Perceptions of Ukraine: A Strategic Framework

US-Ukraine Security Dialogue III

Perceptions of Ukraine: A Strategic Framework

Walter Zaryckyj

Remarks by Walter Zaryckyj, Executive Director of CUSUR, delivered during U.S.-Ukraine Security Dialogue III, Chicago, May 19, 2012.

Over the last dozen years at various forums like ours today, I have had both the honor and the privilege of partaking in sessions like the one we are about to embark upon. Usually, a session entitled “Perceptions of Ukraine: A Strategic Framework” would seem rather self explanatory. It would not therefore require much of a moderator’s introduction; pointing out that Ukraine is a “crucial geopolitical pivot point” would appear quite adequate.

Yet in preparing for the chairmanship of such a session at this particular forum and at this specific juncture in time, I have been overtaken by a distinct feeling that such a glib introduction to the subject of Ukraine’s “place in the global scheme of things” would not be enough—indeed, would not do the subject justice.

Initially reflecting on the feeling, I thought it likely that currents events were intervening and provoking me into my growing uneasiness -ie- the continuing trials of Julia Tymoshenko, the various boycott calls vis-a-vis Euro 2012, German PM Merkel’s categorization of Ukraine as a “dictatorship a la Belarus”. However, as I have taken the matter into deeper and closer consideration, I have come to see that something else might be in play. Yes—Ukraine remains a ‘pivot point on the world playing field’. But, equally and for the first time “since time immemorial” (wonderful English phrase), the meaning of its geopolitical significance could be undergoing a seismic change—a “paradigm changing shift”. And that would certainly be something of which to take note!

Ok—If, indeed, a paradigm shift has began (and there is no certainty that it has), it would seem important to briefly consider what Ukraine’s previous “geopolitical significance” was and, prior to that, to briefly touch upon why Ukraine is a “global pivot point” in the first place.

The argument for Ukraine being a “pivot point” can be summarized quickly with a audio reference and a visual reference. For the first, I would refer everyone to a key phrase used in the oath of the Ukrainian underground: “Na grani dvokh svitiv”; loosely translated, the phrase means: “At the edge of two worlds”. For the second, I would recommend the map displayed on a world famous board game invented in the 1950s and marketed by the Parker Brothers Co. named RISK: A Quest for World Domination. On the map, it is hard not to locate Ukraine; it looms large (in fact, overlarge) and is at the center of attention—exactly between two worlds (or what looks like the “center of the world”).

The names of the stated two worlds have changed but the realities have not— as the Roman historian Tacitus might be wont to put it. Somewhere along the line, everyone present has heard the following characterizations: Achaia and Troja, Occident and Orient, Latindom and Non-Latindom, Christendom and Non-Christendom, West and East, Europe and Asia, Europe and Afro-Asia, Europe and Eurasia, European Union and Eurasian Union, Euro-Atlantic Community and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

If Ukraine has always been the land on the border of civilizational divergences (how else would one describe the characterizations just listed) and hence a much touted ‘pivot point’ , its geopolitical significance —the second and larger issue raised—does not simply come from that fact. Rather, it comes from two further premises that our trusted RISK game assumes. One, Ukraine is designated on the global ‘carta’ as a ‘blue territory’; in other words, it is portrayed as belonging to one side of the various named meta-cultural divides, namely, to Europe. Two, the entity is perennially the most endangered part of Europe—constantly under threat of penetration/subjugation from the North East (Urals—read Eurasia), Central East (Afghanistan—read Central or East Asia) and South East (Middle East—read Afro-Asia). I, for all it is worth, believe that both premises the Risk board assumes are correct.

Why do I consider the first premise—Ukraine being a part of Europe—accurate? My simple answer is: Because Ukrainians (often against all odds) willed it. Each time a choice has been given, Ukrainians have chosen to stay on one side of the divide—invariably the Western side:

  1. When the ancient Kyivan Derzhava was invaded by the Golden Horde, its eastern inhabitants, unlike the inhabitants of Moscovy, fought until the capital was laid to waste and then fled to the wilderness—the Steppes—rather than submit to ‘ne-volia’. The western inhabitants (Halychyna-Volyn) took to looking to the Roman Church’s indulgences for help (that eventually is how, on a personal note, my family ended up “Greek Catholic”).
  2. When the Ottomans threatened Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Kozaky (Turkish for freemen)—those Steppes dwellers who would not submit to the Horde—were at the forefront of the defense of the Continent; the Gate of Europe —Vienna—were never breached as a result.
  3. Starting in 1659, 1709 and 1775 and moving into a three time cycle in the 20th c. —1917-1921, 1941-1950, 1988-1991, the Ukrainians, when faced with the predecessors of Putin’s envisioned “Eurasian Union” -ie- the Czarist Russian Empire and the USSR, provided every indication they wanted no part of the deal; in trying to keep the unsought suitors away, they sought friends in the West each time: from Sweden’s King Charles XII to Poland’s Marshall Pilsudski.
  4. Finally, looking at contemporary times—that is, post independence, and especially in the “Orange” phase (2005-2010) when Ukraine actually seemed to embraced mature nation statehood -ie- democracy, Ukrainians gave every indication that they wanted to “head West” (desired membership in the WTO, NATO and EU as well as strong bilateral relations with CA and the US). Indeed, even in the earlier, less democratic atmosphere of the Krawchuk and Kuchma presidencies, the mantra was that Ukraine should be more like Poland and less like Belarus (or Russia).

