Many years ago, as a student at the Sorbonne, in Paris, I read “The Great Chessboard” written by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Polish American diplomat, political scientist and former National Security Advisor. Since then, it has been one of my favourite books. Brzezinski considered Ukraine to be the cornerstone of the geopolitical power game in Europe. According to him, without Ukraine Russia was not a great power.
In February 2022, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, seems to share the same opinion. Consequently, for Moscow, Ukraine and Kazakhstan have become the two main pillars of the Russian post-Soviet era sphere of influence, or vital space, in geopolitical terms. This could be considered as the first reason for explaining why Russian troops were sent into both.
The second reason could be based on the perception gap between Russia and the West in terms of frontiers. According to the French geopolitician Yves Lacoste, Russia is the only country in the world flirting with the concept of so-called double frontiers. On the one hand, this includes the internationally recognised frontiers of the Russian Federation, and, on the other hand, it includes the frontiers of all the former Soviet Union republics where the Russian speaking population lives. Furthermore, this duality could be considered as the key factor for deciphering not only what is happening today in Kyiv, Odessa, and Mariupol but also what happened in the past in Tiraspol and in Moldavia.
Moldavia, a small country situated between Ukraine and Romania where the Russian separatists started a war in 1992 demanding the independence of a territory called Transnistria, which was unilaterally recognized by Russia under the name of Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. In such a way, this became the first former Soviet territory which came into the Russian sphere of influence.
Then, in August 2008, it was the turn of the Republic of Abkhazia and of the Republic of South Ossetia to be unilaterally recognized by Moscow, after the invasion of Russian troops in Georgia, another small country situated in the Caucasus Mountains with a population of approximately four million people. This same pattern and strategy have been applied in Eastern Ukraine since 2014, both in the case of the Donetsk People’s Republic as well as in Luhansk People’s Republic. These two small territories with Russian or Russian-friendly populations became the fourth and the fifth former Soviet territories which came under Russian control. This confirms what George Santayana meant when he said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
History could be the third reason to explain what is happening nowadays. Just a few days ago, Vladimir Putin placed the blame publicly on Lenin for giving Ukraine a large territory between Luhansk and Odessa in 1922. With his annexation of the Crimea Peninsula in 2014 to Russia, he practically cancelled the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s decision of 1956. This is a Russia versus USSR situation with all NATO enlargements between 1999 and 2020 in Central and Eastern Europe being perceived simultaneously as potential threats to Moscow’s national interests. This could be regarded as the main reason why Russian troops were back in Ukraine on February 24, 2022. This is a very symbolic territory conquered during the Turco-Russian wars between 1654 and 1792, offering access to both the Azov Sea and the Black Sea.
Bearing in mind all of the aforementioned reasons, this is the key point in my opinion where things become terribly complicated. Can the old normal replace the new normal? Is it possible to go back to a Soviet-style, Russian-friendly People’s Republic of Ukraine instead of a modern Ukraine becoming a NATO and EU member?
Undoubtedly, Russia and Ukraine share a common past. They have many common historical and cultural characteristics. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union they have become two independent states. Each one corresponds to Benedict Anderson’s theory model of the “imagined community” used to explain nation building, based on the strong will of a population to live together and feel they belong to the same state. Nevertheless, Vladimir Putin considers Ukraine, partly or, as Russian and without a national identity.
However, after reports of 13 Ukrainian border guards killed after refusing to surrender their defence of the tiny Zmiinyi (Snake) Island, 300 km west of Crimea, this vision of a full pro-Russian Ukrainian national identity is in question. Even though military operations continue, Ukrainian defence forces and civilian volunteers are fighting throughout the country and attempting to resist a much stronger opponent.
Finally, all my thoughts go to the 120,000 Greeks who live in Mariupol, currently encircled by Russian troops, as well to all Greeks who live in every part of Ukraine. After all, Hellenism has been a very long and thrilling historical tradition in the region since Antiquity and since the Byzantine empire. In addition, we should never forget that Filiki Etairia (Φιλική Εταιρεία) was founded in 1814 in the port city of Odessa by Nikolaos Skoufas, Athanasios Tsakalov and Emmanuel Xanthos. This city played a key role in the 1821 Greek revolution and led to the independence of contemporary Greece from the Ottoman Empire in 1830. Unfortunately, during the Russian invasion in Ukraine this Greek population has found themselves caught in a war zone and in crossfire. Let’s hope the best for all of them.
This war marks the end of the post-Cold War era in Europe, and the beginning of a period of geopolitical risks and uncertainty, which could give rise to potential military conflicts not only in Eastern Europe, but also in the Balkans where nationalism and rivalries remain strong.
Dr George Tassiopoulos is a Greek-French political scientist, who holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of East Paris. Born in Athens, he has lived in France for the past 20 years and teaches geopolitics in a business school in Paris.