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Ukraine special 3: Putin needs new buffer zones


Today three of our writers give their views on the Ukraine crisis.

IT IS far too easy to view the tensions over Ukraine as a mere matter of Putin sabre-rattling to see what he can get away with in the face of a weak West. To understand the danger of what is going on today we have to grasp what happened in the past.

Russian insecurity historically leads it to make a crucial distinction between the far abroad and the near abroad. The far abroad are countries Russia doesn’t believe are an immediate threat to its security, but the near abroad is. Russia is exposed geographically: to the west is one vast plain ideal for invasion, as both Napoleon and Hitler saw. Russia always feels vulnerable; the near abroad is a very dangerous place.

Russia also feels insecure about its own definition of nationhood, because Russia has often been a state when it really hasn’t been a nation. There’s been no clear national ideal holding Russia together.

The origins of the Rus’ people are not found in Moscow or even in Russia, but in what is now called Ukraine, in the ancient city of Kyiv. The imperial dynasty which eventually emerged in Russia demanded an imperial myth, and that myth included Kyiv. In the Russian mind both Ukraine as we now know it and Russia were a part of the Russian peoples. Russia has referred to itself as Greater Russia, and Ukraine as Lesser Russia.

Under the Romanov dynasty from 1614 to 1917 Russia operated on the assumption that it could not exist unless it turned itself into a vast territorial and imperial power. Genuinely fearful of outside invasion and constantly troubled by internal turmoil, Russia created borderlands as buffer zones to give Russia safety.

Ukraine, however, was filled with people who considered themselves Ukrainians, having their own language and culture. In the 19th century, the Russian empire sought the Russification of the borderlands by the eradication of national identities, language and culture. This applied not just to the Ukrainians, but other borderlands such as Belorussia. The near abroad had to be made like Russia, and was.

During the turmoil following WWI Ukraine briefly became a nation. A Ukrainian independence movement, a Ukrainian cultural movement, a resurgence of the Ukrainian language, all of this was considered a threat by the Soviet Union which supplanted the Romanov empire. Lenin, and later Stalin, sought to bring Ukraine into the USSR and under Moscow control. This was accomplished forcibly by the 1920s. But not just by force. In Ukraine, there were millions of Russian speaking people who considered themselves Russian, and there had been a local version of the Bolshevik revolution.

After its absorption into the USSR Ukraine knew terror. If Lenin murdered millions, Stalin murdered tens of millions. Ukraine, the breadbasket of the USSR, experienced the politically driven starvation of the Holomodor where through collectivisation and enforced confiscation of food untold millions died in order to enforce Sovietisation. Then followed the Nazi invasion. Soviet history makes much of the millions slaughtered by the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War. The majority of those casualties occurred in the borderlands such as Ukraine.

Following the collapse of the USSR, more than 90 per cent of Ukrainians voted for independence in 1999. Vladimir Putin was so horrified by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of Soviet communism that he has never reconciled to the geo-political reality that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In his State of the Nation Address in 2005, Putin said, ‘The collapse of this Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.’ He claimed, ‘Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory.’ He sees this as an unacceptable insult to the Russian people. Putin considers anyone who can speak Russian or self-identifies as Russian as Russian.

In Russia the general opinion is that the people of the Donbass are Russians who are being held captive by the Ukrainian government which is just a tool of the West. The separatists of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics are understood as patriotic Russians defending their heritage.

Having undergone the chaos of the immediate post Soviet years the Russian people have a romantic longing for Russia’s past greatness. What they see around them is a failing petrostate and Putin’s promise of greater Russian glory, a return of Russia at the centre of world power has great appeal.

Putin’s sabre-rattling in Ukraine supports his efforts to bolster his own regime making him even more popular with the Russians. Also there are many living in these borderlands who candidly are attracted to the idea of Russian glory at the expense of a weak West. Putin has been stunningly successful in blaming all opposition to an annexation of Ukraine to efforts by the United States and Western Europe to rob Russia of Russians, to rob Russia of Russian greatness, to rob the Russian people of Russian identity, and to rob Russians of their national destiny.

Throughout history Russia has very rarely been a constructive force amongst the community of nations. Russia is such a fragile state internally it has to become increasingly aggressive externally. Russia will not be satisfied with Ukraine. Imperial reach inevitably has to create new borderlands that press the territorial claims ever further out. Putin wants Belarus, Kazakhstan, and perhaps even Poland and Hungary, to doubt whether democracy will ever be viable in the longer term, in their countries too. He needs new borderlands.

We must understand that Vladimir Putin and the Russian people behind him are a far more powerful force, not only on the ground, but in ideology right now than what is exhibited by the West. Will the West be able to resist? When a Nato conference about Ukraine becomes a forum for the BBC to ask questions about parties I seriously doubt it.

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Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Campbell is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Stirlingshire. He blogs at A Grain of Sand.

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