Will there be a war over Ukraine or not? Will Ukraine be admitted to NATO or not? What is Ukraine’s geopolitical mission in the 21st century? There are dozens or even hundreds of answers, and none of them is correct.
Ukraine can be different colours – orange, blue-yellow, red, whatever… Ukraine is a country that wants to become a strong European state and perhaps could become one, but has never been one. Ukraine, the fate of which has been decided in recent years in the trenches of war, during diplomats’ dinners and at zoom summits…
For me, Ukraine is a kind of political post-modernity, a country where today the spirits of Kievan Rus and the Habsburg Empire live on equal terms, a country where people who are willing to die for their homeland and those who are able to sell it quickly walk the streets together, people in whose minds, as if in a carnival, historical personalities become symbols of good, evil, ridicule or something else, where a supposed wonder-worker is elected as the leader and then castigated for the mundanity of his miracles. ..
Ukraine? Philologists will easily tell you that the name “land of fringe” refers to a territory where different geopolitical concepts, even different civilisations, have adjoined, mixed and fought. And none of them prevailed. Ukraine has been and remained a fringe for all those who claimed it – Slavs, Lithuanians, Tatars, Turks, Russians, Germans and Romanians… anyone else. There are those who disagree with the origin of Ukraine as the land of fringe, but they are a minority.
The number of conventional wars over this territory is not less than the number of wars over the Balkans. However, alongside the territorial wars, there have been and continue other wars: ethnic, geographical, cultural, civilizational, starvation and scorched-earth wars – by any measure holy.
They will only end when Ukraine is no longer a land of the margins, when some civilisation will settle there for at least a few centuries. We can just say that at the beginning of the 21st century the war for the territory of the fringe is not over. Today, independent Ukraine is divided between Western and Eastern Christian influences, between the still alien Black Sea and a seemingly self-contained forest zone, between Russian great-state rudiments and the prospects of European integration, between the desire to create its own Ukrainian state and civilizational impotence. Everything here is a fringe, a front line and a battlefield is everywhere.
It is not surprising that the fate of Ukraine is getting so much attention. After all, the ‘decision’ of Ukraine is a key geopolitical factor in determining the future of European unity. If European integration is trying to expand further into the former Soviet empire, it requires two things: firstly, that a significant number of former Soviet republics really want to join the EU, and secondly, that the most important country in the region, Ukraine, integrates into the West. According to the well-known Zbigniew Brzeziński, a strong Ukraine today is a chance to force changes in geopolitical thinking of Russia, which is based on eternality and irreversibility of Russia.
The Orange Revolution, Maidan, Volodymyr Zelensky were neither the beginning nor the end, just part of the process. Parts of it may be called revolutions, coups or reforms, depending on what historians later talk about it, but one thing is indisputable: they are elements of the same Holy War. The state, with its borders and its capital, is a natural product of the still valid political agreement of Westphalia. Ukraine has never been such a Westphalian nation-state in its history, and it is not really one today, so the question is whether it really needs to become one now in the 21st century. Perhaps it must seize the chance to create a statehood that is free from anxiety and conflict. An interesting challenge for the postmodern imagination.
Lithuanians, Poles or Turks and Tatars will tell you that they lost the wars over Ukraine centuries ago. Kievan Rus was probably too weak to conquer the steppes, and Vytautas apparently did not value the outlying territory at all. Perhaps the worst culprit will be the former post-national Lithuania, which cheaply traded Ukrainian territory for its political stability. Or perhaps Poland, which lost to the Muscovites, or even Europe as a whole, which was then indifferent to the fate of the fringe land. Russia was not yet the strongest country in the region when it expelled the Lithuanians from Moscow in the 17th century, but even a partial victory in Ukraine made it so. The defeat of the Swedes in the Ukraine marked the beginning of Russia’s expansion into Europe, where our country also lost. The Ukrainian state was not planned by either side, and the people themselves had not consolidated enough.
