The West Needs to Understand Why Ukraine Is So Important to Russia

Viewpoint by Jonathan Power

LUND, Sweden (IDN) — “George, you have to understand that Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us.” These were the ominous words of President Vladimir Putin of Russia to President George W. Bush in Bucharest, Romania, at a NATO summit in April 2008. (This is the beginning paragraph of Fiona Hills’s article on January 24 in New York Times.)

The New York Times also reported: “Britain’s hard-edge approach was crystallized in a punchy essay by the defence secretary, Ben Wallace. Writing in The London Times, Mr Wallace rejected Mr Putin’s claims of encirclement by NATO and accused the Russian leader of crude “ethnonationalism,” based on what he called the bogus claim that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. The essay made waves in Washington and in European capitals”.

How right or wrong are these remarks? Wallace’s remarks are dead wrong, and Putin’s are more or less correct.

Nearer the truth would be to say that Russia was part of Ukraine until the 15th century and after that vice versa. But, Mr Putin, there was no “giving”. Absorption would be a better word. (Maybe something was lost in translation.) Russians and Ukrainians are essentially the same intermingled people inhabiting an area first settled by Scandinavians

Well accepted historical scholarship points in that direction. I will explain why.

Novgorod was the first major town to be settled—by the Scandinavian intruders in the early 9th century AD. The settlement today has developed into one of Russia’s main cities and was the dominant city in Rus’, the name for the original Russian and Ukrainian territory. It’s only less than four hours away from Moscow by one of Russia’s ultra-modern, Siemens-built, high-speed trains. These trains are the kind of market the EU will lose if it imposes sanctions. At this time, Moscow was but a village.

Prince Oleg (879-912) moved the capital, Novgorod, to Kyiv in 882. Kyiv was to remain the dominant city of Rus’ for centuries. Over time, the Scandinavian Rus’ and their Slav and other subjects would intermarry, and their cultures fuse. Kyiv extended its reach both eastward and southward.

Later, Prince Vladimir, the ambitious ruler of Rus’, decided at the end of the 10th century to convert to Christianity. His people were compelled to follow suit. Catholicism was rejected because no Prince of Kyiv would submit himself to the authority of the Pope. Byzantine Orthodox Christianity, based in Constantinople, which did not require submission to a distant foreign leader, won him over. The Cyrillic language spread itself to Rus’. Constantinople had long been Rus’ main trading partner and now the links were deepened. Oxford professor J.M. Roberts, author of the magisterial “Penguin History of the World” writes, “Probably 10th century Kyiv Rus’ had in many ways a richer culture than that which western Europe could offer”.

For a few centuries, Kyiv was the heart of the Russian Orthodox Church. Rus’, the name, had morphed into Russia. The Grand Prince of Kyiv was the spiritual ancestor of modern Russia, which means Moscow, Novgorod and their hinterlands were de facto Ukrainian for 400 years. “They were all part of one Rus’ community; they looked to Kyiv as a centre of their culture, faith and identity”, writes Mark Galeotti in his superb book, “A Short History of Russia”.

Moscow began to bloom from township to city and by the end of the 13th century had its own cathedrals and fortresses. Kyiv, for its part, became the crossroads of multiple civilisations and polities. However, in 1325 Metropolitan Pyotr moved his seat from Kyiv to Moscow (Muscovy) making it the spiritual capital of all the Russians.

In 1443 Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire. When the Orthodox Church moved its capital to Moscow in 1492, Moscow claimed itself to be the “Third Rome”. Indeed, I argue that the Russian Orthodox Church was the actual descendant of the Church founded by St. Peter. Emperor Constantine had moved the Church from Rome to Constantinople and from there, under Islamic pressure, it migrated to Moscow. Monasteries and cathedrals soon proliferated around Russia. Moscow was now dominant over Kyiv. Ukraine became part of Russia for around 500 years.

For the US and its NATO allies to try and wrench Ukraine into their orbit is both mischievous and counterproductive—wicked if it leads to war. It’s true that President Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was party to allowing Ukraine to part ways with the Soviet Union and form its own country. Not just Yeltsin and most Russians but President H.W Bush (Senior) too never thought that Ukraine would then turn itself towards the West and before that long seek membership of NATO and the EU. Bush made it clear, during a visit to Kiev, that the US did not want to see Ukraine independent and that it were best if the Soviet Union continued. (Republican voices like William Safire, a columnist of the New York Times, denounced Bush for this speech- “Chicken Kyiv”, he called it.)”

It’s ludicrous to think that Russia is going to invade Ukraine. In Russia’s eyes that would mean killing its own people. Russians do not want Putin to lead them down that path. Moreover, despite all the reports in the Western media, Russia is not positioned for a serious fight, probably for this reason. Russia has certainly exercised its troops on its side of the Ukrainian border. Up to 300 units of military equipment have been used in the drills including tanks. But 300 tanks are well below the strength of a regular tank division. As for their positioning, the military operations have been carried out at pre-existing training grounds, which are few and far between in the European part of Russia.

A Russian invasion would also require air support. To build that up the Russians would need advanced airfields, and a sufficient supply of air weapons, fuel, munitions, equipment and food. All these would be needed in vast amounts, especially since Russian military planners would have to take into account a confrontational NATO response, however unlikely. On January 24, the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, said that Russia was preparing for a “lightening war” on Kyiv. The fact is, as Western intelligence well knows, there is no sign of Russia’s forces making such provisions. Russia is in no position to start a serious war. Come to that, neither is NATO.

Rather than the present confrontation in which the US and Russia seem equally militant, it is time to get back to the so-called Minsk agreement fashioned in 2015 by the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine. It was meant to stop the fighting in Donbass, a Russian speaking region close to the Ukraine border with Russia. Separatists had, and have, Russian support.

The agreement required Ukraine to decentralise power to its regions, to ensure permanent monitoring of the border, to ensure local elections, to make Ukraine fully democratic, to withdraw mercenaries (Russian) from Donbass, to ban offensive operations, an amnesty for all and to enact an economic programme of recovery in Donbass.

Both sides should give up their military posturing. The US and the NATO countries need to pull back their provocative expansion up to and along Russia’s lengthy border, despite a promise made to Russia at the end of the Cold War not to. Russia needs to free its political prisoners and its media and to allow fair elections.

But first, the West needs to understand why Ukraine is so important to Russia.

About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: [IDN-InDepthNews — 25 January 2021]

Image source: Map of Ukraine conflict region. Courtesy of Adobe Stock. Source: RUSI

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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