As people in Eastern Ukraine go to the polls and decide whether to separate from the rest of Ukraine, the West is convinced that this is another tactical move by Russian President Vladimir Putin to recreate the Russian Empire.
Yet the situation, as it has evolved, is not as simple as an aggressive Russian president pandering to nationalism and dreams of imperial greatness but also of regional particularism.
The Ukrainian crisis began last February when the government of President Victor Yanukovych was toppled because he opposed closer ties between Ukraine and the EU. Yanukovych was not only pro-Russian, but alsoPutin’s man in the country who was obliged to keep Ukraine within Moscow’s sphere of influence. He failed.
He failed because he lost control of the demonstrations in Kiev and other cities and because he used the police to shoot at his own people in another failed attempted to control the situation.
As a result of these actions, a pro-West government took control of Ukraine, which threatened Russia’s security architecture and Putin reacted quickly to salvage what he could from the situation. The result was that Crimea voted to unite with Russia and abandon Ukraine amidst international condemnation.
The US and its allies imposed symbolic economic sanctions and took turns castigating Putin as a reincarnation of Hitler. Subsequently, Putin realized that Western threats were toothless and he could continue to slice off parts of Ukraine, while the West could only counter with a cacophony of new condemnations.
The next move by Putin was to encourage Russophones in the Eastern Ukraine to break away, while using Russia’s energy advantage to finish off Ukraine’s crippled economy.
After Crimea united with Russia, Moscow declared that the 2010 Kharkov Pact, which extended Russia’s lease on the Crimean port of Sevastopol in exchange for lower gas and petroleum, was null and void.
As a result, Russia presented the new government in Kiev with a $15 billion dollar bill. Consequently, any financial aid from the West will have to be used by Ukraine to pay off the $15 billion dollar debt.
Ukrainians, facing the reality of the country’s economic ruin, and the fact that the finances will remain a mess for a long time to come, may be one reason why many of the country’s citizens, especially those who identify with Russia and Russian culture are prepared to secede. Another factor is religion.
Just over 70% of Ukrainians identify with the Eastern Orthodox Church, and over 75% believe in God, while 35% go to Church frequently. Consequently, religious identification and the influence of the Eastern Orthodox churches play a significant role in Ukraine. The difficulty, however, is that the Eastern Orthodox are divided over their allegiance to Ukraine and Russia.
The Eastern Orthodox Ukrainian are divided into three churches, of which the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople recognizes only one: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate).
The others are not so much not recognized but less recognized as convoluted as this appears. The largest, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate), represents about 39% of Ukrainians but is predominant in Western Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) accounts for approximately 30% of Ukrainians but its following is 80-90% in Eastern Ukraine.
The smallest of the three, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church has a following of only 2.8% of the population and is also strongest in Western Ukraine. This is the case with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which accounts for 14% of Ukrainians but exists predominantly in Western Ukraine. The equally small Protestant (2.4%) and Roman Catholic (1.7%) are also centred in Western Ukraine. The remaining 3% of Jews, Muslims and others are dispersed in the west and south.
It is not coincidence that the many of the followers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate in Eastern Ukraine identify with Russia, and it is from this region that there is a movement to separate from Ukraine.
Equally significant was that during the Soviet era all the Christian and non-Christian churches were persecuted by the Soviet security services except for the Russian Orthodox Church and its Ukrainian counterpart.
Finally, in Ukraine the main opposition to the Soviet system was based in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It should not be surprising that at the Geneva meeting Putin accused the Greek Catholics of racism and anti-Semitism; as a former Soviet leader, Putin continues to maintain the likes and dislikes of that bygone age.
The religious factor is also evident in the new leadership of Ukraine. The interim president, Olekandr Turchynov is a Baptist and the forces that ousted the pro-Russian Yanukovych were Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate).
Undoubtedly, Putin will exploit the fact that the people of Eastern Ukraine have a common language (predominantly Russian), live within a defined territory, have a common culture (mostly Russian) and a common religion (Ukrainian Orthodox, Moscow Patriarchate) and accept their wish to join Russia.
The combination of these factors is a compelling case for an autonomous Eastern Ukraine, but joining Russia will threaten the cohesion of Ukraine. The options for the Kiev government are to accept Putin’s salami tactics and watch their country be taken apart piece-by-piece or reassert their authority in Eastern Ukraine by military means.
One choice means Russia’s eventual absorption of Ukraine and the other civil war. The failure of the West to contain Putin by the use of force (economic or military) or to practice statesmanship and balance the interests of Ukraine with those of Russia’s security has brought matters to this lamentable state.
By isolating Putin, the United States and its allies gave him little choice but to continue his aggression against Ukraine. Quite simply, he has nothing to lose.
Andre Gerolymatos is Director of the Stavros Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver