Stuck in the Middle
The Russia-Ukraine conflict highlights the salience of imperial hangovers in current international politics.
“Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you…” (lyrics from ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ by Stealers Wheel)
It has been ongoing since the demise of the Soviet Union and subsequent re-birth of Ukrainian independence in 1992. It was arguably slumbering for the most part until the 2013 Maidan revolution and the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 (which Putin solidified personally earlier this year with the formal opening of the Kerch Strait Bridge, an act which Ukraine calls illegal). To understand why this week's developments in the conflict are so substantial, it is crucial to recognise the muddy history in which they are situated.
This week, for the first time since the Crimean conflict in 2014, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has assumed new dimensions of increasingly 'hot' warfare. Last Sunday, Russia opened fire on and seized three Ukrainian ships, injuring at least six and taking a total of 24 Ukrainian seamen prisoner. The superpower alleged that Ukraine had crossed Russian waters illegally, despite two Ukrainian vessels having passed through the same body of water prior to this incident in recent weeks with no problems and despite the 2003 treaty signed by both parties giving the Ukraine "unimpeded access to the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov"(BBC).
The ongoing crisis has assumed new dimensions just this morning as Ukrainian president Poroshenko imposes martial law in ten regions of the country until December 26 and has forbidden Russian men aged 16-60 to enter Ukraine (except for "humanitarian cases" such as funerals). These actions come as a result of Poroshenko's fear of a Russian invasion following the aggressor's violation of international law on Sunday. Whether his fears are valid remains to be seen, however, no retaliatory action from Russia has been announced thus far.
In order to grasp the significance of these developments, it is important to understand the Imperial legacy which Ukrainian politics embodies. As Taras Kuzio (2002) points out, similarly to other former Soviet satellite states, “Ukraine became an independent state on 1 January 1992 without a modern nation or united political community enclosed within its border”. The geographical region of Ukraine has for centuries been the site of Imperial power-politics, but here’s a VERY brief overview:
• Pre-WW1: Control of Ukraine divided between Russian Tsars in the East and the Habsburg Austrian Empire in the West
• 1918: Ukraine declares independence after WW1, but this does not last long
• 1921: Soviet Red Army gains control of two-thirds of Ukraine, handing the remaining third in the west to Poland
• Post-USSR: 1991 – Ukraine establishes independence once again; however, relations with both the West and Russia remain shaky: "Regardless of their political positions, all Ukrainian leaders since 1991 have attempted to find a place for a Ukrainian national community between European and Russian influence."
Broadly, the Ukraine is a very interesting case study through which to examine the question of whether the Cold War did really ever end, seeing as "Over the past two decades the Russia-Europe question came increasingly to be framed as either-or: Ukraine would need to choose between closer ties with Russia or with the European Union. With a Russia ascendant under Putin, maintaining strong ties with both sides was impossible".
The Russia-Europe question is exactly what highlights the imperialist legacies of identity in Ukrainian politics. The majority of the country identifies as Ukrainian, many of which have a global outlook and seek closer ties with the EU for economic reasons. However, a smaller yet still substantial, part of the Ukrainian public identifies as more Russian than Ukrainian, reminiscing about the glory days of Soviet Empire rather than looking ahead to a future of economic and political allegiance with Europe. The political salience of this identity division can be seen simply in this map depicting Ukraine’s 2010 general election results which saw the inauguration of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych (who was succeeded previously in 2004 by pro-European Viktor Yushchenko, who had supported mass protests against Yanukovych, arguing he had only won through rigged election; in 2010, however, popular support for the pro-Russian was solidified legitimately).
In terms of identity, what complicates the Russian-European question of today is the deep-seated Russian identity vis-à-vis the relatively new European identity, the latter hinging on economic and raison d’état factors, rather than historical and cultural ties, as is the case with the former.
“Both Russians and Ukrainians look back to the mighty medieval empire of Kyivan Rus′, which accepted Christianity in 988, as the cradle of their respective modern nations” which is just one of many reasons as to why both Russian and Ukrainian identities are respectively historically and culturally deeply intertwined, today primarily through prevalence of the Russian language in eastern Ukraine. European influence, on the other hand, has historically been imposed by imperialist actors, most prominently the Austrian Habsburg empire, who “could not hope to assimilate Ukrainians in a similar fashion to the Russians” (ibid.) so instead played minorities against one another in classic imperialist ‘divide-and-rule’ tactics. Crucially, the Western imperialist rulers knew they could not hope to assimilate Ukrainians in the same way that they were being by the Soviets, so instead they later assisted Ukrainian nationalist intellectuals, advocating for a distinct Ukrainian identity, in the nation-building process, resulting over generations in a definite Ukrainian identity across the western region of the country. This resulted in “two diverging conceptions of national identity” developing throughout the nineteenth century, and it is these identities which continue to influence Ukrainian politics to this day. Mykola Riabchuck, an academic at the Institute of Political and Nationalities Studies at the Academy of Sciences in Kiev, writes “Anybody who visits extreme eastern and western Ukraine ... inevitably feels the profound differences between the two regions, as if in reality they belonged to two different countries, two different worlds, two different civilisations” (abc).
