committed to ensuring they showed Russia in its best light – and they did. Who would have wanted to take the world’s eyes off that to back a president in Ukraine who, to Putin’s annoyance, had made too many bad moves?

This must be a principle explanation for Putin’s public silence on the events in Ukraine.

Added to that, the fact is that Ukraine is not the Georgia of 2008 when Russia invaded, fearful that Georgia was planning to join Nato which, if it happened, would have been a major contribution to the military encirclement of Russia. Ukrainian public opinion, by and large, does not want their country to join Nato.

Ukrainians, both Ukrainian and Russian speaking, have an umbilical cord that ties them to Russia. There is the powerful influence of the Orthodox Church which is the inheritor of the Church of Constantinople which in turn is the true descendent of the original Rome-based Church. The headquarters of the Church was moved to Constantinople by the Roman emperor, Constantine, the first emperor to embrace Christianity. This is the reason Moscow is often referred to as the “Third Rome”. The path to Moscow led through Kiev and this is why the Orthodox in both these religious nations are likely to be intertwined as far as anyone can see ahead.

Besides that, right through the communist era, Moscow was the Mecca for every scientist wanting to do advanced research, for every aspiring ballet dancer, opera singer, writer, academic, surgeon, engineer and a host of politicians, including Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev. The Ukrainian Crimea has long been the main base for Russia’s navy.

Few Ukrainians want to cut this umbilical cord. In fact most Ukrainians, if they are honest, want their cake and eat it. They want to be close to the European Union and they want to continue the old time intellectual relationship with Russia. Only a minority on both sides reject this.

There is no major politician left standing in the Ukraine today who wants it otherwise. The deposed president, Viktor Yanukovich, went out on a limb by not signing the trade agreement with the EU. His first instincts had been to sign and put Ukraine on the path (but maybe a long 20 year one) to enter the EU. But the EU and the IMF would not give his country the funds necessary to bail out Ukraine’s debt ridden economy that is going from bad to worse. Russia was prepared to step in and help.

Of course, Putin had his price – for Ukraine to become part of his new Eurasian Union. Yet a more clever president than Yanukovich could have engineered a situation where Ukraine could face both ways. The EU and the US too must be faulted for not pushing that option. They always gave Kiev a sense that it was either or. But then the politicos of Europe and the US are largely ignorant of Ukraine’s history and culture. This failing to read up on history has long been true of American foreign policy makers. (Read America’s ex-Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara’s confession on the Vietnam war.)

Indeed, there is a not so hidden agenda among some powerful circles in the US (thankfully not including President Barack Obama) that would like to see Ukraine in Nato, pushing the alliance right up to a long stretch of Russian’s border. A future Republican president would likely go for this if he could, although it must be remembered that it was the Democrats’ president, Bill Clinton, who broke President Ronald Reagan’s promise to Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, that the US would never do this. The Russians are still extremely sore about it which is partly why over 80% of Russians, according to a poll, have been against the Ukrainian demonstrators.

The best Western statement on Ukraine has been made by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor and, for my money, the wisest old man active in US foreign policy. Writing in Monday’s Financial Times, he argues for the “Findlandization” of Ukraine, in other words a relationship that Finland has long cultivated with Russia – “mutually respective neighbours, wide-ranging economic relations with both Russia and the EU, but no participation in any military alliance….while also expanding European connectivity.”

“Sooner or later”, he concludes, “Ukraine will be truly a part of democratic Europe. Later rather than sooner Russia will follow unless it self-isolates itself and becomes a semi-stagnant imperialistic relic.”

I know from my own conversations with Brzezinski that he wants to see Russia becoming part of the “European house”, to use Gorbachev’s and Putin’s words. The EU should make it clear to Russia that it wants that too. But that means, among other conditions, that Russia should work for peace in the Ukraine right now.

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2014.

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