Ukraine: The new pawn in imperialist geopolitics

Stepan Bandera collapsed and died on the Kreittmayrstrasse 7 in Munich. It was October 15, 1959. The 50 year old Ukrainian apparently had a seizure, fell, broke his neck and died. An autopsy would reveal traces of cyanide, which would prompt local authorities to speculate that the death was a suicide. The truth would emerge much later when Bohdan Stashinky, a KGB operative defected to the Americans in 1961 1. Stashinky had assassinated Bandera, using a spray gun filled with hydrogen cyanide gas. He was acting under orders from Aleksandr Shelepin, head of the KGB. At the time, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier, was working hard to market the image of a benevolent USSR to the international community. Yet it was the same Khrushchev who had authorised Shelepin to carry out the assassination. This extraordinary measure was because Stepan Bandera was no ordinary Soviet dissident. He was one of the leading members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a right wing group founded in 1929. The group had split in 1940 and Bandera headed the more radical OUN-B; B for Bandera. During 1941, as the Soviet Red Army was retreating from the Nazi juggernaut, Bandera's group sided with the Nazi Einsatzgruppen 2 and helped carry out the murder of Ukraine's Jews, ethnic minorities and communists. Bandera's declaration of Ukrainian independence was rejected by the Adolf Hitler and soon landed Bandera in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Towards the end of the war, the two sides mended relations, Bandera was released and helped conduct sabotage operations against the Red Army. After the war, Bandera helped co-ordinate the MI6 sabotage operations in Ukraine, in a bid to destabilise the USSR 3. It is disputable if Bandera was anti-Semitic; a better explanation of his political stance would be that he was a fanatic nationalist. Any individual or organisation that did not subscribe to their version of Ukrainian nationalism was subject to the OUN-B's and Bandera's wrath. The Soviet administration saw Bandera as an enemy of the state and identified his politics with fascism.

Bandera was born, in 1909, in western Ukraine into a deeply religious Greek-Catholic family. Historically, the western regions of Ukraine has always been different from the eastern regions that border Russia. The major chunk of area that constitutes Western Ukraine was never a part of the Russian Empire but the Habsburg Empire. Polish nationalism was considered by the Habsburgs as a force potent enough to break their empire. Thus the Habsburgs actively stoked Ukrainian nationalism; in the hope of it developing as a counter to the rising nationalism of the Polish regions 4. Between, the two world wars, Western Ukraine was effectively partitioned between Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania. Using the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, the Soviets annexed Western Ukraine into Soviet Ukraine to form an enlarged Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The regional divisions and material conditions in Western Ukraine still remained different from the rest of Ukraine. Understanding this fault line is critical to understanding Bandera's genesis and his image in modern Ukraine. It is also critical to understand why opinion is so divided in modern-day Ukraine. In the western regions of the country, Bandera is revered a hero and his actions are seen to be that of a nationalistic freedom fighter. In the east, Bandera is seen as a fascist murderer who helped slaughter Ukrainian Jews and other minorities. Eastern Ukraine had its own share of difficulties, including the Holdomor famine and the purges of the local administration, but integrated better into the Soviet system. The fact that Eastern Ukraine had been a part of Russia for nearly three centuries definitely aided in this process. The Second World War brought its share of miseries into Ukraine. Caught up between the brutality of the Nazi Wehrmacht and the scorched earth policy of the retreating Soviet Red Army, Ukraine suffered severe damages even early into the war. Ukraine would then become the theatre for some of the bloodiest and painful conflicts of the war- Kursk, Sevastopol and Kiev 5. The region would have a high priority in the post-war Five Year Plans of the USSR6. Eastern Ukraine would see an impressive industrialisation effort and the republic would re-emerge as the breadbasket of the USSR. The fact that Ukrainians like Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev would go on to dominate Soviet politics also seems to have helped in this reconstruction.

