Socialist Worker

Ukraine is tangled in an imperial game

by Alex Callinicos
Issue No. 2392

What kind of geopolitical game is going on in Ukraine? All kinds of rumours are circulating. Someone told me that Germany—which supported Ukrainian independence in both world wars—was behind the uprising in Kiev.

There is a tiny kernel of truth in this kind of theory. As Timothy Garton Ash put it in last Saturday’s Guardian, “with Ukraine Russia is still an empire.” Control of Ukraine’s territory and resources, and of the naval base at Sevastopol, have been critical for centuries to the Russian state’s ability to project power westwards and southwards.

Ukraine’s independence in 1991 was therefore a very serious blow to Russian imperial power. This threatened to be compounded when, after the “Orange Revolution” in 2004, there was serious talk of Ukraine joining Nato. 

This would have been a continuation of the policy of extending the hegemony of the US in Eurasia by incorporating the ex-Stalinist states of eastern and central Europe into the European Union and Nato.

Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, whose leaders were campaigning for Nato membership, put an end to this talk. But all that the West really needs is that Ukraine remains independent and thereby limits Russian power.

Germany and Russia have developed close economic links in the past 20 years. Retired politicians, such as the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder and ex-foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, enjoy close and sometimes lucrative links with the Russian leadership.

The present crisis in Ukraine was precipitated by the decision of president Viktor Yanukovych to join an “Eastern Partnership” with the EU last November. 

But Brussels’ handling of the negotiations seems to have been typically inept. As one Ukrainian expert, Andrew Wilson, puts it, “the EU took a baguette to a knife fight. The Eastern Partnership is an ‘enlargement-lite’ policy at the very moment when Russia is committed to some heavy lifting.”

Yanukovych then rejected the EU deal. Russian president Vladimir Putin offered the cash-strapped Yanukovych £11 billion worth of aid.

The EU merely promised to refer Ukraine to the International Monetary Fund, whose conditions for lending to cash-strapped states are notoriously harsh (but are now being relaxed in the wake of Yanukovych’s fall). 


Putin’s manoeuvre rebounded on him when Kiev and the western part of Ukraine erupted in revolt. The regional divisions—Yanukovych’s base has been in the more orthodox and Russian-speaking east and south—illustrate how Ukraine has been fought over by rival powers over the centuries.

Take Lviv, the main city in the predominantly Catholic western Ukraine. A hundred years ago it was Lemburg, capital of the Austrian province of Galicia. Between 1919 and 1939 it was Lwów, second city of Poland. It became Lvov in the Soviet republic of the Ukraine after the Second World War. 

The main line of political division in Ukraine, both in 2004 and now, seems to have been regionally based. Two gangs of corrupt and thuggish oligarchs, one aligned with Russia and the other with the US and the EU, fight over power.

But there have been two important differences this time. First, the opposition politicians have been much less in control, with the rising being driven from below. Some ugly forces are involved—notably the far right Svoboda party. Secondly, the oligarchs and security apparatuses seem to have abandoned Yanukovych.

This leaves Putin, who hoped to be basking in the success of the winter Olympics at Sochi, facing humiliation. He needs Ukraine as a key partner in his planned “Eurasian Union”.

Interestingly ex-US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the architects of the policy of expanding Nato and the EU eastwards, has proposed that the US discourage Russian intervention in Ukraine by reassuring Putin. Ukraine should become another Finland: “mutually respectful neighbours, wide-ranging economic relations both with Russia and the EU, but no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself”.

But this wouldn’t remove Putin’s fear that the “colour revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia were trial-runs for the installation of a pro-Western regime in Moscow itself. The reverberations from Kiev may prove hard to contain.

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