Kampfe nicht mit Russen…’
(Don’t fight the Russians)
Prince Otto von Bismarck
Chancellor of the German Empire (1871-1890)
By late May, a tipping point had probably been reached in the ongoing Russian ‘special operation’ in Ukraine. The slow advance of the Red Army in the East leads to the rapid ‘re-Russification’ of the larger Donbass region, as Ukrainian political personnel, currency, laws and institutions are being replaced with Russian ones as part of the reconstruction. The rabid reactions in Kyiv and in western capitals have manifested in unsupported claims about ‘Putin’s rout’ which are increasingly untenable. The ‘Muscovites’ (as the Ukrainian media often label them) have not been defeated and are solidifying their advantage day by day despite massive deliveries of weapons to the other side from almost every major NATO member. The ultimate reintegration of much of the land to the East of the Dnieper into the Russian federation seems increasingly likely and in pure strategic terms it would lead to a few significant conclusions relevant to Europe, the USA and the world at large.
Ukraine (‘the borderland) is not and has never been a stable homogenous entity with defined borders. It has no natural boundaries with Russia, as the Donbass is a vast plain claimed by both countries. Contemporary Ukraine is part of the legacy of the Stalinist USSR which is already collapsing, like much of the Soviet heritage did in the last decades. While Southern Ukraine belonged to the Greek and Oriental Mediterranean world even when it was annexed by the Ottoman successors to the Eastern Roman Empire, its identity as ‘Little Russia’, south of ‘White Russia’ (modern Belarus) encompassed the lands between Kharkov, Crimea, Kiev and Odessa. The west was historically part of the Polish and Austro-Hungarian empires and is distinctly ‘Mittel Europa’ in character and geography. It is Lenin’s decision to treat Ukraine as a separate socialist ‘fraternal’ republic and Stalin’s inclusion of Galicia and Moldavia into greater Ukraine which are at the source of much of the current tragedy. Many Western and Central Ukrainians have been driven by this chequered history to build a romantic ethnic identity as ‘real Aryans’ who have no relation with Russian Slavs. Ukrainian identity in recent years has defined itself as ‘anti-Russianism’, sometimes to the point of absurdity as when historical monuments are destroyed, when the director of the Ukrainian Book Institute decrees a ban on all Russian literary classics as ‘dangerous to Ukrainians’ or when sausages labelled ‘Death to Muscovites’ are sold in stores (1). This attempt to eradicate and rewrite history betrays deep alienation and immaturity in that nationalist ideology when it tries to deny the country’s origin and centuries of existence as, perhaps the most prosperous province of the Russian empire. (2)
The US-British endeavour, supported willy nilly by the major western European powers, to expand NATO to the borders of Russia by absorbing the old buffer made up of the nations between the ‘three Seas’, (3) from the Baltic ‘City-states’ to Greece and the Balkans was bound to result in a clash with Russia and, by extension with its Eurasian hinterland, as far away as Central Asia and the Far East which are part of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation). Ukraine is a particularly sensitive area, as it is the cradle of the ‘Kievan Rus’, the earliest Russian State in historical and religious terms as well as the outlet to the Black Sea and thence to the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. As such, it connects the Slavic world with Greece and the Levant, the hallowed fountainheads of Orthodox Christianity. The Tzars fought great wars in the 17th and 18th centuries to conquer the Cossack and Tatar lands later called New Russia or Little Russia and no Russian government would be forgiven by its people for letting this heartland of their nation be turned into a forward base of the ancestral European rivals who briefly wrestled it away in the 1854-55 Crimean war.
For the Russian Federation, the Sea of Azov is an essential outlet for the Don River basin and its trade routes that come down from the rich agricultural and industrial central and northern regions. Sevastopol Crimea is a ‘hero city’ of the second World War, standing watch over the estuaries of the Don and Dnieper. Russia could live with Ukraine as a politically neutral economic partner but not as the member of an inimical alliance led by historic challengers of Russian power.
