The recent crisis in Ukraine presents us with a unique opportunity to examine the political history and motivations of the Russian Federation and make a conjecture about the future political climate of Eastern Europe. But, in order to fully understand why this situation is so critical for Russia, we must first examine the nation’s history (as well as the history of Ukraine), starting in antiquity. Let’s start by addressing the concept of “ethnic Russians” living in Crimea. Russia has always been home to a vast number of diverse ethnic groups. Slavs, Indo-Europeans, Scythians, Muslims, Aryans, Scandinavians, Caucasians, Mongolians, nomadic tribes, and many others have called (and still call) Russia their home. As such, it should come as no surprise that the landmasses we now know as Russia and Crimea have been a hotbed of violent political activity for over two thousand years, as even the most precursory glance of Russian history would reveal that peoples continue to clash over identity and independence. It’s not hard to see why so many media outlets have been exacerbating the fact that many parts of Ukraine are “ethnically Russian.”
Russia’s first formal government was started by Viking settlers in the late 800s AD under the leadership of Rurik, a chieftain who ruled from his seat in Novgorod. However, the creation of a distinctly “Russian” culture did not form until the early 11th century, centered around their “capital” in Kiev, the present-day capital of Ukraine. It was during this period that Kievan Rus saw the adoption of the Cyrillic Alphabet and Orthodox Christianity, which would forever be associated with Russian culture.
Because of the Mongol invasions and other conflicts throughout Eastern Europe, ethnicities became blended and borders changed, resulting in a mix of Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians, and nomadic tribes in what would now be Crimea/Western Russia. Eventually, the seat of power that was once nestled loosely in Kiev shifted to Moscow during these struggles. Ivan III would eventually come to be known as the first true leader of what we now know as “Russia” and his son, Ivan the Terrible, would be the first Tsar, a title derived from the Roman “Caesar.” Interestingly enough, the word “slave” comes from the word “Slav,” as the Romans’ first slaves were Slavic peoples. These Slavs first originated from the Pripyat region of modern day Ukraine, so, from a weird sort of dystopian perspective, Russia’s historical dominance over Ukraine politically, socially, and militarily could be metaphorically likened to Caesar ruling over his slaves. While the titles are almost assuredly coincidental, and I’d never imply that Latin/English grammar has somehow been incepted into the Russian political subconscious, the allegory is just something to think about whilst I discuss the military history of these two peoples moving forward.
Now, you may be asking: why can’t Ukraine stand up for itself? Traditionally, Ukraine has depended on Russia for economic and military support, and Russia has been only too happy to provide it. For most of its history, Ukraine has been a nation ravaged by war. Nomadic warriors laid waste to the country and shortly after, in the late 17th century, Poland, Turkey, Russia, and Cossack nomads invaded the land and waged war with each other, seeking to grow their empires. Ukrainian leadership turned to Russia for help, bending the knee in loyalty to the Tsar. Before the conflict had ended, hundreds of thousands lay dead as much of Ukraine’s territory was divided between the warring powers; the territory that remained sovereign was virtually obliterated. Ukraine largely remained divided and dominated by the surrounding powers until after World War I, where several communist and socialist states emerged in Ukraine. Eventually, Ukraine became a founding member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a major gain for Russia’s political and military influence. Militarily speaking, Ukraine has always been a buffer against forces hostile to Russia, shielding ethnic Russians from attack and buying the nation time to prepare defenses. While it is true that an invasion of Russia in the winter is basically a suicide mission, it is Ukraine that provides the buffer which prevents invading armies from reaching Moscow before the dawn of winter. Both Napoleon and Hitler’s armies were severely impeded by Ukrainian interference, and Russia counted on that same buffer during the Cold War.
Throughout almost the entirety of Russia’s history, the nation has been consistently ruled by an authoritarian regime. Even now, in a time of Russian “democracy,” ex-KGB officer turned President Vladimir Putin has a disproportionate amount of power, having gone back and forth between the position of President and Prime Minister for 16 years. This authoritarian mentality has been closely tied to Russia’s military and sphere of political influence. Since the fall of communism in Russia and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, Russia remains a powerful, yet severely weakened state. Russia has always depended on the size of its military for defense rather than its training. With Russia’s population on the decline, its military size declines with it. Combined with the loss of its allies and buffer states upon the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Russia is scrambling to reassert its political power and dominance on a global scale. This is why Russia made such a big show to defend the dictator and alleged mass murderer al-Assad. Syria is Russia’s last remaining ally in the Middle East, a state critical for keeping Russian influence alive in a region where the US is making major inroads. Russia is dealing with a very fragile political situation all over the world. Ukraine is a very important piece of the political puzzle for Russia, and one that it cannot afford to lose.
If you think that the US economy took a hit in the 90s, the Ukrainian economy may as well have been stabbed. And Russia has been slowly twisting the knife for well over a decade. Russia offered Ukraine $15 billion in bailout money, which included subsidies for oil. Russian oil. And only Russian oil. Russia turns off the oil supply to Ukraine whenever there is a conflict regarding the issue, keeping the Ukrainian government docile and dependent on Russia. The people of Ukraine wanted to work with the European Union to reduce dependence on Russian oil, but due to the bailout and threat of having all access to oil cut off permanently, the Ukrainian government was forced to side with the Russians. This is a major reason why the protests began in Ukraine in the first place. The government responded to these protests by making a series of very harsh, authoritarian anti-protest laws. Rather than curb the rioting, this only angered the protesters, who became more violent and ousted their Prime Minister, forcing him to flee to from Kiev into the loving arms of Mother Russia. Following the Prime Minister’s ousting to Moscow, the Ukrainian parliament repealed the anti-protest laws and began negotiating with the European Union, setting the nation on the right track to ending its financial dependence on Russia. There was also serious talk and government support of Ukraine joining NATO.
And that’s when Russia invaded. The goal of Putin’s Russia is to create a union of states in Eastern Europe and Asia consisting mostly of the former Soviet Republics like Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Georgia. This alliance would be designed to rival the EU economically and NATO militarily (to a much lesser extent because that would simply not be possible), and several states are already on board with the idea. If Russia loses Ukraine to Western influence, the Russian Federation will be severely, impossibly weakened. This is one major reason why Russia invaded Georgia during the Olympics a few years ago. The conflict was short-lived, but the message was clear. Russia is dealing with a fragile situation and it cannot afford for any of its neighbors to escape Moscow’s influence. Poland has already joined NATO, giving Western forces a place to deploy dangerously close to Moscow to launch an attack. Loosing Ukraine would spell defeat for Russia politically and militarily.
So, what’s in store for the future of Eastern Europe? For the first time in a long time, Russia is currently in a position outside the historical imperative. The Obama administration has been lenient with Russia so far, but American political influence is the only force that could have any affect on Russian foreign policy. If Putin keeps pushing, he will eventually be met with resistance, maybe more than he can handle. The future, in my opinion, holds two possible scenarios. The first involves Russia and its allies consolidating back into one larger, more authoritarian state resembling the USSR. This is the more likely scenario in my opinion, as the Russian (read: ethnically Russian) people seek a stronger government and less divided state. The second possibility, supported by analysts like George Friedman, is that Russia will cave to foreign and domestic (Chechnya, etc.) pressures and collapse, possibly even fragmenting into a series of smaller states founded on the basis of racial, ethnic, and cultural identities. Russia’s golden age is long gone and the ball is in Putin’s court. Only time will tell.