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Imperial Russia redux and the crisis of Ukraine

by Garth Stevenson

When the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991 and the “republics” that had been ruled by that regime for most of the 20th century became sovereign states, the response in much of the Western world was a mixture of incredulity, relief and euphoria. Although the growing weakness of the regime had been known to Western intelligence agencies for several years, it had not been known to the general public. Suddenly the regime was gone, and the “Cold War” between it and the Western democracies, a conflict that had dominated the agenda of international relations for four and a half decades, seemed to have vanished also.

Even if Francis Fukuyama’s announcement of “the end of history” was an exaggeration, there was a general perception that everyone could relax, forget about international relations for a while and concentrate on problems closer to home. After a presidential election campaign that, for the first time since 1936, largely ignored international issues, Americans responded to the good news in 1992 by choosing as their president a pleasant young man who had been governor of one of the most insignificant states in the Union but had no experience in Washington. George H.W. Bush, who had presided over the Western victory and deserved at least some of the credit for it, was dismissed by the voters of his country much as Winston Churchill had been in 1945.

But unfortunately, the end of Communism did not mean the end of Russian expansionism, which long predates the revolution of 1917. Alexis de Tocqueville did not foresee the revolution, but he predicted in 1835 that Russia and America would eventually dominate the world. De Tocqueville also observed that while American conquests are “gained by the plowshare,” those of Russia are gained “by the sword.”1 Given the successful American attacks on Mexico and Spain subsequent to this comment, he was not entirely right, but neither was he entirely wrong.

The Russians had occupied all of Siberia before the end of the 17th century, and added what are now Belarus, most of Ukraine, the Baltic states, part of Poland and Alaska to their empire in the 18th. The Caucasian lands between the Black and Caspian seas had been absorbed into the Russian Empire by 1830. The Monroe Doctrine in the United States (1823) was largely inspired by Russian activities on the west coast of North America. The British and the Russians engaged in a cold war for most of the 19th century, which led to actual fighting in the Crimean War of 1854–56 but did not prevent Russia from taking most of Central Asia. The sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867, perhaps the only occasion on which Russia voluntarily withdrew from one of its possessions, was an anti-British and anti-Canadian move, intended to ensure that British Columbia would be hemmed in by American territory on both sides. Czar Nicholas II, now widely regarded in the Western world as an innocent victim of the Communists, told one of his ministers in 1903 that he had designs on Manchuria, Korea, Tibet, Iran and Turkey.2 Nicholas II has been described as “wise and great” by none other than Vladimir Putin.3

A recent work by a young British historian provides strong evidence that the outbreak of war in 1914 was as much Russia’s fault as it was Germany’s, if not more so.4 Russia’s immediate aim in that war was to gain control of Constantinople (Istanbul) and the straits connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. Extreme Russian nationalists also dreamed of acquiring all of Europe east of a line from Stettin to Trieste. Having decided, for better or for worse, that Germany was a more immediate menace than Russia, the British promised Constantinople and the straits to their new Russian ally in a secret agreement during the war. The overthrow of the czar and the victory of the Bolsheviks made it unnecessary to carry out that promise. The Bolsheviks gleefully revealed this and many other secret treaties to the world after they took power.

So the end of the Soviet regime in 1991 did not mean the end of Russian nationalism and expansionism – in fact quite the reverse. It is true that under Boris Yeltsin, its president from 1991 through 1999, Russia enjoyed a decade as a peaceful and democratic member of the community of nations, much like Germany’s Weimar Republic in the 1920s. But like the Weimar Republic, the Russian democracy, partly because of economic problems, was undermined and eventually destroyed by the rise of extreme right-wing nationalism and revanchism, under a leader who made no secret of his geopolitical ambitions.

Vladimir Putin, who either as president or as prime minister has dominated Russia since 2000, stated in 2005 that the collapse of the USSR should be acknowledged as “a major geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.”5 It is important to interpret this somewhat ambiguous remark. Putin’s regime is socially conservative, allied with the Russian Orthodox Church and heavily influenced by a coterie of millionaire tycoons who have profited greatly from its existence. What Putin laments is not the collapse of Marxist ideology or the centrally planned economy, neither of which he has made any effort to restore, but the loss of the extended physical boundaries that the Russian empire (a.k.a. the USSR) enjoyed between 1945 and 1990.

