The immediacy of events in Ukraine, including the recent the pro-Ukranian demonstrations in Kiev and pro-Russian demonstrations in eastern Donetsk, have blinkered much understanding of the unfolding crisis to Moscow’s south. The triumphalism that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union left many Western observers blind to an underlying architecture predicated on Russia’s deeply felt need to never again be subject to a catastrophe like the “Great Patriotic War”.
Between 1941 and 1945, over 26 million people, more than one in eight, died within Soviet borders. As with the Jewish Holocaust, this lesson has not been forgotten.
The Soviet Union and the post-Soviet core Russian state wanted to retain a buffer between the state and potential aggressors, as well as to neutralise potential enemies along its borders. This fits hand in glove with President Vladimir Putin’s plan for a Eurasian Union, in much the same way that the European Union was intended to neutralise long-term enmity between European states.
There is little doubt that the Russian media’s hyperbole over Ukraine’s neo-Nazis is vastly overblown, not least given the presence of neo-Nazis in Russia. Putin is himself sympathetic to “White Russian” philosopher Ivan Ilych. But that there remain members of Ukraine’s government with at least a neo-Nazi past remains genuinely troubling, both for Russia as well as a more moderate West.
In particular, the All Ukrainian Union “Svoboda” party, which has five members in government, was created in the early post-Soviet era as the Social-National Party of Ukraine, intentionally mirroring the German Nazi National-Socialist Party name. Its defining characteristics were ethnic exclusivity, anti-Semitism, pronounced neo-Nazi rhetoric and, until 2003, the stylised neo-Nazi “wolf-hook” (wolfsangel) logo …
However, by 2005, Svoboda had begun to purge its more extreme elements, broke with other European neo-Nazi groups and attempted to take on a more moderate hue. It has since clashed with other neo-Nazi groups, including the radical Right Sector at Euromaidan during the protests that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych.
Along with moderation came political success, with Svoboda’s vote increasing from a negligible proportion to around 10.4% in the 2012 elections. Some Ukranian neo-Nazi groups also had members elected as independents, although failed to gain inclusion in the new government.
That Ukrainian Nazis were key allies of German Nazis in World War II is not lost on Russian politicians. This then feeds into Russian concerns over what one former British diplomat posted to Moscow has referred to as its own “arc of instability”, which ranges from Belarus bordering Poland to the west, Moldova and Ukraine to the south-east and the troubled Caucasus region of Abkhazia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Dagestan and the rest to the south and south-west.
Without its outer layer of the old Soviet bloc states to the west, unable to fully control otherwise independent former Soviet states and with ethnically distinct regions variously attempting to separate, Russia, in its darker moments, is afraid. This fear provokes a bombastic assertion, as if to ward off past nightmares.
In its more rational moments, Russia seeks future security through the Eurasia Union trading zone. But it remains brittle when challenged — hence Russia’s intervention in the now less pliable Ukraine.
There is little economic value in creating Crimea as an internal part of the Russian state, and even its strategic value is less than it once was; Russia has other Black Sea bases. But this effective annexation is an assertion of regional dominance, which has been to date successful.
Assuming a continued lack of Ukranian compliance, Russia’s next step is likely to be “assisting” ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine also break away. The West will continue to protest, without a united voice.
But Russia’s “facts on the ground” are just that, and no one is going to war over Ukraine, probably including Ukrainians themselves.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University