The division of the fringe land was the status quo, satisfying the major powers but dividing the Ukrainian-speaking people into several states. The Russians occupied central and eastern Ukraine after the vicissitudes of the 19th century wars. The Habsburgs, with their consistent and even dogmatic policy of territorial expansion of Europe and Catholicism, were “stuck” somewhere around Lemberg, which later became known as Lviv because of ethno-linguistic curiosities. The politicians who handled the aftermath of the World War I did not seriously envisage the Ukrainian state either, drawing the famous geopolitical Curzon line so that Ukrainians would not have a state of their own again, and the Russian claims to it seemed quite logical.
For Russia, the loss of Ukraine is equal to a defeat in the ‘Holy War’ – a loss of territory, an end to the ideology of Pan-Slavism, another wedge for the already struggling Orthodoxy, and finally discrediting of Moscow as the Third Rome. For the Russians, it is even more painful, because only a few decades ago they felt that they had won the land of the fringe definitively and irreversibly, and now they do not have what they have invested in, and have been shot and starved to death.
While Crimea was part of Russia, Ukraine was a landlocked agricultural producer. Nikita Khrushchev probably believed in the perpetuity of the Soviet Union and survival of Ukraine under the Russian rule. The cession of Crimea to Ukraine in the 1960s represented a change of the Soviet administration, and now Crimea makes an independent Ukraine as a state with large maritime claims. This is a clear defeat for Russia, but it is also a geopolitical obligation for Ukraine. Almost driven away from the Baltic Sea, Russia is also being driven away from the Black Sea. Geography is taking Russia back to the days of the Moscow Principality. Today’s Ukraine is a geographically important Black Sea coastal state that shapes regional policy. For perhaps the first time in history since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and perhaps unexpectedly for themselves, Ukrainians are able to want something and to have a real state of their own, not just on paper. The return of Ukraine to the geography of strategic interests of Russia would be a significant geopolitical victory for Russia, perhaps even signifying a renaissance of empire. As it has already been mentioned, Russia has fought more than one war with Ukraine. It has no concept of a ‘Holy War’, so Russia’s war for the fringe is being fought on all fronts – not by the military, but by historians, educators, intellectuals, everybody…
Economic war is too straightforward. Despite its economic potential, Russia does not know how to fight economic wars; it is simply that any long-term economic strategy collapses into the priorities of day-to-day benefits.
Historical war. What was the famous Kievan Rus and how much of it was Ukrainian? What level of statehood was the Russian-Turkish border? How independent did Ukraine become after the emergence of Soviet Russia? Historical defeat of Russia would mean that it would once again become the Duchy of Moscow, as it had been for centuries and, as some political analysts say, it was in its spirit and potential. Russia is still a territorial empire that understands that the goal is subordination of territory and not some additional economic or political benefit.
The war of faith. Ukraine is becoming a battlefield between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, where the fate of the Unitarian Church, and through it the fate of the entire Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical dialogue, may be decided. What holy war is going on here in Europe, and what is its front line – from Serbia, Lithuania, Turkey…?
Fyodor Dostoevsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about what Russia needs. It needs Ukraine vitally. However, Russia could not become an empire that was acceptable to those around it, that brought pain more often than it brought the good it wanted. Russian intellectuals were more likely to mourn their failures than to rejoice in their achievements. We will fight rather than reconcile. Russia will not be the European Union, not because Vladimir Putin does not want it, but simply because it is contrary to the logic of holy war, as described by Fyodor Dostoevsky himself, who hated the Poles, the Lithuanians and all those who subvert Orthodoxy.
Once, during a visit to Vilnius, the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, said about the spread of European values in the modern world: propose, but do not impose – propose, but do not buy by force. Actually, Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania did this, but in the long run he did not gain much. José Manuel Barroso’s great-grandparents, the Portuguese sailors and missionaries, did just the opposite, and won much more. A few centuries ago, European seafarers were not afraid to sail far, to discover and to create their own order. Today, they are more likely to lurk. Perhaps until the holy war fronts reach the shores of so-called civilised Europe, Ukraine will lose again.
Ukraine is indeed a ‘cat in the bag’ for many in Europe and United States. I find it a fascinating mystery, a post-modern work that is definitely worth buying. Although the price is quite high.