Throughout the Cold War, the symbolic center of the standoff between the Soviets and the West was Germany, split in two — much as the whole of Europe was — by the infamous Iron Curtain. But now, in Ukraine, a new center has emerged in the rivalry between East and West, dividing the country in ways that could prove just as enduring as the decades long partition of Germany.
Last week marked the second anniversary of the Euromaidan uprising that drove former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich from power, shaking Ukraine to its foundations and driving Russia-West relations to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Much has changed in the two years since: A pro-West government formed in Kiev, Russia annexed Crimea, and a rebellion in eastern Ukraine developed into a full-fledged war. Meanwhile, the United States and the European Union have levied sanctions against Russia. Moscow has responded with countersanctions against the West. Economic activity between Ukraine and Russia has ground to a halt.
As the Ukrainian conflict enters its third year, a flurry of negotiations aimed at ending hostilities is taking place. At higher levels, officials are holding talks in Normandy to address the conflict’s political aspects, while on the tactical front, there are discussions in Minsk to sort out the details of a cease-fire. Alongside both, countless bilateral meetings are being held. Occasionally, these talks renew hope that a lasting agreement can be reached. In reality, though, Ukraine’s crisis is not a short-lived skirmish that a little additional negotiation can resolve. Rather, it is a deep-seated conflict, rooted in geopolitics, that stretches back centuries and will likely continue to exist in some form for many more years. Understanding Ukraine’s role in the Russia-West rivalry, with its similarities to Germany’s role during the Cold War, is crucial to envisioning how Europe’s future may evolve.
Ukraine: Divided between East and West
Ukraine has long been a polarized country. Strategically located on the open plains of Eastern Europe, the country can trace its divisions to the numerous powers and empires that sought to claim shares of its territory. Ukraine first belonged to Kievan Rus, a medieval Eastern Slavic state centered on Kiev that encompassed modern-day Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. But the kingdom began to decline, eventually falling to the Mongols in the 13th century, and the center of Eastern Slavic power shifted to Moscow. Kiev, and the territory that today makes up Ukraine, languished.
Still, Ukraine was not left to its own devices for long. To the east and west, respectively, Tsarist Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth each controlled parts of Ukrainian territory and jockeyed to gain more. Over time, the Russian Empire chipped away at the commonwealth’s hold over Ukraine, until the Polish Partitions eliminated that state altogether. The Russian Empire subsequently divided Ukraine with the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the west until both fell during World War I. After a brief period of independence, Ukraine was divvied up once again, this time between the Soviet Union and the newly independent Poland. Nazi Germany occupied Ukraine during World War II, after which Ukraine was reincorporated into the Soviet Union until the bloc collapsed in 1991.
Ukraine has thus been a site of competition between Russia and Western powers for most of its history, a truth that has not changed since Ukrainian independence in 1991. While Ukraine is no longer directly ruled by outside forces, it continues to be influenced by — and torn between — Russia, on one hand, and Europe and the United States on the other. The country’s political orientation roughly aligns with historical borders; Ukraine’s west and center lean toward Europe while its east and south pull toward Russia. Every major election in Ukraine has reflected these preferences. Pro-West parties have long competed with pro-Russia parties for control of the government, which has led to abrupt about-faces in Ukrainian foreign policy. For example, the 2004 Orange Revolution set Ukraine on a pro-West path, while Yanukovich’s 2010 electoral win brought it closer to Moscow.
Competing visions for Ukraine’s future
Just as the people of Ukraine held different ideas of which orientation and foreign policies Kiev should have, so, too, did Russia and the West. The Euromaidan uprising that led to the current standoff in Ukraine was not just a reflection of the country’s own polarization; it was also a product of competition between two conflicting geopolitical imperatives. Russia must maintain a buffer on its periphery, particularly Ukraine, to feel secure and project power, while the United States and Europe must prevent Russia’s rise as a regional power in Eurasia. Though it took several years for these colliding imperatives to manifest in the Euromaidan uprising, the groundwork was nevertheless being laid as soon as Ukraine became an independent state.
With Yanukovich’s presidential victory, Russia had achieved its goal. The defeat of the Orange government removed the threat of an EU- and NATO-allied country on Russia’s doorstep, giving Moscow a much-needed bulwark to the west. The Kremlin was able to improve its position even further by signing a set of strategic deals with Yanukovich; early in his term, the president not only outlawed Ukraine’s membership in NATO but also extended the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s lease of Crimea by 25 years in exchange for discounted natural gas.
However, these events violated the West’s imperative, because they enabled Russia to re-emerge as a regional power with the potential to establish hegemony in the former Soviet periphery and beyond. Not only had Ukraine become pro-Russia, but Moscow had also boosted Russia’s economic and military influence elsewhere in the region by launching the Customs Union and fortifying the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alternative military bloc to NATO. The European Union grew alarmed as it watched Russia become increasingly assertive on the Continent’s eastern flank.
And so it became imperative for the United States and certain EU countries to stop Russia’s resurgence. The most effective avenue for doing so was Ukraine. Despite his reputation as the Kremlin’s stooge, Yanukovich dealt with both Russia and the West as a means of extracting concessions from each. (He did this by simultaneously negotiating association and free trade agreements with the European Union and deals on financial aid and energy with Moscow.) The balancing act, as well as the deep political fissures between Ukraine’s pro-Europe and pro-Russia populations, gave the West the opening it needed to undermine Russia’s position in Ukraine.
The situation came to a head in November 2013, when Yanukovich suspended Kiev’s negotiations on the EU association and free trade deals in response to mounting pressure from Russia. His move immediately ignited pro-Europe demonstrations in Kiev, which led to his ouster three months later. The protests, which came to be known as the Euromaidan revolution, certainly had strong support at the grassroots level, but they were also greatly encouraged by the United States and European Union. When a pro-West government replaced Yanukovich’s administration in Kiev, the West attained its imperative in Ukraine.
At the same time, though, Russia lost its strategic buffer space, and it began to look for ways to regain it by undermining the new Ukrainian government. To this end, it annexed Crimea, which had long been the most pro-Russia portion of Ukraine. Moscow also threw its support behind a pro-Russia, anti-West rebellion in eastern Ukraine, using tactics similar to those used in the Euromaidan uprising — namely, sustained protests and the storming of government buildings in major cities. However, the rebellion had an additional component: Some protesters were armed, and some were undercover Russian military personnel.
Russia’s intention was to use the armed protests and building occupations to pressure the new government in Kiev into neutrality, thereby re-establishing its buffer space. But when Kiev chose to use military force to quash the demonstrations in April 2014, combat broke out in eastern Ukraine and pushed Kiev further toward the West and away from Moscow, bringing us to the current, tense standoff between the two.
As of now, Russia’s geopolitical imperative is being violated: The United States has effectively stunted Russia’s growth as a regional power and weakened its clout in Ukraine. Both the United States and Europe are propping up Ukraine’s pro-West government with economic deals, security assistance and political support. But as long as Ukraine remains oriented toward the West, Russia can be expected to do whatever it can — whether supporting rebels in the east, implementing economic restrictions or manipulating Ukraine’s political and social rifts — to undermine the government in Kiev.
The standoff endures
This is why it has been so difficult to negotiate an end to Ukraine’s conflict, even with the array of talks that have taken place among the vested parties. Not only has Ukraine become immensely more polarized since it gained independence, but Russia and the West have also exacerbated those fissures to try to gain a strategic advantage in pursuit of their own geopolitical imperatives.
Ukraine’s current conflict is not unique; it is merely the latest iteration of a dispute that has been playing out for centuries. This is not to say that talks will be fruitless, or that Russia, the West and Ukraine will fail to reach an understanding over certain aspects of the crisis. In fact, developments elsewhere in the world, such as the deterioration of Russia’s economy and Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, may give peace talks in Ukraine greater momentum down the road. However, any concrete progress should be couched within the broader motives of the players involved.
In the end, Russia will undoubtedly seek to weaken any Ukrainian government that is aligned with and supported by the West, just as the United States and the European Union will do to any that threatens to become a pro-Russia satellite. The manner and intensity of the competition will certainly change over time. But considering that the rivalry for Eurasia has existed between Russia and the West for as long as Ukraine has been a state, it is not a question of whether the contest will continue, but how.
© STRATFOR GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE