Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intention is to spark a civil war in Ukraine, even though he acts under the guise of Russia’s right to protect ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens. The Upper House of Russian Parliament gave Putin authority to move the armed forces of the Russian Federation into Ukraine “until the situation there is stabilized.” On the other hand, Duma (the Russian Parliament) is working on a new law that would allow incorporation of foreign regions and territories in to the Russian Federation. The current law required agreement on both sides — that is an agreement between a foreign country and Russia, before a new territory is incorporated. The idea of legitimizing the annexation of Crimea is solely based on the premise of alleged good will of Russian-speaking Crimeans. The majority of the Crimean population is ethnic Russians, although Tatars and Ukrainians also live in the peninsula.
Russian imperial plans, however, go much further. In short, they include destabilization of Southeastern Ukraine, military intervention in the wake of the staged high-scale civil unrest and ultimately the restoration of the government of deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, or another pro-Russian government. Official Russian rhetoric has advanced from calling Ukrainian protesters radicals and nationalists to branding them Nazis, while the new government is regarded as illegitimate and anti-Russian. Appeals to a Russian-Ukrainian age-old kinship have been replaced by military orders to reinstate a subjugated status of Ukraine.
Putin does not consider Russia bound by bilateral and international agreements with regard to Ukraine. He likes to justify Russia’s right to national security by comparing American and European military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. Putin learned well the lesson of Mikhail Gorbachev’s piety to the West, which resulted in the geostrategic debilitation of Russia. He also knows that the European Union and the United States are good with words but slow and indecisive with actions. In other words, his concept is simple: What is good for the might of Russia has to be done, and the victor gets all. International obligations are ambiguous and shall not be taken in earnest. Such a strategy has proven to work well for Putin’s Russia, at least so far.
Whether it will work on Ukrainian soil is a function of multiple variables. Among the latter are a willingness within the international community to step forward and halt the Russian aggression against Ukraine; the degree of social mobilization of Ukrainian people; the competence of the new Ukrainian government; and, last but not least, the capability of Ukrainian armed forces to withstand the foreign invasion. Geopolitical priorities of the new Ukrainian government still remain to be seen, whether it is statehood, willingness to forsake territorial losses or territorial integrity owing to political compromises.
There are some historical parallels between the new Ukrainian government and the government of the French Republic in the wake of the great French Revolution. Of course, I do not mean to refer to the French revolutionary terror, but rather, I draw parallels in relation to the geopolitical situations. Both governments enacted radical reforms that altered the balance of power. Then the powerful neighboring empires retaliated. In both instances, the military was either nonexistent (France) or not adequately prepared and lacking continuous buildup (Ukraine). It is also typical for a post-revolutionary government to be incoherent and to face critical decision-making under multi-vector pressure. For example, to the satisfaction of the radical parties, the parliament (Verkhovna Rada) denounced the former language law and enacted a new one.
There is nothing wrong with making the only official language Ukrainian; this is one of the necessary preconditions of creating a viable national state. However, the timing of this move was not favorable, given that the ethno-national consensus in Ukraine is particularly thin. The Russian-speaking Southeast of Ukraine associates the mandatory Ukraine-ization with the ideology of Ukrainian nationalists, with fears, since the Soviet time, of Western Ukraine (Galicia). The new Ukrainian government also faces fundamental challenges in nation-building versus state-building, territorial integrity versus statehood, and a transformation of ethnic nationalism into civil nationalism. All these paradigms constitute the cornerstones of Ukrainian independence.
Ukraine has been formally an independent state for 23 years, which came as a result of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. During this time, ethno-national and cultural differences remain a significant obstacle in its nation building. The influence of the Russian Federation has always been a dominating factor in Ukrainian politics. Another issue is a façade-like concept of everlasting, undivided Ukraine (Sobornost), for it is taboo to suggest its modification or reversal. An option of federalization has been always dismissed. Admittedly, West Ukraine (Galicia) is a Ukrainian Piedmont, even as now a Russian Piedmont — Crimea — has gained momentum. Federalization by the modern German model should not be disregarded outright, as long as it is Ukraine’s own choice and not imposed from outside forces.
For Ukrainians, war is the last resort. The people of Ukraine believe in the mission of international institutions, but they are also aware of the possibility of repeating an Ossetian scenario of 2008, when the Republic of Georgia endured five days against the Russian military might. Ukraine’s government is doing everything possible to avoid a military conflict. The world’s leaders are on Ukraine’s side in the common effort to prevent a war. Total military mobilization in Ukraine may be declared soon, and the nation struggling for its independence for 23 years may become finally free.
Vladimir Melamed is director of Archive, Library and Historical Curatorship at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.