Although Putin’s Russia is smaller and weaker than the old USSR, and lacks the “soft power” that the USSR enjoyed in the days when Communism was still taken seriously, it is in some respects more dangerous. The post-1945 USSR was a satisfied power with all the territory that it wanted. Its faith in the eventual triumph of its ideology made it patient and cautious, most of the time. (Nikita Khrushchev’s placement of missiles in Cuba in 1962 was a conspicuous exception, and probably contributed to his removal from office two years later.) Putin’s Russia is a defeated power that resents its diminished status in the world and is motivated solely by nationalism and the desire for revenge. Putin wants to win back the lost territories in his own lifetime. The analogy with Hitler’s Germany, although unfair in some respects, cannot be entirely dismissed.

Putin’s first target was Georgia, from which two ethnic minorities, the Abkhazis and the South Ossetians, had managed to secede, de facto, shortly after Georgia won its own independence in 1991. Neither secessionist regime gained international recognition, although the Abkhazis revealed an unexpected sense of humour in 1995 when they issued postage stamps in honour of (Groucho) Marx and (John) Lennon, thus earning a certain amount of hard currency from Western philatelists. In 2008 Putin attacked Georgia, occupied both of the secessionist enclaves and recognized them as sovereign states. Most of the world regards them as Russian dependencies.

Ukraine, the most populous of the post-Soviet states next to Russia itself and the main victim of Stalin’s ill-advised collectivization of agriculture, was the next target. Many Russians claim that Ukrainians are only a branch of the Russian people, since their language is similar to Russian, but few Ukrainians would agree. The far western part of the country, to which most Ukrainian Canadians trace their roots, was never under Russian rule before 1945. Ukraine does, however, have a large Russian-speaking minority, mainly in the industrialized eastern part of the country, some of which was part of the Russian Empire as early as the 16th century. Ukraine’s situation is also complicated by its fairly recent acquisition of Crimea, a strategically important peninsula that was impulsively given to it by Khrushchev in 1954. In pre-Stalinist times the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim people, were the largest ethnic group in the peninsula, but Stalin deported them to Central Asia, making ethnic Russians a majority, although many Tatars returned after Stalin’s death.

As long as Ukraine was part of the USSR, Khrushchev’s unexpected gift had little practical significance. Once Ukraine became independent in 1991, some Russians may have regretted Khrushchev’s action. However, in 1994 Russia, along with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, signed the Budapest Memorandum, pledging not to threaten or use force against Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. In return Ukraine surrendered the stockpile of nuclear weapons that had been based on its territory by the USSR.

Ukraine continued to suffer from tension between the minority of Russian speakers in the east, some of whom had never fully accepted the country’s independence, and the Ukrainian-speaking majority in the rest of the country, who would like to join the European Union and possibly NATO. Following the presidential election in 2004 the so-called Orange Revolution prevented the pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, from taking the office which he had allegedly won on a second ballot between the two leading candidates. The runoff election was widely deemed to have been corrupt and fraudulent. Yanukovych did win the next presidential election, in 2010, but resigned and fled to Russia in February 2014 after mass demonstrations in Kiev against his pro-Russian and anti-Western policies. Three months earlier, he had refused to sign an agreement with the European Union, which he had earlier favoured, after the Kremlin publicly warned him not to sign it.

Putin attributed the demonstrations to “fascists” (a remarkable case of the pot calling the kettle black) and promptly responded by occupying and formally annexing Crimea, an operation for which plans had obviously been prepared in advance. Later in the year fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists, armed by the Russians and assisted by Russian regular forces, and the Ukrainian army. The Russians at first denied that their regular forces were involved but later admitted it. Much of eastern Ukraine was occupied by the Russians and their local allies. Casualties on both sides numbered in the thousands. Presumably by accident, the separatists also shot down a civilian airliner in flight from the Netherlands to Malaysia, killing everyone on board. Two separatist enclaves, styling themselves the people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk respectively, effectively seceded from Ukraine with Russian help and remain in existence under the protection of the Russian army.

