There is apparently a war of some sort brewing between Ukraine and Russia. How hot it will get can’t be known. Perhaps cooler heads will prevail. Perhaps Russian President Putin and whomever is in charge of Ukraine at the moment will come to some accommodation. How dangerous it is to Europe or the United States is also hard to determine, though, perhaps easier to assess. Then too, there’s this idea that the United States must do something to prevent whatever it is that Russia wants to do, and in the parlance of our times, “stand with Ukraine.” So let’s take a look at what most Americans, including our government, seem to be unaware of, and what Putin’s and Ukraine’s, and even Europe’s, as embodied in the European Union, options are.
All of this is embroiled with history and pride, ethnicity and economics, power and position, of course. It’s a power play by Putin – partly to distract from his failing country. That Russia is failing is evident by the fact that nearly ever demographer is rather sure that Russia will have a decreasing population over the next several decades. There are now some 140,000,000 people living in Russia – and from what I’ve seen, demographers expect it to fall to 100,000,000 within 50 years. That a country can lose that many people is rough enough. But it’s not because they are leaving – though many are. It’s because the birthrate has simply collapsed. The Russian government actually is trying to pay people to have babies – and they’re not doing it. Why? Probably because of the way Russia is run – no one seems to want to bring a new child into the morass of the place.
Ah, history – this is the thing that so many ignore. Though I doubt Putin is complete unaware of it, I doubt he knows the whole story. For Russians have always played loose with history. But the reality is that the “Russian” nation started in Kiev. And Kiev happens to be the capital of Ukraine. And in a sense, current Russia wants to reincarnate ancient Russia. For there never really was an independent Ukraine. For more than 1000 years ago Kievan Rus was the name of a duchy, of a principality – but never a kingdom. And the reason that Kiev is the capital of ancient Rus. It’s much older than Moscow, for sure.
Ancient Kiev was founded by Norse traders – most specifically the “Ruriks.” They put the city where it is because they needed to guard the trade routes between the Norse, or Vikings, and Byzantium. It just so happens that it’s easy to go up the Dniester, Don and Volga rivers way to the north from the Black Sea – at whose sound end is the city of Istanbul, which used to be Constantinople – and then with a small portage, or land journey, get back into a handful of rivers and head to the Baltic. And the Norse were far ranging traders. Back before 1000 AD they set up Kiev to guard this route. These people were the Rus, from which the word “Russia” derives. They were not the Slavic masses, nor the Tarters, Huns, Avars and others who spread out across this endless flatness that is western Russia and Ukraine. They were a small group who were busy making money. They just wanted to protect their interests.
Ethnically, Russians and Ukrainians are really the same people. They are an amalgam of 1000 years of marauders, tribes, groups, and people passing through: Tartars, Mongols, Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Slavs and many other groups whose names are lost to history, or known only by the most intrepid of researchers. These peoples coagulated into what we call Russians and Ukrainians today. The “two” languages are pretty much the same. Probably akin to the difference between British English and American English. Anyone from one country can fairly easily converse with anyone from the other. The idea of “two” languages is more nation-state pride than reality. They are even both written in the same Cyrillic script, developed by Saints Constantine, Cyril and Method as they set out from Byzantium in the 900s AD to Christianize the peoples on the north side of the Black Sea.
Economically, Ukraine is a breadbasket – vast arable land that grow wheat, barley, oats, beets and other foodstuffs that Russia doesn’t grow in nearly such quantities. The climate and land is better for agriculture in the Ukraine than in Russia. On the other hand, Russia has oil, gas and minerals galore which Ukraine doesn’t have. They are dependent on each other in many ways.
Then too, Russian princes, for more than 1000 years, wanted a port on the Black Sea – for Russia, despite it’s coastline, is, in fact, a landlocked nation. The only ports that are ice free are in the Ukraine. Or so far east that they serve no point. And the little bit of coast they have on the Baltic is insufficient. Then too, for Russia to trade with Europe – to which it sells oil and gas especially – has to ship it across Ukraine – and something called “Belorussia” – another modern nation which is not really more than a strange mixture of Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Russians. It was never country until just the past 20 years or so. Yet, it never quite belonged to anyone as the various principalities and kingdoms of long ago moved the border this way and that – and settled their people there in a vain attempt to become the majority. It, too, speak Russian/Ukrainian and writes in Cyrillic. It is so dependent on Russia that it is more or less reabsorbed in all but name.
So Putin is faced with a declining country that is landlocked and without sufficient food to feed itself. And it must send its raw materials through places that were long part of its empire in one way or the other.
Without knowing this history – and not in the brief way I put it above – but in the details that are very real to all the people involved – it’s hard to understand why Russia wants Ukraine back in the fold. It’s simple economics – why bother to pay a “foreign” country transshipment costs and buy stuff from a “foreign” land, when one can just make it part of Greater Russia once more.