To go back to the years following World War I here is a revealing insight about the US Government’s assessment of the ‘Ukrainian nation’: In August 1948, the US National Security Council issued memorandum (NSC 20/1 1948), requested by then Defense Secretary James Forrestal. The document described American objectives with respect to the Soviet Union.
A significant part of the memorandum focused on Ukraine. American analysts were convinced that the territory was an integral part of greater Russia, and it was highly unlikely that Ukrainians could exist as an independent nation. Most importantly, it noted, any support given to separatists would be met with a strong negative reaction by Russians.
“The economy of the Ukraine is inextricably intertwined with that of Russia as a whole…To attempt to carve it out of the Russian economy and to set it up as something separate would be as artificial and as destructive as an attempt to separate the Corn Belt, including the Great Lakes industrial area, from the economy of the United States…
Finally, we cannot be indifferent to the feelings of the Great Russians themselves… They will continue to be the strongest national element in that general area, under any status … The Ukrainian territory is as much a part of their national heritage as the Middle West is of ours, and they are conscious of that fact. A solution which attempts to separate the Ukraine entirely from the rest of Russia is bound to incur their resentment and opposition, and can be maintained, in the last analysis, only by force,” read the report (4).
The European Union has shown more clearly than ever before its inner discord and divisions and its dysfunctional management which, in times of crises looks like it is only capable of issuing general, occasionally inapplicable statements and resolutions. The somewhat surrealistic nature of the EU two-headed bureaucracy is highlighted by the personalities of the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (5) and the Council President Charles Michel. Behaving almost as rivals they are often ignored by leaders of the member-states, beginning with French President Macron and German Chancellor Scholz. Mrs. Von der Leyen uses her position to issue decrees that exceed her legal powers and spells out unworkable policies such as the rapid transition to renewable energies for the EU (no more coal, gas and oil, unless they come from “her American friends’ as she puts it, and non-Russian origins) and the prompt inclusion of Ukraine into the Union. She still vouches for the ‘inevitable and necessary’ Ukrainian victory and swears that ‘Europe will never again go back to Russia for resources’.(6)
Meanwhile, the national governments of major member-states are trying to deal with the facts on the ground by making overtures to President Putin without paying attention to her declarations. They have to consider as imminent, if not a ‘fait accompli’ the absorption of Eastern Ukraine into Russia and the possible confederation or reunion of the western part with Poland.
Among historic analogies that come to mind, the situation of the Greek city states of the 4th century BCE vis-à-vis the Macedonian kingdom is one. Those prosperous but weakened polities, including Athens were humbled by King Philip II and his son Alexander and had to accept Macedonia’s dominance. Is that a chronologically remote simile to what is happening now between the EU and Russia?
The United States demonstrates its inability and unwillingness to enter a new war outside its own continent and limits its intervention to selling weapons to its allies and ‘leading from behind’ as former President Obama had proposed. As a result of the American withdrawal, many frozen territorial disputes are beginning to heat up, since the status quo from the age of bipolar US-Soviet supremacy is being challenged by various actors.
Turkey has returned to its former age-old role as an Eastern independent power centre. It no longer is a bulwark of US and NATO facing the Russian, Iranian and Arab ‘outsiders’. Instead, now Turkey plays the US, Germany, France and Russia against each other to gain and maintain its leverage and, often acting as a spoiler for both the West and Russia it has restored its old strategic bond with Great Britain which predated its late 19th century alliance with Germany. The “Eastern Question,” like several other ancestral geopolitical quandaries, has risen again, all the more so because of the economic fragility and the political uncertainty about the country’s future under and after Erdogan.
