(image from Wikipedia)
By Mike Cronin
During the days of the USSR, Ukraine was one of the many Soviet Socialists Republics. Ukraine is an energy producer, breadbasket (third largest food exporter in the world), and industrial power, similar to the US Midwest. Ukraine has Europe’s 2nd largest military (and for a little over five years, it was a significant nuclear power: Ukraine inherited nearly 2000 nuclear weapons during the dissolution of the USSR; it returned all of them to Russia for dismantling by 1996), and it hosts the Russian Navy’s Black Sea/Mediterranean fleet at Sevastopol.
Russian rulers have always felt the need for buffers between Russia and its potential adversaries. During the Soviet days, that buffer was made up of the various Soviet “republics,” such as Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine. When the Soviet Union fell, such republics became independent countries. Since Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia has been steadily trying to reassert itself in those countries that were once part of the USSR – including Ukraine.
Current events in Kiev matter because Ukraine is the northern edge (Turkey is the southern edge) of the intersection between the Russian, European and, to some extent, Muslim spheres of influence. In fact, the name Ukraine literally translates to “on the edge.” None of these factions wants to see a prize like the Ukraine fall into another’s orbit. Ukrainians themselves understand this, and want to be independent while playing all sides off each other – a risky, but profitable, strategy. This is not new. Ukraine has been invaded many times over the course of Eurasian history; and it sits at the historical intersection of the Christian, Islamic and Eastern Orthodox spheres of influence. In the early 20th Century, World War I ended the Ottoman Empire, to which the southern portions of Ukraine belonged. Soon after, the Soviet Union was formed – with Ukraine as a founding member.
Expect periodic drama and conflict regarding Ukraine to continue for decades, if not centuries – it’s the normal pattern of life for valuable territory on the geopolitical fault lines between civilizations.