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  • The “Ukrainian Crisis” and Its Multiple Histories
  • Alexei Miller (bio)
    Translated by Paul W. Wert

History in no way predetermined the way in which events in and around Ukraine would develop in the 21st century. It offered political leaders many possible scenarios from which to choose, and no appeals to the past can serve as a justification for those politicians who brought that country to the lamentable condition in which it finds itself today. Here I have in mind senior officials in Ukraine itself, those of Russia, and those of the West. All had room for maneuver, and all took decisions for which they are culpable. None can say, “There is no blood on my hands”; none of them can even claim to have put the interests of Ukraine’s population first.

At the same time, it is entirely appropriate to ask about the influence of history on the “Ukrainian crisis” and vice versa. A historian certainly has the right to speculate as to how the contemporary crisis in Ukraine should be situated within the broader march of history. Which broader historical processes serve to frame the contemporary Ukrainian crisis? Which particular aspect or tendency of those processes does it highlight?

As I see it, the current crisis represents part of a long history of struggle for control of a territory in Eastern Europe that constituted a borderland between several empires for centuries.1 Much has changed, concerning not only the specific players in question but also the distribution of power, as well as the particular forms of struggle. One thing, however, has not changed: Realpolitik continues to hold its place in the 21st century, and any politician or political commentator who claims the contrary is either a sincere but doctrinaire liberal or a hypocrite or cynic who makes declarations without actually believing them.

I see the contemporary crisis as a particular stage in a broader struggle over borderland space, and though one may argue with my thesis, it is [End Page 145] incontrovertible that Russia’s governing class looks at the crisis precisely through the prism of Realpolitik. For that group, the question of control over Ukraine is heavily imbued by the experience of world wars—especially the events of 1812, 1915, and 1941—when powerful enemy forces invaded from the west. In each instance, control over this space was precisely the thing that gave Russia the strategic depth necessary for its salvation. Another important consideration that shapes the mentality of Russia’s governing class is that, among European countries over the course of the last four centuries, only Russia and Britain—and the Europeanness of both is, of course, a matter of doubt—did not lose their sovereignty at any point. Hence, aside from a limited period at the start of the 1990s—a period on which Moscow generally looks back with shame and rue—Russia’s governing class has continued to regard the defense of the country’s great-power status as an unconditional priority. And that group is accustomed to seeing the main threat to that status as coming from the west.

It remains to be seen whether the events of 2013–14 constitute just one in a series of futile rear-guard battles of a contracting post-Soviet empire that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge its defeat in the struggle for influence in Eastern Europe, or whether those events constitute merely another stage in a long and drawn-out battle. Today, the first variant looks more likely, which would mean that the current Ukrainian crisis represents the terminal point of a distinct history extending across many centuries. Still, we all know the value of previous declarations about the “end of history.”

Yet to recognize the continued relevance of Realpolitik in the 21st century does not mean that we are in any way compelled to regard the future pessimistically. Realpolitik does not exclude the possibility of attaining stable and reasonable compromises. Such aims fall out of reach only when participants in a given conflict cannot achieve a consensus about the very nature of the game they are playing.

Another historical framework for understanding the present crisis concerns a struggle over the national identity of contemporary Ukraine. In...