Frontline Ukraine: ‘How Europe failed to slay the demons of war’
In an extract from his new book, historian Richard Sakwa argues that the current conflict has its roots in the exclusion of Russia from genuine partnerships since the end of the cold war
by Richard Sakwa
Tuesday 10 March 2015 10.14 GMT
In 2014, history returned to Europe with a vengeance. The crisis over Ukraine brought back not only the spectre but the reality of war, on the 100th anniversary of a conflict that had been spoken of as the war to end all war. The great powers lined up, amid a barrage of propaganda and informational warfare, while many of the smaller powers made their contribution to the festival of irresponsibility.
This was also the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the second world war, which wreaked so much harm on central and eastern Europe. The fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years earlier and the subsequent end of the cold war had been attended by expec-tations of a Europe “whole and free”.
These hopes were crushed in 2014, and Europe is now set for a new era of division and confrontation. The Ukrainian crisis was the immediate cause, but this only reflected deeper contradictions in the pattern of post-communist development since 1989. In other words, the European and Ukrainian crises came together to devastating effect.
The “Ukrainian crisis” refers to profound tensions in the country’s nation and state-building processes since it achieved independence in late 1991, which now threaten the unity of the state itself.
These are no longer described in classical ideological terms, but, in the Roman manner, through the use of colours. The Orange tendency thinks in terms of a Ukraine that can finally fulfil its destiny as a nation state, officially monolingual, culturally autonomous from other Slavic nations and aligned with “Europe” and the Atlantic security community. This is a type of “monism”, because of its emphasis on the singularity of the Ukrainian experience.
By contrast, Blue has come to symbolise a rather more plural understanding of the challenges facing Ukraine, recognising that the country’s various regions have different historical and cultural experiences, and that the modern state needs to acknowledge this diversity in a more capacious constitutional settlement. For the Blues, Ukraine is more of a “state nation”, an assemblage of different traditions, but above all one where Russian is recognised as a second state language and economic, social and even security links with Russia are maintained. Of course, the Blue I am talking about is an abstraction, not the blue of former president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
The Blues, no less than the Orangists, have been committed to the idea of a free and united Ukraine, but favour a more comprehensive vision of what it means to be Ukrainian. We also have to include the Gold tendency, the powerful oligarchs who have dominated the country since the 1990s, accompanied by widespread corruption and the decay of public institutions.
Since independence, there has been no visionary leader to meld these colours to forge a Ukrainian version of the rainbow nation.