Crimea, which lies to the south eastern side of Ukraine, had been part of the Ottoman Empire until 1774, when the Russo-Turkish War forced the Ottomans to recognise Crimea as an independent political entity 7.The Russian Empire then annexed Crimea, in 1783, amidst mass deportations and genocide of Crimea's Tatar population. The Russo-Turkish War of 1883 and the Russian Empire's policy of exterminating the Tatars further aggravated the situation. The religious leaders of the Crimean Tatars were always resentful of atheistic Soviet and chose to side with the Nazis in the Second World War. As the Red Army regained Crimea, Stalin resorted to the age-old strategy of the Russian Tsars. The Tatars were deported,en masse, from Crimea to the Uzbek SSR. And Russian workers were soon brought in . This genocidal social re-engineering would make Crimea ethnically Russian, and was in line with Stalin's policy of Russification 7. The death of Stalin would usher in a wave of de-Stalinization and Russification would also be reversed. Nikita Khrushchev, the new Secretary of the Communist Party was wise enough not to attempt any further population shifts. But he was adamant, perhaps being a native Ukrainian himself, to be more inclusive about Ukraine. In a move to celebrate 300 years of Ukraine's (to be more specific, Eastern Ukraine's) union with Russia, Nikita Khrushchev initiated a remapping of the boundaries of Russia and Ukraine. Thus in 1954, the Crimean region was transferred from the Russian SFSR to the Ukrainian SFSR7. Given the rapid industrialisation that Eastern Ukraine was going through and the proximity of Crimea to Ukraine, this was seen as a logical move. The move was described as a 'symbolic gesture' and did not hold any geopolitical significance given the rigid structure of the USSR. The dissolution of the USSR was to change all that. Free movement of people was no longer curbed and the Crimean Tatar population slowly started returning to Crimea.

As the Berlin Wall came down, the prospects of East-West co-operation seemed a real possibility. The USA promised the Soviets that if a unified Germany is allowed to continue in the NATO, then there would be no further NATO expansion into the east 8. A seemingly low price to pay for the Soviet empire to fade into history. NATO expanded in 1999, incorporating the former Warsaw member states of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Russia was then in turmoil, reeling under the final days of Yeltsin's disastrous leadership. The second NATO expansion in 2004 added seven other nations including the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania. NATO was now at Russia's borders and looked all set to encircle Russia. Missile bases and tracking stations were being constructed in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia was still recovering from the economic trauma of the Soviet collapse and was in no position to challenge Western designs. This NATO expansion was followed by Western backed coloured revolutions- the Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003), The Orange Revolution in Ukraine(2004) and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan(2005). The Georgian 'revolution' would eventually culminate in a war between Russia and Georgia. Vladimir Putin would use Russia's 'concern' for ethnic Russians in breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a justification for Russian troops entering Georgian territory. It is interesting to understand the political status of the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Along with Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh they form the so-called 'frozen conflict zones'. In all of these provinces, the armed conflict that ensued after the breakup of the USSR has ended and the province in question has declared independence; although without widespread international recognition.

The Ukrainian independence referendum of 1991 saw people voting overwhelmingly (~84% of the population took part and ~92% of whom voted in favour) to leave the USSR 9. Corruption within the ruling circles and inefficient handling of crises like Chernobyl had helped turn public opinion against the Soviet state. Ukraine's insistence on leaving the USSR was crucial in ensuring that the Soviet Union did not survive, even in a limited scale. The country was however was not spared from the chaos of Soviet breakup either. Ukraine's first President, Leonid Kravchuk, was from the Western half of Ukraine and sought to steer his country into an anti-Russian position. He refused to legally recognise the presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea. State assets like the Black Sea Shipping Company 10, which was the world's largest shipping company, was sold out to foreign buyers citing fake state debts. Growing tensions with Russia also meant that trade relations suffered. Ukraine slid into 5 digit inflation rates and lost 60% of its GDP in the period 1991-199911. The state began defaulting on salaries to its employees. The 1994 elections saw the defeat of Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma emerged victorious. Kuchma's election manifesto included promises to fight corruption and better integrate Ukraine with Russia. Not surprisingly, he found tremendous support in the Russified Eastern Ukraine but fared badly in the nationalistic West. Once in power, Kuchma sought to please both Russia and the West. Kuchma agreed to partition the Black Sea Fleet and share naval resources and bases with Russia. Major assets of what constituted the Soviet Black Sea Fleet were leased to Russia till 2017. Kuchma then turned to placate the West by signing a special partnership agreement with NATO. An IMF bailout materialised following Kuchma's economic 'reforms' that included privatising state assets in industry and deregulating the banking sector. Kuchma's re-election in 1999 was interesting because his vote-base had flipped; it was the Western half that formed the basis of his new victory. Kuchma's second term was marked by alleged assassination of journalists and widespread corruption. Public outrage grew with Kuchma's misuse of power and meddling in the electoral process. It eventually resulted in the Orange Revolution of 2004.

