The recent manifestations against the Ukrainian government are one of the most violent the country has ever known. They are intensifying and spreading throughout the country. This article is not an interpretation of the clashes between the political regime and the demonstrators. First, it would be advisable to analyse the geopolitical situation of Ukraine so as to understand the stakes of such uprising. By Jake Sportiello.
Ukraine is the biggest country in Europe after Russia; it covers 603.000 square kilometres of the continent. It is located in the East of the European Union, in the West of Russia and in the North of the Black Sea. Therefore, the country is at a crossroads between 2 main European trunk roads, railways, and hydrocarbon transportation routes. Its association with either the European Union or Russia is thus a major political issue. Ukraine has never really been an independent state. It had been controlled by both the Polish Empire and the Mongol Empire in the fourteenth century, by both the Polish Empire and the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth, been a part of the Tsarist Empire and of the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. The scars of History can nowadays be found in the demography. On forty-eight million inhabitants, seventy-three percent are of Ukrainian origin, twenty-two percent are of Russian origin and five percent are Polish, Belarusian or Tatars. The country is divided between a catholic, almost nationalist and anti-Russian West and an orthodox Russian-speaking East. Consequently, Ukraine is a split nation without any real culture of independence. Finding an ally on the continent becomes a primordial necessity.
Russia has close relations with Ukraine. Russian is the second language in the country and Ukrainians are considered a brotherly people. The independence of 1991 is seen by Moscow as the loss of a region linked to the Russian identity. However, the country is subordinate to its neighbour, which is Kiev’s first commercial partner. It is subject to important investments and the relatively good economy of Russia benefits the population (there has been fine economic growth in the past decade). Moscow has recognised Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea in exchange for the stationing of Russian fleets in the territory, especially the Port of Sevastopol. Russia is also its main hydrocarbon supplier; indeed, Ukraine enjoys a thirty percent discount on the price of natural gas.
Kiev is on good terms with the European Union too. In 1994, they signed a Cooperation and Partnership Agreement. In 2002, Ukraine creates a Committee for European Integration and the expansion of the Union to the western borders of the country, and in 2004 revived relations with Brussels. Contentious issues still exist though, particularly considering nuclear security. Despite the closure of Chernobyl, two power plants that were built afterwards (Rovno and Khmelnytski) still do not meet international safety norms. Nevertheless, there is overall a real economic reorientation since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Relations with NATO have well changed as well. In 1997 Ukraine signed a Charter that authorises them to join the building of European Security. Later on, Kiev will send one thousand, eight hundred soldiers to Iraq. In exchange, the US facilitates the liberalisation of the state by giving many credit terms.
During the Cold War, two theories of globalisation were confronting each other: capitalism, dominated by the US, and communism, in which the People’s Republic of China and USSR were competing against each other. At the downfall of the Soviet Union, the prospect of an expansion of the ‘globalisation-westernisation’ was rapidly taken into account. NATO geopolitical goals are, as a result, to stop China from becoming the leading world power and to pull Russian influence back over its borders. According to Zbigniew Brzezinski, “anyone who controls Eurasia […] controls the planet” (The Grand Chessboard). The objective is to ‘slide’ NATO frontiers to the East and to influence ex-soviet nations (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Ukraine). Containing both China and Russia is necessary in order to dominate the continent. There is also a need to keep energy dependence in check, but eighty percent of the Ukraine’s naval bases are rented by Russia.
Without Ukraine, Russia could then lose a significant part of its power. Moscow uses the hydrocarbon dependence of its peripheral countries as a defence weapon. It means that the country needs to control the Baltic isthmus that links the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, hence the quasi-permanent pressure that they put on Kiev. It is a highly important site in strategic terms for the Kremlin: Russia is able to project itself in the Mediterranean zone and to overlook the western Caucasus, in order to keep its influence on some ex-soviet states.
Ukraine is what Halford MacKinder called a ‘geopolitical pivot’. It is a territory that has a central role in the rivalries of two world powers (in that case, Russia and the EU, integrated in the military command structure of NATO) thanks to its geographic characteristics and resources. Tensions in the country are thus unlikely to stop soon. In any event, the use of weaponry both by the state and the protesters portends a coup d’état against the institutions and might go as far as civil war.