Peace has been something of a stranger in recent times to the shores the Black Sea have bathed for an eternity. In the Caucasus, where Russia’s resort-jewel Sochi has focused the eyes of the globe for a Winter Olympics, deep ethnic divisions still fester in Russia’s borderlands with Georgia and Armenia, and terror attacks have been frequent in the region, not to mention an abortive Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. Not so many years before, the Russian military crushed a rebel insurgency in Chechnya, leaving open wounds that still fester and breeding a hatred still bright with blood.
The Russians, it appears, have a tough time learning from their own troubled history. Once a bread-basket bastion of the old Soviet empire, Ukraine’s people have had a long and bitter relationship with Moscow, since even before the days of the tsars and the Romanov dynasty.
Today, as the country emerges from the still-warm fires of revolution, its destiny is by no means secure. Divided deeply along geographic lines, the east is inclined toward Russian President Vladimir Putin’s New Russia, while the west looks toward Europe for its future.
Ruminations emanating from Moscow of a possible Russian military intervention in the country of 44 million illustrates how little Russia’s leaders have learned from the not-so-distant past. Attempted hegemony in Eastern Europe by the Soviets during the second half of the 20th century eventually broke the back of the seven-decade Russian communist regime, and brought the Cold War to an ignominius end in 1991.
Canada has joined with the U.S. and other NATO partners in issuing a stern warning to Russia that any insertion of troops into the region would be “a grave mistake”. That being said, the teeth of Western threats have lost something of their sting of late.
The failure of the West to react with anything more than stern words to the Assad regime’s gross human rights violations in Syria served notice to aspiring genocidal dictators around the world that it would soon be open season for any kind of reprehensible violence — as long as you don’t start gassing people to death. That isn’t exactly, “In the interests of world peace”. But massacring civilians with bullets, bombs and bayonets, as long as you don’t break out the sarin nerve gas.
Not to mention the fact the Americans and their coalition allies recently invaded another country not far from Syria in the belief they possessed weapons of mass destruction, and it turned out they couldn’t even find any. And yet when another Middle Eastern nation starts actually using them against their own civilian population, the Americans can hardly be bothered to fire off a few tomahawk cruise missiles, let alone put boots on the ground.
Notwithstanding the dangers of a selective approach to world policy, the Russians can probably rest easy that whatever they might attempt in Ukraine — up to and including annexing a large part of the country — will probably be met by little more than half-hearted protests and sanctions from capitals throughout the West.
Weeks of protests and recent violence in Ukraine have succeeded in ousting Ukrianian president Viktor Yanukovych, but a dangerous power vacuum now exists in the former Soviet satellite, one which might be too tempting for the Russians to resist.
The unrest in Kyiv and other parts of the Ukraine has marked the worst violence since German panzer divisions rolled across her wide plains driving the Red Army before them during WWII. The recent protests were sparked when Yanukovych rejected an integration pact with the European Union and pushed instead to strengthen ties with Putin’s Russia. Recent clashes in the capital have claimed the lives of at least 82 people.
Although spring elections have since been promised, and jailed former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko has been released, an uneasy and shaky peace reigned over Kyiv on the weekend, and it remains uncertain if another eruption of violence might be on the horizon.
If the Russians do choose to try to interfere in the internal affairs of Ukraine, or attempt to occupy the country, they could be met by grudging acceptance in some regions, especially in the east. In other regions, however, they could be met by fierce resistance from many Ukrainians who still remember the Soviet legacy and the incredible indifference and horror with which Moscow sometimes ruled, especially during the Stalinist period. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — who incidentally was an ethnic Georgian, and often liked to holiday at his dacha in Sochi — was responsible for the deaths of more than 20 million of his own people. A mass murderer of all Soviet citizens, Stalin still reserved some of his most vehement hatred for the Ukrainians, who he viewed as little better than sub-human peasants. Close to a million are estimated to have died during the collectivization of agriculture in the early 1930s, a huge proportion of which were ethnic Ukrainians.
Later in the 1930s, the Soviet terror-famine which has come to be known today as the Holodomor wiped out millions of Ukrainians, with estimates sometimes running as high as 10 million deaths by starvation. One of the darkest chapters of human history saw Stalin perpetrate forced grain expropriations from the region to fund his mass industrialization of the country, creating a regime-induced famine where whole generations were wiped out, and where cannibalism was practiced on a wide scale.
It is these legacies, and others from the Soviet period, which run deep in the ethnic memories of many Ukrainians. While the Russians may find it convenient to forget these historical trivialities, many Ukrainians probably would not. Putin and his New Russia would do well not to forget that history has a way of rearing its ugly head when those who wish to forget it least expect it. Intervention in Ukraine could prove to be ill-advised — and not just because the West doesn’t approve. Victories of today have the troubling tendency to become the insurgencies of tomorrow, and while conquest is sometimes easy, control is often not.
In a disturbing and curious footnote, there are still millions today in Russia who revere Stalin as a glorious leader who forged the nation in steel with his own two hands, and like Holocaust-deniers, choose to look upon his terrible excesses as exaggerations or false propaganda. It is worth noting as well that the Russians have felt themselves unable to part with the old Stalinist national anthem, which exalts the glories of revolution and the triumph of socialism. Ultra-nationalism — that bane of the late 19th century which helped lead the globe into world war in 1914 — is alive and well in today’s Russia, and celebrating a past filled with embellished Soviet victories and triumphs has little room for the dark realities of a former regime responsible for the deaths of millions.
Historical revisionism is the last refuge of a dictator. One hopes it will not be an invitation to more violence in Ukraine if Russia and her president choose to ignore the lessons of the recent past.