Events playing out on our TV screens from Ukraine and the semi-autonomous Crimea remind us of the complex landscape left behind after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Understanding the historical and geopolitical nature of this region is key.
The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union saw Russia’s influence on Eastern Europe wane and the creation of 11 new countries in the Caucasus Region and Central Asia. Following on from this collapse, the last two decades have seen many former members of the Warsaw Pact join the European Union or be in negotiations to do so. As an example, Moldova, although not an EU member, is aligned with the European Union Association Agreement, and has strong ties to Romania, one of the EU’s most recent member states. Some former Republics in the Caucasus have made strong diplomatic and economic moves toward Europe. It is interesting to note that the most overt movement from a former Soviet state towards the EU was from Georgia, the last country to witness Russia’s military power.
Looking West or East?
Current events in Ukraine remind the world that, although there is much movement toward European institutions in this part of the world, there is also political and social pressure to move away from Europe as well. Armenia, for example, has moved closer to Russia, perhaps because its regional geopolitics are more complex, with difficult relations with several of its neighbours. Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the south and Russia to the east, has never really left Russia’s influence. Russia’s emblem is the two-headed eagle – one head looks West to Europe, and the second looks East to Asia, reflecting the eternal struggle that has been at the heart of Russian politics since the time of Peter the Great.
Ukraine, the largest wholly European country and with a population of more than 45 million people, is now in the eye of the storm. Although Ukraine has shown significant interest in becoming a part of the EU, indicated most strongly by the Orange Revolution which took place in the middle of the last decade, it also has a significant population of Russian speakers who often culturally identify themselves more closely with Russia than with Europe. Political leadership has also vacillated between pro-European and pro-Russian outlooks ever since Ukraine declared independence.
Crimean War II?
Whilst the 19th Century Crimean War had its roots in religious rights, could the 21st Century see a battle based on cultural grounds? The Crimean Peninsula has only been a part of Ukraine for approximately 60 years and was added to Ukraine as an internal border adjustment within the Soviet Union for ease of administration. Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991 it has retained significant Russian access rights, including a significant military presence, as current events are revealing.
Russia Seeking to Maintain its Zone of Influence
Is Russia trying to rebuild its superpower status to balance that of the US and EU, or possibly to counter the growth in influence of China and India? Does it have the cultural need to be seen as a strongman, rejecting other political stances as weak, especially in the aftermath of the Soviet Union? Is Russia trying to re-create the buffer zone of client states around its borders?
It is not only the ethnic Russians in the new-born nation states who have a natural leaning towards building closer links with Moscow. It appears that many businesspeople with strong ties to Russia’s economy may be influencing the geopolitical struggle, especially in the arenas of natural resources. Entrepreneurs from some parts of the former Soviet Union who may feel more comfortable conducting business in the Russian style may also be pushing to move closer to Russia, especially if they are heavily reliant on political connections for a successful business outcome. Many of the Soviet-style networks are still active and can give significant competitive advantage in business and politics. It is also difficult to ignore the common lingua franca linking the region.
Of course, the West also has a long history of bringing influence to bear on the wider world, as evidenced by everything from European Empires to the USA’s implementation of foreign policies around the globe. Political and economic alliances, including the European Union, are seen by some as a modern day evolution of the 19th Century Realpolitik
Russia’s steps toward rebuilding its regional power may be establishing a counterbalance to the EU specifically and to the West in general. But with geopolitics always at play, many historians must be asking the following question: Is this re-establishing the Iron Curtain by stealth or a momentary blip in history that many believed was consigned to the past?