Ukrainian nationalism has become a strange hybrid phenomenon typical of our age. It combines elements of Aryan racism, apparent in the anti-Russian Neo-Nazi symbology of its special and paramilitary forces, with a strong Jewish ingredient which has been used by Israel for the past decades to acquire influence in the Black Sea region, between Russia and the West. Strange bedfellows as they may be, the Israeli and ‘Far Right’ elements in the Ukrainian power systems have so far coexisted and have apparently had unexpected effects, such as the exit of tens of thousands of Russian Jews who left for Israel in the days and weeks following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, codenamed Operation Z(7). It is legitimate to wonder if this war and its ultimate outcome may change once again the rapport of Russia to the Jewish State with which relations has been excellent until recently, despite mutual suspicions and occasional face-offs during the Syrian civil war, but which may now be suspected by the Kremlin of having played a double game.
The return of a form of Nazism to Ukraine harks back to World War II when ‘Banderist’ Ukrainians flocked to the German flag, initially to free themselves from Polish rule, ‘get rid of Jews’ and eventually fight the Communist USSR but it is part of a wider phenomenon in Eastern Europe (called ‘New Europe’ by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the time of the second Gulf War). In the Baltic States, in Hungary, Romania and in the Catholic and Muslim Balkans (Croatia, Bosnia and Albania) which fell under the aegis of the Third Reich Hitlerian Germany is remembered more as a protector from Bolshevism than as a genocidal oppressor, also because of strong antisemitic feelings remaining in those regions. Hence, one effect of the EU’s expansion and turn to the East and to NATO sponsored militarisation against Russia is that the visceral hostility to Nazism and Germany’s own deep guilt complex have been mitigated in recent years, unlike in Russia where the excoriation of Nazism is at the core of the national ethos, given the twenty-seven million Soviet citizens who fell in the great patriotic war. Instead, in the West and in North America in particular where, despite appearances, Nazism was never reviled as much as on the old continent and was even regarded as a useful opponent of Marxism, there is a tendency to gradually equate Hitler and Stalin as ‘twin evils’ to be played against each other if that helps to combat the geopolitical rise of Russia.
In an even wider, global perspective the rise of a parochial, ethnocentric and revanchist ‘regional’ nationalism is visible outside Ukraine and the Baltic States in areas such as the Basque Country and Catalonia in Spain, Flanders in Belgium and was quite strong in the Lombard provinces of Italy until recently, not to mention ex-Yugoslavia, speaking only of Europe. These centrifugal tendencies contradict and yet coexist with the reaffirmation of national powers in the wake of BREXIT and as a reaction to Davos-style liberal ‘Soros-globalism’. Together, they are creating tensions and uncertainties about the political equilibrium of the continent and in some cases, call for revisiting old intra and parastatal cooperative structures such as the Hansa (or Hanseatic League) in Northern Europe which for centuries linked the Scandinavian, Prussian and Germanic port cities in a dynamic commercial network. A new maritime trading agreement would necessarily encompass the Russian, Finnish and Swedish Baltic outlets and ought to include a mutual security agreement guaranteed by all member-nations. It would be the safest way to protect the autonomy of the small Baltic nations and of Poland which are on the frontline of the battlefield between Russia and NATO-led Europe and cannot be protected from an invasion.
Making those historically weaker states forward bases of NATO’s deployment against the Eurasian bloc can only be against their long-term interest as they are not easily defensible and yet pose a threat to the nearby and Belarussian and Russian urban centres. Russia’s and France’s former proposals for a joint European-Eurasian architecture would provide room for stabler alternative transnational arrangements but they have been staunchly opposed by the flag-bearers of Atlanticism who include, apart from the inevitable British statesmen perpetually worried about prospects of continental unity, many of the top figures in the EU and several national leaders in Western and Central Europe.
We are witnessing a new phase of the age-old conflict between the Roman Catholic and Graeco-Slav Byzantine Empires despite the fact that the west of the continent is largely secularised and agnostic, as are many Russians although their State is closely tied to the national orthodox Church. Civilisational identities survive beneath ideological and political changes. I remember the reaction from the late Prince Nicholas Romanov, who had lived all his life in western Europe, to the plans for the European Union to bring the continent together: ‘There is another Europe’ he said ‘Orthodox Europe and I don’t see why we should annex it to the Brussels Confederation’ (8).
The ‘gathering of Russian lands into the Russky Mir’, the Russian World, is what all Tzars were committed to and it is that task which Vladimir Putin believes has been entrusted to him by the nation.
In another article (9) I evoked some geo-cultural and historical parallels between Russia and Germany, two neighbouring imperial nations whose territorial and ethno-linguistic borders overlap and have remained somewhat undefined to this day, partly because of extensive migrations and annexations of surrounding lands over the centuries. The rise or expansion of one of the two empires often took place at the expanse of the other, as when Wilhelmine Germany in 1917 directly brought about the collapse of the Romanov Empire before herself incurring defeat, or when in 1944 the Soviet Union gained control over Eastern Germany and her Central European satellites. Before a resurgent Russia Germany is rearming in response (10) and reclaiming her place as the leading military power of future Europe, a Europe that claims it will no longer rely on its vaunted ‘normative soft power’ (11). In this revived confrontation, nations caught in the middle like Poland and the Baltics may once again lose their autonomy or even perhaps their independence if and when borders are redrawn, as is happening in Ukraine.
The wider impact of Russia’s ‘reunification’ will increasingly be felt across the Eurasian continent whose axis runs through Russia, from the Pacific shores and the Mongol highlands to the Danubian and Rhenish fluvial valleys. The original Russian medieval State occupied the North-South arc between the Baltic and the Black Sea and Zbignew Brzezinski wrote that ‘without Ukraine, Russia is no longer an empire’ (12).
From the 15th Century, after the Mongol hordes withdrew into Central Asia the Grand Princes of Moscow gradually extended their rule eastwards and the annexation of Siberia gave Russia immense strategic depth to help defeat western invasions. The last Tzar, Nicholas II actively oversaw the development of Southern and Eastern Siberia whose great cities (Ekaterinburg, Perm, Tomsk, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Vladivostok) flourished along the Trans-Siberian route and provided a closer connection to China. The region was used as a fallback headquarters during the Bolshevik Revolution by the ‘White’ leader, Admiral Kolchak who unsuccessfully fought the Reds from ‘Asian Russia’ around the time when another reactionary, General Ungern von Starnberg set up an Aryan-Buddhist government in Mongolia to oppose the Communist regime in Moscow.
A lasting break between Russia and Europe, which Kissinger has warned against (13) would lead to Russia increasing its effort to develop resources and perhaps even establish a new capital in Siberia, for which Omsk is a prime candidate. That ‘pivot to the Orient’ would signal closer economic relations with China and other leading Asian nations which should also benefit India as well as Kazakhstan, Iran and the two Koreas. By shifting its centre of gravity towards the Orient and implementing its longstanding Razvitie (development) project across Central Asia, from China to the Mediterranean according to the strategy advocated by the ‘Eurasianists’, Russia may also be better able to control the feared Chinese penetration into Siberia and balance Beijing’s influence on Mongolia, North Korea and the ex-Soviet ‘Stans’ (14). Conversely the EU nations should experience major economic hardship if they remain cut off from Russian-Ukrainian food, raw materials and energy supplies.
Current events are paving the way for the creation of a rival bloc to the Atlantic West based on resource autonomy, strategic military equivalence and a separate international reserve currency and financial clearing system. This prospect was envisioned and promoted since the dawn of the century by policy-makers and economists in several countries, particularly in the Russian Federation, China and Iran. The time has perhaps come for this concept to come alive.
