Riots! Fires! Threats of higher import and custom duties!  Oh my!

Ukraine’s not been this interesting since the last time the media noticed that it’s Ukraine, not the Ukraine.  Russia is mightily pissed, and would like everyone to just rejoin the Soviet Union already because that wasn’t such a bad thing.  Meanwhile, the often-slagged bureaucrats of Brussels seem to understand a thing or two about what’s at stake.  In the middle are the Ukrainians themselves, divided over past, present, and future, and throwing petrol bombs in the streets in the meantime.

Ukraine as a historical entity was never much secure

Ukraine is situated in a pretty bad neighborhood.  To the south, the Black Sea can easily be closed by any power controlling the Dardanelles.  The Dneiper River bisects the country neatly in half and flows southwards, allowing invaders to set up boats and attack from the north rather easily.

Rather easy entry there.

No mountains exist as natural barriers to prevent Cossacks from a-rapin’ and a-pillagin’ – and so it should be no shock that, besides an impressive stint as Kievan Rus, Ukraine’s been under the domination of powers based from Muscovy.  Ukraine’s never been able to stand up to a power fielding forces bred in the same kind of climate – one reason why the Mongols, also from a steppe climate, had their way with Kiev in 1240 and ended its golden age.

What a lovely buffer state you have there

After the Mongol invasions, Kiev was never able to regain its footing enough to withstand successive invasions by Poles, Turks, and Russians, and thus relegated what might have been a great power to secondary status.  From that point, Ukraine was a buffer between various centers of political gravity – especially Moscow.  With its abundant cereal harvests, Ukraine was a lovely breadbasket to have as part of the Russian empire, and an even better buffer that could be sacrificed if necessary to save the Russian state.  Which is pretty much what happened in 1991.

The European Union sees a nice trade network extended; the Russians see a dagger pointed at their heart

We’ve been over Putin’s Russia’s psychology – paranoid and security-obsessed, believing that a good defense is a good offense.  But this is a conflict between a new form of international politics – the growth of a transnational organization vs. a traditional nation-state.  Russia does not see the EU as a friendly neighbor; rather, it sees a threat that, while not particularly menacing today, may eventually be subverted by another Hitler.  European governments, on the other hand, see themselves as well past that rather nasty past and desire open borders and open markets in the hopes of just making everyone richer.

Russian strategic interests in adorable form.

But the dagger isn’t just military.  Russia’s often described as a kleptocracy, and the robber barons who support Putin make plenty of money in Ukraine.  If Ukraine slides towards the EU, it will become more transparent, fair, and open – all of which will hurt their margins.  They’re not about to push Moscow to fight a war, but they’ll do what they can to preserve their interests.  Putin’s emerging social contract is based on letting these nasties get away with their business, and so he’s got incentive to stop Ukraine from drifting out of their economic orbit.

The people vs. the elites

The sitting elites in Kiev clearly would like to please Russia over the EU, but are having their hands tied down by mass protests.  Democratic systems are good at channeling this anger into action and policy changes; Ukraine’s democratic credentials have taken a hit recently but are still good enough to stay “partly free.”  Ukraine could slide into authoritarianism to survive this storm and keep Russia happy, but that’s a hard trick to pull off these days.

It’s a big sign of things to come

As the world organizes into supra-national set-ups, these sort of conflicts will happen more and more.  The EU has plenty of faults, but it’s potential power is staggering.  It’s an attractive group that might just offer that sweet spot of security and economic growth sought by every state out there.  Meanwhile, traditional nation-states will have to find their way in a world of declining nationalist sentiment.

Russia will not likely win this one

Alas for Putin, his country is too far gone to rebuild the Soviet Union.  The people of Ukraine will drift further and further westward and Russian defense will end up having to hinge on cooperation rather than strength.  That’ll mean adapting themselves to a European – and by extension American – way of living in the international system.  That’s a long way off.  But losing Kiev is just the first step.

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