Compass: Ukraine's division overstated; not so its peril

By CURTIS MURPHYFebruary 26, 2014 

Every revolutionary government makes mistakes, and the newly sovereign Ukrainian parliament has proved no exception.

On Feb. 23 the parliament voted to downgrade the official status of the Russian language in Ukraine, offering an unfortunate pretext for Vladimir Putin to intervene either politically or economically in support of the supposedly pro-Russian eastern half of the country. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has already referred to the recent parliamentary dismissal of Yankovych as an "insurrection" executed by "armed bandits," and the Russian foreign ministry recently accused the new government of violating the "humanitarian rights of Russians and other ethnic minorities."

Disregarding the fact that Ukraine's largest non-Russian ethnic minority, the Crimean Tatars, have largely voiced support for the pro-revolutionary, "Maidan" government, this rhetoric evokes disturbing precedents of past Russian rulers offering themselves as intermediaries in their neighbors' internal struggles. Much of the commentary concerning the revolution in Ukraine has dwelled on simplistic, Cold War analogies, forgetting that the Russian state's attempts to expand its territory and influence westward stretch back centuries. Whether in imperial, Soviet, or post-Soviet guise, the Russian state has consistently played the long game of imperial strategy, exploiting weaknesses in its neighbors and inconsistency among the great powers to achieve limited, but cumulative geopolitical gains over the long term.

Russian control over eastern Ukraine began in 1654, when Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich intervened on behalf of an "insurrection" of Ukrainian Cossacks against the noble rulers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Further regions of Ukraine were added to the Russian Empire in 1792 and 1795, when Catherine the Great presented herself as an arbitrator between supporters of the Polish parliament and an "insurrection" led by a small minority, who -- like some Russians in Crimea today -- opposed a new constitutional arrangement. Supporting the malcontents offered Catherine a pretext for annexing Poland's Ukrainian territories.

Western Ukraine, including L'viv, only fell under Russian control in 1945, a testament to Stalin's commitment to nineteenth-century imperial strategy, as his postwar diplomacy not only reversed all of the Russian Empire's World War I territorial losses, but enhanced the Soviet Union at the expense of Poland, Romania and the Baltic states.

The language law, combined with the predictable instability of a parliament unaccustomed to real power, plays into the hands of this patient and gradualist imperial strategy, to which Putin's government is unequivocally committed (hence Gazprom's subsidizing the cost of energy for "friendly" governments like Yanukovych's). The parliament's perceived assault on Russian-language speakers (the first language of about one-third of the population) confirms the common western assumption that Ukraine is a country hopelessly divided between east and west, and western resignation and apathy enable Russian penetration in Ukraine.

In reality, many Russian-speakers in the east were thoroughly dissatisfied with Yanukovych's corrupt and lawless, Putin-lite government. As evidence, the Party of Regions, Yanukovych's base, has rapidly abandoned their leader, voting in support of his dismissal and arrest by wide margins. Kiev, where I lived for several months, boasts large numbers of both Russian and Ukrainian speakers, and both groups played a role in the 2004 and 2014 revolutions. The division of the country into east and west is overstated.

The language law was merely one act among many passed by a parliament determined to dismantle the regime erected by Yanukovych since 2010 and return to the 2004 constitution. Unfortunately, this mistake is already serving to alienate the Russian speakers in the east who supported the fall of the president. People in eastern Ukraine may well feel a connection with Russia, and there are signs of separatist impulses in Crimea, but that does not mean that all eastern Ukrainians wholeheartedly support Russian rule. Yanukovych owed his legitimate electoral victory in 2010 to grievances about discrimination from a population that wanted autonomy against Kiev, not a merger with Russia.

Incidentally, this is exactly what the Cossacks sought in 1654 -- autonomy from Polish nobles, not annexation into Alexei Mikhailovich's state. Instead, the Cossacks, as Russian speakers in Ukraine should remember, found themselves subject to a Russian empire that placed very little value on their autonomy or their grievances.

Curtis Murphy is a term instructor in history at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He holds a doctorate in Russian and East European history from Georgetown.

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