The nature of international life is that there are always
“hotspots” or areas in some form of natural, economic,
military or cultural crisis that draw the world’s attention
As far as I know, there has not ever been, nor will there
likely ever be, a totally peaceful or untroubled planet
inhabited by human civilization.
What is curious, having established that, is that the crises
tend to occur over and over, albeit sometimes years apart,
in the same places.
Currently, the world’s “hotspots” include Ukraine,
Venezuela, North Korea, China, Japan, Turkey, the Middle
East, Spain, Greece and Argentina.
The reader familiar with only a limited background in
history will recognize that over the past several centuries
these same places have had recurring crises of one kind
In the above list, I included Japan because of its ongoing
environmental and nuclear crisis following a massive
earthquake and tsunami.
All of the other “hotspots” have crises that are political,
military or economic in nature.
The one “hotspot” perhaps least well-known to Americans
is Ukraine. This Slavic eastern European nation is one of the
youngest countries in the world. Settled thousands of
years ago. it eventually became the center of medieval
Slavic life, and Kiev, its largest city, the de facto capital
of the region. The cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg,
today much larger than Kiev, were then only outposts,
and the tribes that created the Russian nation, not as
powerful and successful as those who lived in Kiev and
its surrounding territory.
In the 1300s, Kiev had numerous rival rulers and declined.
By the 1500s, however, the Romanov dynasty was
established in St. Petersburg, and a Russian empire
under the czars was created, stretching eventually all
the way east to Siberia and the Pacific Ocean, and to
the west, to central Europe. The early settlements of
Kiev (Ukraine) and White Russia (Belarus) soon became
subordinate and part of this empire.
Ukraine is remembered best in America today perhaps
by its Jewish immigrants and their descendants who
came to the U.S. in waves from 1880 to 1920 following
intense persecution by the Czar and many Russians in
a series of pogroms (or murderous attacks) on their ghetto
communities in what was then called “the pale of settlement”
--- a region that included what today are Ukraine, Belarus
Except for a short-lived Cossack republic in the 17th and
18th centuries, and a very brief period following World
War I and the Russian Revolution (begun in 1917), modern
Ukraine has not been a sovereign nation. Known as the
“breadbasket” of Europe, the region produced most of
the wheat and grain for two continents. After the Soviet
dictator Stalin had consolidated his power at the outset of
the 1930s, he instituted the deliberate and brutal starvation
of the Ukrainian peasantry, and prior to the outbreak of
World War II, millions of Ukrainians died from hunger.
Nazi armies then overran Ukraine, and murdered
millions more, including most of the Jews living in the
When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Ukraine became
one of the breakaway soviet republics that became independent
nations on the new Russian border.
The problems that face Ukraine are many. Although by
now a major industrial area, as well as agricultural area,
it depends on other nations (primarily Russia) for its
energy needs, including supplies of oil and gas. The
western, and largest, part of Ukraine is inhabited
primarily by ethnic Ukrainians (77% of the population)
who speak their own Slavic language. Their memories of
what the Russians had done to them under the czar and
Stalin made them decidedly anti-Russian, and eager to
join the western European community. However, in the
eastern part of the country, around Kharkov, most of the
Ukrainians are ethnic Russians (17% of the population),
and speak the Russian language. A third region, to the
south, is the autonomous republic of Crimea which had
been “given” to Ukraine in the Soviet years. This was the
most tropical part of Russia and bordered on the Black Sea
with naval access to the world. The Russian navy, by
agreement with Ukraine, is stationed at a Crimean port.
Most of those who live in Crimea are also pro-Russian.
Although adopting a representative democratic political
form, Ukraine’s history and ethnic divisions overshadowed
the new republic’s attempt to create a viable nation.
Political and economic corruption was rampant, and as
in neighboring Russia, oligarchs soon emerged controlling
vast parts of the Ukrainian economy.
It has been suggested that Russian President Vladimir
Putin wishes to reconstruct the old Soviet empire. If this
is so, then Ukraine is an absolutely necessary component
of such a reconstruction. An independent Ukraine that is
part of the western European Union would mean that the
old Soviet Empire could not be put back together. Ukraine
is too large geographically, too populous, too economically
significant, and too strategically located for such a Putin
ambition to be fulfilled.
This means that it is likely that Mr. Putin will continue to
intervene in Ukraine until it is under his de facto control.
The alleged invasion and occupation of Crimea now
apparently taking place would be only the first of many
Europe and the United States, for obvious reasons, would
oppose this turn of events, but, at least for now, lack enough
leverage to counter it successfully. Ukraine’s immediate
needs include a large infusion of funds, something Mr. Putin
had offered the deposed Ukrainian president as an incentive
not to join with western Europe. The U.S. and the European
Union are now scrambling to come up with finds for Ukraine,
but so far none of them are talking about enough funds to make
Eastern Ukraine and Crimea are clearly pro-Russian and
would likely cooperate with some form of Russian
“occupation.” Larger western Ukraine, where the recent
revolution began in the capital Kiev, would likely resist any
Russian attempts to restore the previous government. Thus,
there are prospects of a civil war, or the partition of Ukraine
into two nations.
With the European Union already in an economic crisis
overtaking several of its members states, including Greece,
Spain, Portugal and Italy; and the U.S. in an historic
withdrawal from its leading role in world affairs, it would
seem that prospects for Ukraine at the outset of 2014 are
not very bright.
This part of the world has known suffering and violence
continually for a thousand years.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.