Ukrainians have a long history, including a heroic age centering on the Zaporozhian Cossacks of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During World War I and World War II, modern Ukrainian nationalists made valiant efforts to attain independence. During both wars, however, unrelenting pressures from Berlin and Moscow destroyed the embryonic Ukrainian states. (1) As a result, the world has perceived Ukraine as an object throughout most of the twentieth century, rather than as a player in international relations. Even from that point of view, however, Ukraine indirectly played major roles in world events; Austria-Hungary, for example, hastened to sign the German-dictated Brest-Litovsk peace treaty to get deliveries of Ukrainian grain that were required to avert mass starvation in Vienna.
It was not until 1991 that Ukraine attained the independence--quickly followed by general international recognition--that its nationalist leaders had sought for so long. The earlier struggles, however, served as an apprenticeship that, in some ways, helped Ukraine, in contrast with numerous new states, assume a significant role in the world order.
Because Moscow wanted extra votes in the United Nations, Ukraine became a charter member of the new world organization in 1945. Its delegations followed Soviet orders strictly, and few other diplomatic relations were established. Still, diplomats of Ukrainian origin did acquire some experience. More important, on gaining its independence, Ukraine immediately was able to assume its rightful role as a free general assembly member, a factor that encouraged many other members to hasten diplomatic recognition.
Apart from these formal considerations, the size and position of an independent Ukraine assures foreign attention. Apart from its area of 603,700 square kilometers, Ukraine borders three former Soviet Republics (Russia, Belarus, and Moldova) and four other Eastern European countries (Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Poland), and its long Black Sea coast provides access to numerous other countries. In population, its initial count of 52 million people had declined to 49,470,000 by 2000. However, the proportionate decline can be attributed mainly to the extremely low birth rate, which is about the same as Russia's. (2)
As suggested previously, as an object of international relations Ukraine commonly was perceived as a "bread basket." Just before attaining independence, Ukraine was credited with one-fourth of the USSR's wheat production, providing a substantial surplus above local consumption. Some commentators (myself included) speculated in 1991 that Ukraine could use its surplus grain for a triangular trade in which Russia (which rarely had a surplus) could re-export Ukrainian foods to the oasis cultures of Central Asia and the Transcaucasus in exchange for cotton, gas, and petroleum, with such goods being used to pay Ukrainians. (3) Unfortunately, the Ukrainian food surplus has been slow to materialize. In fact, by 1993, only nine million tons of wheat were available, although a good harvest the following year produced thirteen million tons. Consequently, a major irritant of Russian-Ukrainian relations--Ukrainian inability to pay for energy imports--has remained, although Russia recently apparently agreed to a barter arrangement involving importing food. At the same time, Russian industrialists have been using the large Ukrainian debt to their country to make heavy investments that may enable them to control important sectors of the Ukrainian economy. Ukrainian energy production, including a declining coal output, remains far below necessity. Favorable prospects for finding new petroleum resources off the Crimean peninsula are delayed by the fact that the entire country possesses only a few drilling rigs for underwater exploration. Except for manganese, metallic mineral exploitation is very limited. Moreover, the machine-tool industry, a potential source of foreign exchange, depends on natural gas pipelines, which often are interrupted. …