If Ukraine has always willed to be part of Europe—and that is what made it Europe, what were the dangers that it might not hold on to that identity? One set of dangers—the external—are clearly seen on that RISK board that we have been using for reference: Eurasia, Central/East Asia, Afro-Asia. But the second great problem has been with Europe itself (not visible on the RISK board but nontheless ever present). Europe’s ages long reticence to see or acknowledge Ukraine as part of its own world is legend. It might occasionally mouth pieties about Ukraine’s place in Europa but actions speak louder than words. Vide the following:

  1. Europe was essentially silent as Kyivian State/East was brought down and the only thing that saved Kyivian State/West was incorporation into Lithuania and Poland for a couple of centuries.
  2. Europe was basically silent when the Ukrainian steppes were the soil upon which a unequal contest between the Ottomans and the Kozaky was fought. It reached out to the Ukrainian Hetmanate only when the “traditional parts of Europe” proved to be “in harm’s way” as well.
  3. Against Eurasian encroachment on Ukrainian lands, Europe’s record was even worse—particularly in the 20th c. Look at Ukraine and Versailles post WW I. Look at Ukraine and Yalta post WW II. Indeed, despite a Euro-Alantic respite under Ronald Reagan with his ‘Captive Nations must be free’ impulses, Ukrainians were warned about ‘suicidal nationalism’ as late as two months before their most recent declaration of independence in 1991.
  4. Finally, look at Europe—or the broader Euro-Atlantic world—in the Yushchenko/Tymoshenko years (2005-2010) and note the lack of will power to provide some concrete action on Ukraine’s place in Europe—whether EU membership or, more important, NATO membership.

OK—if Ukraine’s position has been to be a section of Europe perennially in danger, the significance has been that it is has remained, for better or worse, part of Europe (to everyone’s ultimate satisfaction). And here is where I sense a serious ‘paradigm shift’ emerging—starting in 2010. The first words of the Yanukovych presidency seem to reaffirm a ‘European direction’, but every action since then has given indication of a very different sentiment and direction. There was the categorical NO to NATO membership—followed in quick succession by the mind numbing Kharkiv Black Sea Fleet agreement. Then there was the rejection of Ukraine’s history as a ages long struggle for independence; instead, pressure rose to accept a ‘common’ Russian-Ukraine historiography. Finally, there came a series of unconscionable arrests of political opponents by the ‘vlada’. With that, the Euro process began to unravel; a five year operation to put together and initial a major EU-UA free trade agreement immediately ground to a halt. As both of America’s legendary geo-strategists, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger, put it: If Europe means anything in the 21st century, it certainly means ‘democracy’. And Ukraine was looking anything but ‘democratic’. All that anyone seriously involved with Ukraine could say in the face of the mentioned moves is the famous line out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: ‘Who are these guys?’

By doing everything in its power to not act European, the present Ukrainian leadership is well on its way to reading itself out of Europe. It may be doing so unconsiously; there is solid ground to suspect otherwise. In either case, the phenomenon deserves careful noting. If ‘Ukrainians’ are finally giving up on their ages old desire to be part of the West and the Europeans remain as “reticent” as they have in the past about Ukraine’s “European background”, then a moment of truth has arrived; on that proverbial RISK board, Ukraine may at last be changing its very color. In reorienting so dramatically, Ukraine may soon find itself provoking a discussion that Mark Gage wanted to have at the very first of the UA Quest RT in DC in 2000; I think that our friend Ian (Brzezinski), who is with us today, was a panelist in that specific session. Mark painted the following picture for the audience: “Until now, the honorable speakers have contemplated the benefits of NAFTA-EU-Ukraine as a triangle. We might want to consider its opposite to really understand what is at stake. Let us for a moment imagine a Ukraine-Russia-China triangle. Ukraine rockets to Russia. Ukrainian wheat to China. Ukrainian assistance to various ‘rogue states and entities; who then could blame China and Russia for some unimaginable ‘tragedy’ that could immeasurably weaken the West?”

Having brought up the Gage ‘scenario’, I do not intend to preempt the original presentations of our distinguished session participants or their particular take on Ukraine’s present strategic import. But I do intend to take up the issue of a ‘possible paradigm shift’ and the ultimate significance that such a shift might have. I intend to use my moderator’s prerogative to ask our presenters to look at two matters. First, I hope to elicit an opinion on the ‘actuality/reality’ of the shift. In effect, has the Yanukovych Administration, or ‘regime’ if you will, opted out of the ‘European project’? Second, if Ukraine does head out of Europe, what will these perennially reticent Europeans do, given a possible ‘Ukraine-Russia-China’ Axis? Is that something they can readily accept? And if not, what are they prepared to do about it?

OK… on to the session itself; I hope I haven’t upset anyone’s day!!