What Russia is doing in and to Ukraine is very dangerous. The political posturing, bickering and absurdities in Washington that accompany almost every story or event that is national or international in character often dulls our interest in world events. But the situation in Ukraine, a country of 44 million people in the heart of Europe, is compelling and demands our attention.
Russia’s justification for seizing and annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region was that most of the people in Crimea were Russian in origin and culture and they wanted to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia. It also expressed concern that the new government of Ukraine was a threat to the safety of those of Russian origin or language living in Ukraine. And it has used that same rationale to explain its build-up of troops and related military assets on Ukraine’s eastern border.
However, even casual students of history will recall the similarity of these words to those of Adolph Hitler when he explained Nazi Germany’s seizure of neighboring Austria before the start of WWII. Europe’s history is replete with comparable incidents that reflect hundreds of years of ethnic conflict and uncertain territorial borders, and the wars that followed killed millions.
Russia is a very large, militarily strong country with a strong sense of nationalism, whose identity and world standing changed dramatically 25 years ago with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Not unlike Germany, whose humiliating defeat after WWI fueled the nationalism that brought Hitler to power, Russia wants to restore its position as a world power, and President Putin has successfully played that card to gather domestic political support for his aggressive acts.
While we do not know Putin’s long-term intentions, we do know he is threatened by a Ukraine that looks West rather than East for economic opportunity, military cooperation and financial aid. And since Ukraine’s citizens are divided over whether to look West or East, as evidenced by its recent political upheaval resulting in the overthrow of its pro-Russian president, Russia sees an opportunity to create and encourage civil unrest among Ukraine’s ethnic Russians and push the country to the East, and maybe even annex larger sections of eastern Ukraine into Russia.