Let lie the sleeping dogs-of-war

New Russia

New Russia — Old Khanate: Catherine the Great’s imperial legacy.

It’s a dangerous thing when old empires try to correct the follies of the past.

By Gary Scarrabelotti

The penny has dropped!

Poland and Germany have accepted that, whatever Ukraine’s future relations might be with the EU, Ukraine cannot join NATO.

Ukraine joining NATO is a “red line” for Russia and the two most important EU players in eastern European affairs – Poland and Germany — have now accepted the fact.  

A report from the remarkable Stratfor team, “Defusing the Ukraine Crisis,” went out the other day.  It reads, in part:

“ … On June 10, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier convened in St. Petersburg for a Kaliningrad Triangle meeting that had been scheduled in January. Meanwhile, newly inaugurated Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that his government would create safe passages for those who want to flee eastern Ukraine safely. The meeting and the announcement are hardly coincidental. Rather, they illustrate a certain degree of reconciliation.

“Indeed, what happened as a result of the meeting appears to show that all involved are tempering their stances. Lavrov said Russia would not sanction Ukraine for signing the economic chapters of the EU association agreement — a clear departure from its earlier position, since Russia discouraged the previous administration from signing the agreements, thus helping foment the Ukrainian revolution. Lavrov did, however, note that Moscow may adjust its tariff scheme.

“Just before the meeting, Steinmeier said Russia and Ukraine should coöperate to try and control the flow of militants and arms across their shared border. Previously, Germany — indeed, most Western countries — had put all the responsibility on Russia alone.

“Sikorski, a longtime advocate of Ukraine’s Western integration and a stronger NATO presence in Eastern Europe, noted that NATO membership was not an option for Ukraine. Poland, the staunchest U.S. ally in the region, apparently recognizes that Ukraine’s NATO membership is a red line for the Kremlin and has chosen to respect Russia’s position on the matter — at least for now.”

New and fragile

That is good news.  It’s good because Ukraine has little hope of long-term survival in its present form, if the country were to join NATO.  Even outside of NATO the viability of Ukraine is doubtful, but at least, outside of NATO, Ukraine has a fighting chance.

If Brussels eurocrats, and Washington officialdom, can digest what the Germans and Poles now admit to be the necessary condition for a pro-European Ukraine – that is a non-NATO Ukraine – then the dunderheads who have been running EU and US foreign policy will have been rescued, undeservedly, from a considerable strategic blunder. By attempting to push the reach of the EU and NATO right up to the Ukraine-Russian border, they risked the loss of that from which both the EU and NATO now benefit: a large, friendly buffer state between their south-eastern flank and the Russians.

I wonder how many of the westerners — be they from Washington or Brussels — who have dabbled recently in Ukraine, have appreciated what a fragile, historically novel, entity that country really is.

Let’s take a look, for instance, at Crimea.  It became part of modern Ukraine only in 1954, and then by an act of administrative folly on the part of Nikita Krushchev.

Great giveaway

Crimea emerged, in the wake of Tamerlane’s destruction of the Golden Horde, as the Tatar Khanate of Crimea – a remnant of the Mongol invaders who seized the peninsula in 1238. The Khanate lasted from 1441 to 1783: from 1475 to 1774 as a tributary state of the Ottoman Empire; and from 1774 to 1783 as a nominally independent state under Russian domination.  Having prised Crimea out of Ottoman hands during the Russo-Turkish war (1768 to 1774), Catherine the Great accepted the obliging abdication in her favour of the last Khan, Sahin Giray, in 1783, and absorbed Crimea into the Russian empire.  And there it remained until 1954.

A story, possibly apocryphal, has it that Krushchev was drunk at the time he decided to give Crimea to Ukraine: a handy justification for all too many bad decisions in Russian history.

A story, possibly apocryphal, has it that Krushchev was drunk when he decided to give away Crimea.