In September 2014 a ceasefire agreement was signed in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, by representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the two enclaves. Although it reduced the intensity of the fighting for a time, the ceasefire broke down completely in January 2015, when the separatists launched a new offensive and succeeded in occupying the Donetsk international airport. This led to a diplomatic intervention by President François Hollande of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. After 16 hours of negotiations a second agreement, very similar to the first, was signed at Minsk in February by the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia. “Minsk II,” like its predecessor, reduced the intensity of the armed conflict without really ending it. Its terms have been the target of criticism by both the separatists and some Ukrainian nationalists, which is not surprising since they are deliberately ambiguous. The two “people’s republics” have both announced plans to hold local elections, with or without Ukraine’s permission, and have stated their desire to join the Russian Federation.

Reaction in the Western world to these ominous events has been lukewarm, except in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which are understandably fearful that they may be next on Putin’s list of potential victims. France and Germany have tried to bring a negotiated end to the conflict, as noted above, although with little success. Other European countries have imposed “sanctions” on Russia with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but almost a century of experience with such measures suggests that they rarely have much effect. It is worth noting also that the status of Crimea has not even been discussed in the Minsk negotiations. The Russian annexation of the peninsula seems to be regarded in Europe, and in North America also, as a fait accompli.

The Americans have recently begun helping to train and arm the rather ineffective Ukrainian army. They have also sent token forces to Poland and the Baltic countries, which are members of NATO, as has Canada. However, the Ukrainian crisis seems to be having little or no impact on the American public, and is conspicuously absent from the discourse of the various would-be successors to President Obama. This indifference to a major European crisis is in sharp contrast to the almost hysterical American obsession with Iran, a weak state that has not started any wars or annexed any territory for nearly 1,500 years.

In Canada the Ukrainian situation also seemed to be a non-issue in the federal election campaign, surprisingly so in view of the substantial number of Canadians whose ancestors came from western Ukraine. Some left-wing Canadians have taken an openly pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian position, even though Putin’s domestic policies are the antithesis of what they would want to see in this country. A notable example is the President of the Ontario Federation of Labour, Sid Ryan. Mr. Ryan is on record, and rightly so, as an opponent of the British military presence in partitioned Ireland, and one might have hoped that he would appreciate the obvious analogy with Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Like the Russians in Ukraine, the British in Ireland claim to be there to protect a minority, and they share the same habit of slandering their nationalist opponents in the former colony as “fascists.”

No one wants a major war against a Russia armed with nuclear weapons. However, the alteration by force of the boundary between two European states is a serious issue, and one without precedent since 1945. Furthermore, there is no moral or legal reason why Ukraine should be prevented from joining the European Union or even NATO, if that is what its people want. The argument that Russia has some inherent right to retain the former borderlands of the Russian/Soviet empire as a sphere of influence is nonsense. All such claims, if they ever existed, became null and void when the USSR collapsed and the new Russia recognized the independence of its neighbours. History suggests that the appeasement of tyrants and bullies rarely buys peace for very long, if at all. It may be hoped that the Western world has not entirely forgotten that lesson.

Notes

1 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Bantam Books, 2000), pp. 503–04.

2 Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1999), p. 281.

3 Quoted in Christian Neef, “Stolen Triumph: Russia Revisits Pivotal Role in World War I,” Spiegel Online, January 13, 2014, retrieved from http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/russia-revisits-its-role-in-world-war-i-a-942500.html

4 Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

5 President Vladimir Putin, Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, April 25, 2005, retrieved from http://archive.kremlin.ru/eng/speeches/2005/04/25/2031_type70029type82912_87086.shtml

 

Garth Stevenson is an Inroads political columnist and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario.



About the Author

Garth Stevenson
Garth Stevenson is Professor of Political Science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to Inroads.




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