However, what is most interesting to me on the question of European and Russian influences on Ukrainian identity is to what extent the Ukraine influences conceptions of European and Russian identities. It may be argued that both Russian and Ukrainian identities are still fluid concepts, and both depend heavily on each other. The importance of the Ukraine to Russian identity is Russia’s imperial past, which many still see as glorious and they “continue to identify with a greater imperial space that includes Ukraine” . Europeans, on the other hand, have no such ties to the country, which may explain some of the EU’s weak responses towards the Ukrainian crisis, at least on the popular level, and perhaps on the level of financial and logistical support, too. As Serhy Yekelchyk argues, “Satisfied with winning the Cold War, Western powers did not invest in building a market economy and democracy in post-Soviet nations. There was no Marshall Plan for Ukraine (or other former Soviet countries), and the European Union never offered a clear accession path.” (ibid.). The reason why this lack of European support for former Soviet states did not escalate to the level of crisis seen in Ukraine is geopolitical, seeing as while the country is far away from European powerhouses like Germany and France, it borders Russia.
As Australian National University fellow John Besemeres states, “With a population of 46 million and the largest landmass of any country in Europe, [Ukraine] is a geopolitical prize to be fought over”.
Instead of justifying European laxity, I argue that Ukraine’s position, even without the identity ties, ought to have incentivised European powers to aid the country post-independence even more than other Eastern European countries ‘closer to home’. The grave consequences of this historical lack of European support can be seen in the events unfolding as we speak.
Regardless of the EU’s past weakness, it needs to strengthen its support for Ukraine now. As much as I disagree with him overall Trump has already signalled support for the Ukraine contra-Putin this week by cancelling a scheduled G20 meeting with the Russian President. "The cancellation is a major blow to Putin, who has sought to show he’s not isolated from the international community despite Russian aggression against Ukraine”(Time).The cancellation will undoubtedly heighten US-Russia tensions, as the president of the state-funded Russian think-tank the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, which counsels the Kremlin on foreign policy, Alexander Dynkin has already made clear in his statement that “If there is no meeting, then probably we will have to stop any interaction with the current administration”. However, Trump may be averting a complete deterioration as after cancelling the meeting with Putin he tweeted “I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!” (Time).
Like Trump, the EU must step up now, and thankfully they appear to be doing so. As Simon Jenkinspoints out, the kind of crisis escalation we are currently witnessing in Ukraine is precisely the kind of cataclysm that has led Europe into its past disasters: “Ten thousand Ukrainians have already died in this secret war. It is classic escalation”. Ukrainian President Poroshenko has already appealed to the NATO to send ships to the Sea of Azov, yet this poses a host of problems. The same 2003 treaty mentioned earlier, which permits both Russian and Ukrainian access to the waters in dispute, states that “warships from third countries can only enter the Sea or make port visits there with the express permission of the other party”, and it doesn’t take a political science major to know that this permission is highly unlikely to be given to NATO by Putin. NATO could, however, send vessels to the Black Sea where NATO allies Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey are equally anxious about Russia’s “more assertive behaviour” . The US has been making moves throughout this year to pressure Russia, e.g. imposing “new sanctions on twenty-one individuals and nine companies linked to the conflict” in January, the State Department approving “the sale of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, the first sale of lethal weaponry since the conflict began” a few months later in March, and in July sending a further $200 millionto the Ukraine in defensive aid Hopefully the pressure will rise proportionally to Russian aggression to prevent the actualisation of Poroshenko’s fears of full-scale invasion.
Although it appeared as though nothing comparatively useful was coming from Brussels, seeing as it’s been almost a week since the incident and all the EU had managed to bring to the table by Thursday was “a statement expressing"utmost concern about the dangerous increase of tensions and dismay at the "unacceptable" use of force by Russia , today’s developments prove otherwise as the European Commission has “approved the disbursement of the first €500 million of the new Macro-Financial Assistance (MFA) programme to Ukraine” with Valdis Dombrovskis, the Commission Vice-President, statingthat “Today's European Commission decision on disbursement comes at a crucial moment when Ukraine and its people face a new aggression from Russia and need to see solidarity from international partners. Such aggressive behaviour is not acceptable in today's Europe.” These moves are promising when looking ahead to the coming weeks of conflict.
It remains to be seen what will happen in terms of potential military support from Ukraine’s Western allies. In light of Simon Jenkins’argument that “History may compare the handling of a defeated and depressed Russia in the 1990s to that of Germany after 1918” , it is of paramount importance that the EU and NATO handle this crisis well, but in light of the complication of Ukrainian identity politics, it is crucial to not antagonise Ukrainians who feel primarily Russian, either politically or ethnically, which may escalate instead of contain the crisis. Sending financial instead of military aid at current reflects EU awareness of this.
Regardless of what the EU and NATO decide to do over the coming weeks, one thing is certain: vigilance is key. Furthermore, I argue that this conflict needs to be understood and handled in light of the remaining imperialist hangover, especially with respect to differing identities. These identities have been entrenched for over a century. They are real. They are important. And both the West and Russia are responsible for their creation and hence are responsible now for their accommodation in the current global political economy. Through peaceful means, not through war. Historically they owe as much to the Ukrainian people now.