OPINION
i

Clash of civilizations?

Russian nationalists would see deep historical betrayal in the forced Europeanization of their Ukrainian brothers

The problem of Ukraine has often been framed in terms of a clash of civilizations. On the one hand, Holy Russia, authoritarian, Orthodox, Pan-Slavic, flanking the half, or nearly half of the Ukrainian population who speak Russian; and on the other, a second half who speak Ukrainian, and are supposed to be attracted to the Europe of Western and democratic values. Closer scrutiny of the conflict, however, makes it look more like a matter purely of geopolitics, a question of seeing who gets more or less of Ukraine, the West or the East.

With the ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, now holed up somewhere in the Russian-speaking part of the country, and Kiev already legislating in the name of Ukrainian nationalism, we can imagine events taking one of two general courses. First, some type of partition, formal or de facto, which would put the mainly Russophone part under the control of Moscow, in particular the Crimean peninsula - which never ceased to be Russian and is a major base of the post-Soviet fleet. Second, some type of general neutralization, such as took place in Iron Curtain days with Austria and Finland, which would allow the country to maintain its unity. This latter might be the solution preferred by the major powers, including Russia, which would thus come out the loser in its tug-of-war with the EU and the US to draw Ukraine into its Eurasian pact, but would have at least have prevented Kiev’s becoming a forward pawn in the Western strategy, like a dagger pointed at the heart of the Muscovite power. But in venturing to make any forecast we have to consider the passions of two nationalisms - the Ukrainian, and the Pan-Slavism of Russia.

Ukraine is just as important to Putin’s empire, now in the process of reconstruction, as Scotland is to the UK, and not much less than what Catalonia is to Spain

Ukraine has formed part of Russia since 1654, and is just as important to Putin’s empire, now in the process of reconstruction, as Scotland is to the United Kingdom, and not much less than what Catalonia is to Spain. Russian nationalists would see deep historical betrayal in the forced Europeanization of their Ukrainian brothers, all the worse in view of the fact that, according to Moscow’s official version (denied by Washington), Mikhail Gorbachev assented to German reunification on the condition that NATO would not be extended toward the East. Not exactly what happened.

Meanwhile the other nationalism, the Ukrainian, has rather little to do with so-called European values. Its chief political formation is the party Svoboda, with 38 seats in the Kiev parliament. This party’s initial name, later changed for obvious reasons, was the Social-National Party of Ukraine. One of its war cries is “Glory to the nation, death to its enemies,” prominent among whom are the communists. The great figure of their historical pantheon is Bandera, leader of the pro-Nazi army of Ukraine in World War II, who took part in pogroms against the Jews.

Conflict of values? More like one of national passions and geopolitical material facts. The big question is: what Ukraine will emerge from all this, and if they are two, how will they be divided?