Of course, in our current times, the Ukraine is an independent nation – and thus its people wish to be left alone. The problem is that “Ethnic” Russians and Ukrainians are so mixed up within the place it’s hard to tell who is who. So Russia claims the entirety of the place as a long lost younger brother – or perhaps views it as the older brother prodigal, now returning. The politicians in Ukraine, of course, wish to keep their own power and separateness under the old adage “It’s good to be the king.”
Both countries are monumentally corrupt, and well, like any two corrupt warlords, they both want to keep their bailiwick intact – and perhaps bite off a bit of the other.
Does it make a difference to Europe or the USA if Ukraine and Russia reunite? Yes, and no. No, because they were united for centuries. Elizabeth I sent an ambassador to Moscow – not to Kiev. No one paid attention to the 2nd city of Russia. Oh, no longer #2 in population – St. Petersburg and maybe even Volgograd are larger – Kiev is still #2 in the hearts and minds of nearly everyone – precisely because it is the repository of the beginnings of Russia.
Does anyone in the government – or Romney, McCain and the other Republican bigwigs who are pontificating on the issue – have a clue of this history, language, ethnicity and 1000 year old emotional claptrap? Not really, apparently. I sincerely doubt that any but a small cadre of Russian experts in the State Department have an earthly clue as to what I outlined above. Most of this crop of politicians is stuck in perhaps the last 100 years of Cold War, WWII and maybe as far back as the Revolution of 1917. So the lingering fear of our politicians is that Russia will rise up as some great state and threaten our interests somehow.
Our only “interest” is, of course, to keep Russia “contained” as has been the policy of the USA since the late 1940s.
Of course, if a shooting war starts – and armies be on the move – then the flow of oil and gas to Europe is greatly imperiled – probably even stopped. Which means the Germans and Italians and Austrians and all of the former Soviet bloc nations of Eastern Europe will be on the market for other supplies. It’ll drive the price up for sure. For supply will be down – and demand continue apace. So, a shooting war will weaken Europe’s incessantly weakened economy even further – which will weaken our weak economy.
And the humanitarian issue looms large too. No one wants masses of refugees from Ukraine to be crossing the border into Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria or elsewhere. Plus, Russia just held the Olympics – such a modern progressive state – and now at war? Well, that weakens the whole “sports is good for peace” meme. Oddly, this time around, Russia’s war against gay folks is part of the mix – at least in the sense that the current administration is all about “loving the gays” at this point.
So, we threatened sanctions – not that they amount to much. Our trade with Russia is mostly one way – they buy stuff from us. Mostly wheat and corn and other food. So our farmer will be unhappy with a cut off in trade – and Iowa is a presidential primary state – and you can’t upset those people. Hilary Clinton certainly wants to keep Iowans happy on her desired march for the White House.
Europe doesn’t want sanctions because the Russia might cut of the oil and gas.
The restive people’s of the Caucasian mountains might welcome the war, for having attention turned away from those places means that they can revolt all the easier.
The Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuanian are panicked because they fear they are next.
Russia itself is an economic basket case surviving on natural resources and thus foreign reserves and thus probably isn’t up for a war too – but, well, the port of Sevastopol, which they rented from Ukraine is a good prize – and why pay rent for what you think is yours, anyway?
They threaten sanctions against us – which is rather funny – for there’s not a whole lot of trade. The Russians say they will stop using the dollar – except what they sell – natural resources, especially oil and gas – are only denominated in the dollar. No one is going to pay Euros for oil, not even the Eurozone does it. The Euro is collapsing too – slowly, inexorably, a weakening currency propped up by loans from the United States.
Can we do anything to stop Russia from taking over Ukraine? Probably not. We’re certainly not going to bomb them or something. We’re certainly not going to send troops or peace-keepers or something. The US, EU and UN will all issue endless light letters of “concern” and “warnings of further actions.”
Can the Ukraine stop Russia from taking it over? Probably not – and ½ the nation probably doesn’t want to. Maybe the eastern half will quit Ukraine and join Russia and then in a decade or two, the second half will make the move back into the glorious empire.
Does it make a difference to the average Ukrainian or Russia? Well, in one sense it doesn’t – who exactly is the corrupt oligarch ruling one’s nation is sort of unimportant. On the other hand, the economic stagnation, the inflation, the collapse of the currency and such matters of bread and butter will certainly adversely affect the people there. And that’s the funniest thing. Russia, but swallowing Ukraine, will weaken its economy no matter how one looks at it.
And that’s because poor Putin is still stuck in the command economy mentality, as evidenced by his policies for the past decade – he will decree wealth, and thinks it will be so. When it doesn’t happen he will blame anyone but himself.
Foreign investment, however, will dry up, and the rouble worth less, and well, Russia will continue the downward spiral it’s been on – only perhaps a little faster. Because sometime you really can bite of more than you can chew.
The average American won’t feel much of a difference – and won’t pay much attention to it after another few weeks unless it does turn to shooting.
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