The Long Game: Ukraine as a Geopolitical Pivot

24 April 2014 — Dispatches from the Empire

Writing in 1997, Zbigniew Brzezinski predicted that the Ukraine would become a serious candidate for EU and NATO membership sometime between 2005 and 2015. He further predicted that, beyond 2010, the Ukraine could link up with France, Germany and Poland to establish a ‘critical core’ for Europe’s future security and provide an ‘Eastern anchor’ for ‘Atlanticist Europe’. (See Brzezinski The Grand Chessboard and Foreign Affairs Sept-Oct 1997). Later that year he wrote that Ukraine had no realistic chance of pursuing a ‘multi-vector’ policy, of facing both East and West. It would either be reintegrated into the CIS, or it would become a de facto Central European State. The latter would enable the Ukraine to become an ‘integral part of the Euro-Atlantic community’ (See Brzezinski ‘Ukraine’s Critical Role in the Post-Soviet Space’ Politics and the Times 1997).

Brzezinski wrote with canny foresight at a time when Eurasian sympathies were still strong in the Ukraine. Through the late 90?s the Communist Party, re-founded in 1993 after being banned in 1991, was actually more popular in the Ukraine than in Russia. The Communists were the strongest party in the Rada, and in 1999 the Communist leader, Symonenko, received 37.8 % of the vote in the second round presidential faceoff against Kuchma. Another clear indication of Eurasian sympathies was the Rada’s response to NATO action in Kosovo in March 1999, when it condemned the action by a vote of 231-46. Now that Nationalism/Atlanticism is much stronger in Ukraine – with Nationalist/Atlanticist parties achieving 50% of the vote at the 2012 Rada elections – Brzezinski’s prediction is becoming a reality.

Brzezinski, a former National Security Advisor to President Carter and an influential thinker in US Foreign Policy circles, has always had an audience in the Ukraine. The Kiev based National Institute for Strategic Studies, an Atlanticist, state-sponsored institute with close ties to western think tanks, published a study in 1997 that argued that
‘as long as Ukraine adopts a pendulum politics of symmetrical manoeuvre between the Russian and Western poles, it will experience pressure from the West, in so far as the latter is not interested in a strong Ukraine as a potential component part of Russia in the case of Ukrainian drift towards the Russian Federation.’
Consequently, the study argued that Ukraine should pursue a process of ‘European and Euro-Atlantic integration, deepening relations with European countries and beginning a progressive departure from the Eurasian zone of Russian influence’, at the same time seeking ‘relations with the USA on the level of a strategic partnership on the basis of a strengthening of the contradictions between Washington and Moscow’(O.F Belov et al., Natsional’na bezpeka Ukrainy 1994-1996 – Kiev: National Institute of Strategic Studies, 1997).

The implications are clear. Ukraine can’t expect strategic support from the USA unless it turns away from Russia because the USA and Russia are inevitable geopolitical opponents. Ukraine has to take sides.

With the eastward expansion of NATO during the last 20 years, we are now seeing the Atlanticist project reach its Ukrainian pivot point, one of the five key ‘geopolitical pivots’ that Brzezinski had identified in 1997 (the others were Azerbaijan, South Korea, Turkey and Iran). For Brzezinski, Ukraine’s importance lay in controlling Russian access to the west and south and acting as a defensive shield for Central Europe. This is clearly the strategic background for the long NATO interest in the Ukraine, expressed in the 1997 Charter on a Distinctive Partnership concluded between NATO and the Ukraine, which notes:

‘NATO’s positive role in maintaining peace and stability in Europe and in promoting greater confidence and transparency in the Euro-Atlantic area, and its openness for cooperation with the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, an inseparable part of which is Ukraine’

Clearly, this places Ukraine firmly in the Euro-Atlanticist camp as a European, rather than a Eurasian actor.

However, that is not to say that Ukraine does not have a potential Eurasian destiny that is compatible with being in the Atlanticist camp. Another vision of Ukrainian geopolitics was that of the Ukrainian nationalist geographer, Yurii Lypa, who in the 1940?s wrote two obscure works – The Division of Russia (1941) and The Black Sea Doctrine (1947). In the latter, Lypa predicted that Russia was an artificial state facing imminent collapse and that consequently Transcaucasia was a natural sphere of Ukrainian influence and a bridge to the East. Lypa speculated that Ukraine could expand its influence through the Caucasus to Turkey, Iran, India and even China – having first secured control of the Crimean peninsula. Lypa also saw Transcaucasia as Ukraine’s natural source of energy and raw materials.

Lypa was at one time a favourite of the UNA-UNSO, a Christian Orthodox Ukrainian nationalist group with third-positionist sympathies that merged with Pravy Sektor in March 2014. Elements of the group are rumoured to have fought in the Georgian and Chechen wars. In 1996 the group established a Ukrainian Black Sea and National Geopolitics Institute in Odessa that was named after Lypa.

In light of Lypa’s vision, it is interesting to consider the GUAM initiative which Ukraine was instrumental in establishing in 1997. A loose alliance of four states – Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova – the crux of the association was oil, with Azerbaijan the intended producer and Georgia the transit state to the Ukrainian and Moldovan markets. In 2001 a charter was signed committing the parties to regional security and increased European integration. Following a period of inactivity, GUAM has been enjoying renewed activity since 2006. It has a permanent organisational structure with a number of dedicated working groups and has official bilateral associations with the USA, Japan and Poland. There have even been discussions about establishing a peacekeeping capability.

It is also interesting to note that Lypa’s vision of a fragmenting Russia is not dissimilar to Brzezinski’s. In The Division of Russia (1941) Lypa predicted that Russia would eventually collapse into four regions, leaving the lower Volga and Caucusus regions as a natural space for Ukrainian expansion. Brzezinski also speculated that a future Russia might disintegrate into a looser confederation (see A Geostrategy for Eurasia, Foreign Affairs, Sept-Oct 1997).

The Long Game for a nationalist Ukraine may be a combination of these two different, but potentially complementary geopolitical strategies. On the one hand, as the eastern front of the Atlanticist bloc, Ukraine would act as a natural buffer to Russia’s South and West, keep an eye on Eurasian Belarus, and provide NATO with a staging post for military capabilities and maritime access to the Black Sea and Mediterranean – at a time when NATO’s relationship with Turkey is strained by the growing influence of Islamist Neo-Ottomanism in Turkish foreign policy.

On the other hand, if Russia weakens, Ukraine is also a potential bridge for the Atlanticist bloc into the Transcaucasian region, linking up with anti-Russian Georgia and the Baku oil fields, and acting as the western terminus of a geopolitical space that reaches all the way to Iran – another key geopolitical opponent of the Atlanticists.

In fact, combining these two strategic models, Ukraine becomes a critical actor in a geopolitical space that encompasses three of Brzezinski’s remaining four geopolitical pivots – Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran. However, it is immediately obvious that the loss of Crimea is clearly a significant blow to both strategies. This may go some way to explaining both the Putin regime’s eagerness to support the Crimean succession as well as the strong opposition from the Atlanticist bloc.

If Ukraine has a nationalist ‘manifest destiny’, then perhaps it was well expressed by Dmytro Korchnysky, former leader of the UNA-UNSO, who stated in 1998:

‘Ukraine can exist only as a dragon, with its tail in the Far East, its heart in the Caucasus, and its head in the Balkans’ (Andrew Wilson The Ukrainians 2009)

In Ukrainian mythology, dragons sometimes have many heads. Perhaps this one also has a head in Washington?

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