Ukraine Is a Vital Part of Russia's Vision of Itself; the Powder Keg That Is Kiev Has the Potential to Unleash Civil War -- or Worse, Intervention by Putin

The Evening Standard (London, England), February 25, 2014 | Go to article overview

Ukraine Is a Vital Part of Russia's Vision of Itself; the Powder Keg That Is Kiev Has the Potential to Unleash Civil War -- or Worse, Intervention by Putin


Byline: Simon Sebag Montefiore

IF HARRODS had a Dictatorial Chic Department, Viktor Yanukovych, ex-president of Ukraine, could have ordered the interior design of his ransacked Croesian mansion from its catalogue: "Saddam" gold taps, "Mobutu" leopardskin print, "Ceausescu" chandeliers and "Gaddafi" bathrooms. Its architecture dizzily combines Disneyesque fantasia, Spanish hacienda, Swiss chalet, Scottish baronial castle and Stalinist dacha.

But the ranch's most ironic "feature" is the mock-Roman ruin, a colonnade of ersatz pillars that symbolises his tyranny, corruption, arrogance, violence and isolation, for Yanukovych's rise and fall have been as Neronian as these imperial vestiges. Yet what other dictator has built not just the traditional Sardanapalian palace but his own Ozymandian ruin? Apart from this preposterous decor, Ukraine, which has already demonstrated how quickly it can degenerate into bloodletting, is today a powder keg involving not just its own internal contradictions but the potential to unleash civil war -- and with it world conflict. At its heart is the noble wish of Ukrainians, some speaking Russian, some Ukrainian, some Orthodox, some Catholic, to live in a well-run democracy and just civic society more like that of Western Europe than the autocracies of Russia or Kazakhstan. That is complicated by a real split between its Russophile, Orthodox, industrialised east like Kharkov and its Mitteleuropean, Ukrainian-speaking, Catholic west, like Lviv. But its global significance lies in its tangled relationship with Moscow: Ukraine has an essential role in Russia's vision of itself, just as Russia is omnipresent in Ukraine's own traumatised consciousness.

A week ago, Putin's Russia stood higher in prestige than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis: dazzling in the panoply of Olympic splendour, gilded with oil riches, triumphant in Georgia and Chechnya, in command of the Syrian crisis, with Ukraine cowed under its creature, the bungling ex-convict Yanukovych whom Putin never trusted or liked. Kiev has changed everything.

Russia must avenge this blow. Besides, it's far too early to claim the revolution as a democratic success. Ukraine is still at the exhilarated early stage experienced by all revolutions, its gains at the mercy of Russia's reaction based on ancient ties. Russian Orthodoxy started in Ukraine, where in 988 Prince Vladimir of Kiev converted to Christianity -- Byzantine Orthodoxy. Vladimir and his Rurikid dynasty created Kievan Rus, an empire from the Baltic to Black Seas. After its downfall and the advent of Mongol hordes, Ukraine was dominated by the Catholic Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania and Moslem Mongol successor state, the Khanate of Crimean Tatars.

In Moscow, Rurikid Grand Princes and Tsars, and their Romanov successors, built the Russian Empire, longing to regather Ukraine. Alexei, the second Romanov tsar, won Kiev from the Poles in 1654. Peter the Great fought a vicious war in Ukraine with the Swedish invaders of King Charles VII but the Ukrainians, swinging then as now between east and west, were crushed between both.

During the 1770s/80s, Catherine the Great's brilliant partner Prince Potemkin conquered southern Ukraine and Crimea - "your jewel in the Black Sea" - founding the naval base Sebastapol and cosmopolitan port Odessa. But Western Ukraine, long ruled by Austria and Poland, was only gained by Stalin's pact with Hitler in 1940, while Crimea was added to Ukraine capriciously by Khrushchev. …

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Ukraine Is a Vital Part of Russia's Vision of Itself; the Powder Keg That Is Kiev Has the Potential to Unleash Civil War -- or Worse, Intervention by Putin
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