By Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman
Ukraine is the largest country in Europe (if we exclude the giant, Russia, most of which is in Asia). The Ukraine is just one more country in the world facing what Robert Kaplan calls “the revenge of geography.” The location of a country can tell us if they are protected by two oceans (the US and Japan), mountain strongholds (Switzerland), or wide open to invaders from all sides (Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Germany).
Another geographic issue is fault-lines: countries divided by the differing cultures and religions of their invaders. Yugoslavia, for example, was divided among the cultures of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Islam. Once its Marxist dictatorship fell, Yugoslavia could not hold together under a democracy; it had no history of religious and ethnic tolerance. It is now four smaller countries.
Ukraine falls across more than one fault line: the lines between Europe and Russia; Catholicism, Russian Orthodoxy, and Islam; and Ukrainian and Russian languages. These are issues can go unaddressed as long as a firm dictatorship keeps the lid on. However, as we have seen elsewhere, when the dictatorship falls, an illiberal sort of democracy, or worse than that, anarchy, emerges.
During the Middle Ages, Ukraine was an independent duchy, but because of its chaotic geography and warfare on all sides, it sought the protection of Russia. That protection became permanent under Catherine the Great. The rest of Ukraine’s history is a dizzying run of wars, temporary independence, retaking by the Russian Empire, brief freedom at the end of World War I, and absorption by the USSR. Its new independence was the result of an agreement among the dissolved Soviet Union, The UK, and the US, in which Ukraine surrendered all of its nuclear facilities and was guaranteed its independence.
As a new democracy, lacking experience with liberal democracy, it has not done well. The new Russia was never reconciled to the loss of its empire. President Putin once told President George W. Bush that the Ukraine was not a real country; it had always been a province of Russia. The Russian fleet is housed in the Crimea, the southernmost part of Ukraine, and this is Russia’s only warm water port.
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