Russian president Vladimir Putin is meeting with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and other European leaders in Minsk this week to discuss alleged Russian engagements in Ukraine. As fighting continues in the former Soviet territory, Russian and European behavior concerning the area is reminiscent of The Great Game, the name given to European-Russian relations in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century.
The Great Game was the English name for using diplomacy to keep Russian territory relatively static. Historically, Russia has always gone for territory in the area of Ukraine that would give it water routes to the Mediterranean. With the discovery of petroleum in the Middle East, these water routes became even more important to the Russian Empire, and they annexed Crimea from the Ottomans in 1783. In 1853, the Crimean War broke out. Ostensibly concerning the rights of Christians in the territory of Palestine under the control of the Ottoman Empire, one of the major underlying issues was the decline of the Ottomans and European desire to keep Ottoman territory out of Russian hands. This decline led to the Eastern Question, yet another Western European euphemism for relations with Russia. The Eastern Question related directly to how to deal with the decline of the Ottoman Empire and how to keep Russia out of Ottoman territory. This pushing and pulling of Eastern and Western European influence in the area and a strong population of ethnic Russians led to Ukraine’s confused relationship with the East and West, leading to the problems in the area today.
After years of government corruption and economic problems, Ukraine began to seek closer relations with the European Union. Looking to help shore up their economy, Ukraine wanted funds from the EU. The EU said it would comply, but only as long as the Ukrainian government would engage in certain reforms and cut ties with Russia. Taking a completely different approach, then-president Viktor Yanukovych signed an agreement with Russia. This led to protests and Yanykovych’s exile from the country. Russia refused to recognized the new government set up after Yanukovych’s ouster, and invaded Crimea.
Now, Ukraine is in a period of civil war. While pro-government factions control much of the country, including the capital Kiev, other anti-government groups are engaging in fighting, and no one is sure who is supplying these groups with means and arms. This problem is exemplified by the downing of Malaysian Air flight 17, where pro-Russian fighters had weapons stronger than believed, and it is alleged that they came from Russia, though Russia denies this. This week, 10 Russian soldiers were found in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, and Russia again denied that they were sending soldiers to Ukraine, saying that they must have crossed the border by accident. Now, Russian president Vladimir Putin is meeting with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, hoping to start a dialogue, but in reality, it is all just the same Great Game that has been played the whole time.
Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula are the same pawns, the same tools that they were 150 years ago. This is just a power play, a chance for Russia to put itself at the forefront of the world stage, a position that Vladimir Putin believes is his right and destiny. Western Europe continues to fight him, because that is what it has always done. The Ukrainian people, though, are the ones stuck in the middle. This game of treaties and spy craft and denial is a cycle that can lead nowhere. In fact, this is the same kind of behavior that led to the First World War. Only time will tell if it will lead to another.
Opinion by Bryan Levy