Editor’s Note: The following Geopolitical Weekly originally ran in November 2010 as part of our Geopolitical Journey series. We repost it today as Ukraine’s position between Europe and Russia puts it in the spotlight.
By George Friedman
The name “Ukraine” literally translates as “on the edge.” It is a country on the edge of other countries, sometimes part of one, sometimes part of another and more frequently divided. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was divided between Russia, Poland and the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, it was divided between Russia and Austria-Hungary. And in the 20th century, save for a short period of independence after World War I, it became part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine has been on the edge of empires for centuries.
My father was born in Ukraine in 1912, in a town in the Carpathians now called Uzhgorod. It was part of Austria-Hungary when he was born, and by the time he was 10 the border had moved a few miles east, so his family moved a few miles west. My father claimed to speak seven languages (Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Yiddish). As a child, I was deeply impressed by his learning. It was only later that I discovered that his linguistic skills extended only to such phrases as “What do you want for that scrawny chicken?” and “Please don’t shoot.”
He could indeed make himself understood in such non-trivial matters in all these languages. Consider the reason: Uzhgorod today is on the Slovakian border, about 30 miles from Poland, 15 miles from Hungary and 50 miles from Romania. When my father was growing up, the borders moved constantly, and knowing these languages mattered. You were never sure what you’d be a citizen or subject of next or who would be aiming a rifle at you.
My father lived on the edge until the Germans came in 1941 and swept everything before them, and then until the Soviets returned in 1944 and swept everything before them. He was one of tens of millions who lived or died on the edge, and perhaps nowhere was there as much suffering from living on the edge than in Ukraine. Ukraine was caught between Stalin and Hitler, between planned famines and outright slaughter, to be relieved only by the grinding misery of post-Stalin communism. No European country suffered as much in the 20th century as Ukraine. From 1914 until 1945, Ukraine was as close to hell as one can reach in this life.
Asking to be Ruled
Ukraine was, oddly enough, shaped by Norsemen, who swept down and set up trading posts, eventually ruling over some local populations. According to early histories, the native tribes made the following invitation: “Our land is great and rich, but there is no law in it. Come to rule and reign over us.” This is debated, as Anne Reid, author of the excellent “Borderland: Journey through the History of Ukraine,” points out. But it really doesn’t matter, since they came as merchants rather than conquerors, creating a city, Kiev, at the point where the extraordinarily wide Dnieper River narrows.
Still, few historians doubt that some offer of this type was made. I can imagine inhabitants of what became Ukraine making such an offer in ways I can’t imagine in other places. The flat country is made for internal conflict and dissension, and the hunger for a foreigner to come and stabilize a rich land is not always far from Ukrainians’ thoughts. Out of this grew the Kievan Rus, the precursor of modern Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. There are endless arguments over whether Ukraine created Russia or vice versa. Suffice it to say, they developed together. That is more important than who did what to whom.
Consider the way they are said to have chosen their religion. Volodymyr, a pagan ruler, decided that he needed a modern religion. He considered Islam and rejected it because he wanted to drink. He considered Catholicism and rejected it because he had lots of concubines he didn’t want to give up. He finally decided on Orthodox Christianity, which struck him as both beautiful and flexible. As Reid points out, there were profound consequences: “By choosing Christianity rather than Islam, Volodymyr cast Rus’ ambitions forever in Europe rather than Asia, and by taking Christianity from Byzantium rather than Rome he bound the future Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians together in Orthodoxy, fatally dividing them from their Catholic neighbors the Poles.” I suspect that while Volodymyr liked his drink and his women, he was most concerned with finding a balance between powers and chose Byzantium to create space for Ukraine.
Ukraine, Europe and Russia
Ukraine is on the edge again today, trying to find space. It is on the edge of Russia and on the edge of Europe, its old position. What makes this position unique is that Ukraine is independent and has been so for 18 years. This is the longest period of Ukrainian independence in centuries. What is most striking about the Ukrainians is that, while they appear to value their independence, the internal debate seems to focus in part on what foreign entity they should be aligned with. People in the west want to be part of the European Union. People in the east want to be closer to the Russians. The Ukrainians want to remain independent but not simply independent.
It makes for an asymmetric relationship. Many Ukrainians want to join the European Union, which as a whole is ambivalent at best about Ukraine. On the other hand, Ukraine matters as much to the Russians as it does to Ukrainians, just as it always has. Ukraine is as important to Russian national security as Scotland is to England or Texas is to the United States. In the hands of an enemy, these places would pose an existential threat to all three countries. Therefore, rumors to the contrary, neither Scotland nor Texas is going anywhere. Nor is Ukraine, if Russia has anything to do with it. And this reality shapes the core of Ukrainian life. In a fundamental sense, geography has imposed limits on Ukrainian national sovereignty and therefore on the lives of Ukrainians.
From a purely strategic standpoint, Ukraine is Russia’s soft underbelly. Dominated by Russia, Ukraine anchors Russian power in the Carpathians. These mountains are not impossible to penetrate, but they can’t be penetrated easily. If Ukraine is under the influence or control of a Western power, Russia’s (and Belarus’) southern flank is wide open along an arc running from the Polish border east almost to Volgograd then south to the Sea of Azov, a distance of more than 1,000 miles, more than 700 of which lie along Russia proper. There are few natural barriers.
For Russia, Ukraine is a matter of fundamental national security. For a Western power, Ukraine is of value only if that power is planning to engage and defeat Russia, as the Germans tried to do in World War II. At the moment, given that no one in Europe or in the United States is thinking of engaging Russia militarily, Ukraine is not an