The Orange Revolution helped Viktor Yushchenko win the 2005 elections. Yushchenko initiated further IMF 'reforms', moved for membership in NATO and initiated closer ties with the West. Yushchenko was allegedly the victim of a Russian sponsored dioxin poisoning in 2004; but this was later proven to be a move planned by the Yuvshchenko camp to shore up his approval ratings 12. Yushchenko also revived Stepan Bandera as a national hero and advocated hero status for anti-Soviet fighters of World War II. Bandera statues soon started going up in Ukrainian cities and statues of Lenin were frequently destroyed. By 2009, Bandera was on Ukrainian postal stamps and the next year saw him being posthumously awarded the 'Hero of Ukraine' medal, Ukraine's highest honour7. The rising popularity of Bandera meant deepening divisions within Ukrainian society. Conservative and fascist forces began to gain in prominence and power but Yushchenko was losing popularity. The elections of 2010 saw Yulia Timoshenko contesting instead of Viktor Yushchenko against Viktor Yanukovich, the opposition candidate. Yanukovich won by a slight margin and chose to reverse many of the policies of his predecessor. Yanukovich made it clear that Ukraine would never be a NATO member and was open to alliances with Russia. He also revoked Bandera's 'Hero of Ukraine' status. In a bid to emerge as a consensus candidate, Yanukovich expressed interest to join the EU and decried Soviet and Fascist authoritarianism with equal fervour. Yanukovich sought to improve relations with Russia. In 2010, he inked a deal that allowed Russia continual use of the Black Sea naval facilities till 2042. In return, Russia agreed to supply natural gas at a subsidised rate. A new law on languages initiated by Yanukovich in 2012, led to Russian being recognised as the official language in eastern and southern provinces7.


Ukraine's deteriorating economic situation forced Yanukovich to require international monetary assistance. Both the EU and Russia responded with aid packages. Yanukovich chose to opt for the larger Russian package and postponed a planned free trade agreement with the EU. On November 21, 2013, protesters took to the streets in Kiev opposing Yanukovich and his decision. The protests soon spiralled into the largest ever pro-European rally. Yanukovich attempted to crush the protests, which in-turn resulted in deaths and infuriated the public further. By February 2014, the Ukrainian Parliament was demanding Yanukovich's removal. In the ensuing confusion, Yanukovich fled to Russia. It became evident that the former president led an opulent lifestyle which included a palatial mansion and a personal zoo. Files and reports of power abuses soon came to light. Right-wing forces consolidated their power in Ukraine and Oleksander Turchynov assumed power as President. The rise of fascist and radical right wing groups like Svoboda and Right Sector under the new administration, provoked the fears of Crimea's population. Crimea had always enjoyed a special status, within Ukraine, as an autonomous province. Thus, the Crimean decision to hold a referendum has a legal basis. The Crimean referendum of 2014 was observed by numerous international observers and no violations were registered13. The referendum showed that the people of Crimea were (~96% of those who voted) in favour of joining the Russian Federation. Given Crimea has a 58% ethnic Russian population and the referendum recorded a 83% turnout, this means that considerable sections of the ethnic Ukrainian and ethnic Tatar population has voted in favour of joining Russia. Ukraine's new far right government has effectively widened the age old divisions within the country. Cheered on by the Western capital 14, Ukraine's new government has reduced the country to a pawn in the geopolitical chess game between the West and Russia.

Western and the Russian propaganda machines are churning out the best that they can. Western involvement in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Syria deny them any moral right to protest Russian actions in Ukraine. At the same time, it would be delusional to believe that Russia's involvement of Ukraine was aimed purely at protecting the ethnic Russians. The plight or aspirations of the people are hardly a priority in this geopolitical game.

Resurgent Russian imperialism. Image Credits: Dave Granlund

The West is determined to contain Russia; and Russia seems determined to emerge as a geopolitical power. Western attitude is probably best explained in the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. National Security Advisor, who once remarked, “Russia can be either an empire or a democracy, but it cannot be both. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire” 15. The Russians realise that controlling Ukraine by using gas prices as a leash, may not be feasible in the long run. They also understand that for naval access into the Mediterranean, it is not necessary to control all of Ukraine; it is enough to control the Crimean peninsula and in particular the city of Sevastopol. Unlike in the past, Russia's leaders now realise that the West has much to lose by imposing sanctions on Russia. It was in Syria that Putin probably first took a gamble with the West, and caught them off balance. Russia's intervention meant that the West did not get to dictate terms to the Syrian regime. At the time of writing this article, Bashar al Assad is still in power in Damascus and will in all probability have a dignified exit from politics 16. The crisis in Crimea has made it clear that Europe needs Russian oil as much as Russia needs European revenue. If the Crimean referendum is not accepted by the international community, Crimea will probably join Abkhazia and Transnistria as a 'frozen conflict' zone. If it is accepted, this could lead to further referendums in former Soviet republics and see a further expansion of Russia's borders. Perhaps, even Eastern Ukraine could be next. Putin has made his point; Russian interests in Ukraine will have to be respected by the west. If a diplomatic solution is to be found to this crisis, it will have to take Russia into confidence, cementing Russia's geopolitical power. Sadly, in this fight between a retreating Western imperialism and a resurgent Russian imperialism, the working class people of the region have nothing to gain; but new chains.

  • 7. a. b. c. d.