Others have suggested that the big giveaway was to assuage Krushchev’s guilt over having himself been a Stalinist toady.  As he rose, during the early 1930s, to the top of Moscow branch of the Party, Krushchev backed Stalin’s programme of mass collectivisation and was sanguine about the famine it unleashed (1932−33) in which millions of Ukrainian (and Russian) peasants died.  Subsequently, he was an active instrument in Ukraine of The Boss’s Great Purge.  Still others say that it was just a sentimental attachment to Ukraine that so many Russians share.  One, among several, official justifications given at the time for handing over Crimea was to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the 1654 Treaty of Pereyslav which allegedly symbolises the historic unity of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples.  Back then the Ukrainian Cossacks, under their Hetman, Bogdan Khmelnytsky, decided to align themselves with their Orthodox Russian brethren against their Polish Catholic and Ottoman Muslim enemies – an unhappy decision, it turned out, if an independent Ukraine were your goal.

Anyway, whatever the reason – or mix of reasons — an administrative resolution was made: Crimea to Ukraine, and without a moment’s thought, of course, that the Russian Empire, then evolved to its higher atheist-materialist phase, in just 37 years would be no more.

Imperial legacy

But the Tatar territorial legacy picked up by Russia was not limited to Crimea.  The Tatar Khanate reached out of Crimea and included a swathe of land lying across what we would now call southern Ukraine which stretched from the Dniester River in the west almost to the Don in the east. It took the Russians all of the Eighteenth Century and a bit more to absorb the whole area, but the Russo-Turkish war of 1768 — 1774 was the turning point.  Catherine the Great established a new administrative territory Novorossiya (New Russia), and it became the vehicle, under the governance of Prince Grigory Potemkin, by which the territory of the former Khanate – Crimea plus the lands between the Dniester and the Don – were integrated into the empire.

Now, in the course of time, the two bits of the old Khanate were separated administratively and, at the end of the Russian Civil War, Lenin allocated the Dniester-to-Don bit of the old Tatar Khanate to the new Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic which was officially inaugurated in 1922.

We can be sure that, unlike with Krushchev, Lenin was not drunk at the time since he was vegetarian teetotal; and we can be confident, given the coldblooded, ideologically driven nature of the beast, that there was not a shred of sentimentality in his decision. It was all about bolstering the new Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic which was to evaporate, just 69 years later, when the new Ukraine separated from the USSR.

It is fascinating to bear in mind that this slice of territory includes, at its eastern end, Lugansk, the coal mines of the Donbas, and Donetz – a region of hot separatist activity since Russia’s re-annexation of Crimea in March this year.  It also covers, at its center, the industrial cities of Dnipropetrovsk and Zaparozhia, as well as the iron ore mines and steelworks of Krivoy Rog.  In the western sector, there are the port cities of Nykolaiv and Odessa.

By the way, as the presidential election results for 2010 demonstrate (see map below), Novorossiya was solid for Viktor Yanukovych who was ousted February last by the Maidan revolution.  Support for that came, overwhelmingly, from outside the old territory of New Russia. 

What did I just say about Ukraine being “fragile”? 

Ukraine Presidential Election Results 2010

Ukraine Presidential Election 2010: New Russia solid for Yanukovych.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, it was the Bolsheviks – first Lenin, then Krushchev – who gifted Ukraine with what Tsarist Russia had acquired by many wars and with much expenditure of blood and treasure.

Now, I ask: if you were Russian, wouldn’t you feel that Ukraine is rather larger today than what, by its own efforts, it might be – a landlocked country?

Far be it from me to suggest, I hasten to add, that Russia should attempt to take back today territories which it gave away (historically speaking) only yesterday – borders legally established are sacrosanct, aren’t they?

When old nations and empires try to correct past mistakes, they come into collision with new constellations of interest, ambition and national sentiment.  These are the sleeping dogs-of-war that should be left to lie.

*Gary Scarrabelotti is Managing Director of the Canberra-based consulting firm Aequum: Political & Business Strategies. This article has also been published on the Henry Thornton blog.


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