Author Brief Bio: Mr Côme Carpentier de Gourdon is currently a consultant with India Foundation and is also the Convener of the Editorial Board of the WORLD AFFAIRS JOURNAL. He is an associate of the International Institute for Social and Economic Studies (IISES), Vienna, Austria. Côme Carpentier is an author of various books and several articles, essays and papers
(1)-Reports of these developments have been published by various sources. Photographs of sausage packages carrying ‘Death to Muscovite’ labels have circulated on the Net. Oleksandra Koval, the Director of the Ukrainian Book Centre is reportedly implementing the nationwide removal of some hundred million books, including Russian literary classics from public libraries
(2) For a fairly objective retrospective on the past of the greater area now occupied by Ukraine see the article by Egor Kholmogorov cf. https://www.rt.com/russia/556073-russians-never-let-go-ukraine
(3)- The Three ‘inland’ Seas (Baltic, Black and Adriatic) are at the origin of the ‘Three Seas Initiative’ https://3seas.eu/ but the territory between the Baltic and the Black Sea has long been disputed between successive regional hegemons: United Poland-Lithuania, Sweden, Russia, the Austrian Empire and Germany. King Charles XII of Sweden in 1708-1709 came all the way to what is now Eastern Ukraine in his campaign to extend his sway across this North-South belt. Two centuries later Kaiser Wilhelm II and subsequently Hitler briefly took it over and then Stalin brought it under Soviet control. Since the fall of the USSR the US and Britain, together with defeated Germany forged a league of the countries sharing this region, primarily as a ‘cordon sanitaire’ between Russia and the West, extending from Estonia to Bulg
aria and Ukraine and further to Georgia and Azerbaijan (the latter has since taken its distance from this association as it needs good relations with Moscow). By including Finland and Sweden NATO intends to buttress this barrier to the East of the erstwhile Iron Curtain.
(4) From https://www.rt.com/russia/556073-russians-never-let-go-ukraine/ (ibid.)
(5) The background and career of Ursula von der Leyen have been discussed in several articles, many referring to her controversial role as German Defence Minister, a position which she left under a cloud as she was accused of conflicts of interest with international consulting firms. At the EU some arbitrary decisions in connection with the management of the COVID-19 epidemic have raised more questions about her relationship with McKinsey & Co. and to the American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. She led negotiations which resulted in a multibillion Euro secretive contract between the EU and Pfizer before pressuring all EU member-states to make Pfizer vaccinations compulsory for all their citizens, an unconstitutional mandate. She does not hide her hostility to Russia and her personal connection with the USA, home of her maternal family. Her abrupt decision to ban Russian media in the EU was also irregular. There is a widespread realization in international political circles that Mrs. von der Leyen is not competent and should be investigated on suspicions of corruption.
(6)-In an interview dated 23-5-2022 with Mika Brzezinski, Mrs Von Der Leyen, confronted with the fact that the EU has not been able to stop purchasing oil and gas from Russia, claimed that it was better to keep buying Putin’s energy in order not to allow him to sell it elsewhere at a higher price (sic). Several economists and experts in the energy sector have qualified her statement as nonsensical. So was also her apparent acceptance of US oil and gas extracted through fracking as clean. (www.msnbc.com/morning-joe/watch/putin-pushing-europe-in-direction-of-renewable-clean-energy-says-european-commission-president-140631109686)
(8)-Remarks made by HIH Prince Nicholas Romanovich Romanov (1922-2014) in a private conversation with the author in 1996.
(10). According to a report from Reuters about Germany’s 100 billion Euro plan for rearmament and military reorganization. 19 billion are to be spent for the Navy, on submarines, corvettes and missiles. 40 billion for the Air Force. Including the purchase of Eurofighter Aircraft; 16 billion on the land forces and 2 billion for uniforms and equipment.
(11)-Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Commission for Foreign Affairs recently stated that ‘The Ukrainian conflict has proven to the EU that soft power is not enough. The Union must become a military power’. He also said that ‘Europe needs to learn the language of power’. In parallel, former Italian Premier Berlusconi has noted that the West is isolated in its position on Ukraine.
And comment in response from a Russian foreign policy expert: https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/kissinger-and-the-fight-for-russia/
(14)- Conflits (revue de geopolitique), no.38, March-April 2022, Olivier Roquepin and Yekaterina Kenina, La Chine et l’Asie russe. pp. 18-21.