Mar 28, 2008 | 02:00 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Ukraine, The Main Battlefield of Cold War II

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said on Thursday that no NATO bases would be deployed in his country in the event that Kiev became a member of that organization. Citing Ukraine's Constitution, which forbids the establishment of foreign military bases in the country, Yushchenko said, "Some people are spreading the fable that there will be a NATO military base in Sevastopol. There will be no base." This statement comes within three weeks of Kiev saying it had abandoned its bid for membership in the Western military alliance. This is not the first time Ukraine has done such a flip-flop. On the contrary, this oscillation between aligning with the West and placating Russian concerns has been the hallmark of the country’s behavior for some years now — if not historically. Structurally, Ukraine is divided between the people in the western part of the country, who want to align with the United States and Europe, and the people in the eastern part, who are looking eastward toward Moscow. The ill-fated Orange Revolution of late 2004/early 2005 — which failed to bring the country under Western influence –- complicated things. It exacerbated the divisions within the country, creating a stalemate between the two sides. Ukraine’s geopolitical position has failed to allow the country to break its dependence on and past with Russia. As a result, on a larger geopolitical scale, the United States and Russia are locked in a long-term tug-of-war over Ukraine. In fact, Ukraine represents the major arena in which Cold War II is being played out between Washington and Moscow. Ukraine is of critical importance to both sides. For the United States, a successful extraction of the country from the influence of Moscow — not to mention NATO’s arrival on Moscow’s doorstep — means relegating Russia to the status of a declining regional power. Conversely, and more importantly, for Russia, it is not just about its efforts to revive the bipolar world, but it is an issue of survival. The loss of Ukraine could critically weaken the Kremlin. It is not merely a buffer separating Russia from the West; it is integrated into the Russian industrial and agricultural base. This is why Moscow has been using the tool of natural gas cutoffs and coercion by the FSB to keep Ukraine’s leadership in check. Moreover, Moscow has laid out the consequences of Kiev teaming up with NATO, saying it will point missiles at its neighbor if it were part of the alliance. Moscow, however, can take comfort from the fact that there is no consensus within the West regarding Ukraine’s entry into NATO. The Europeans, particularly Germany, do not share Washington’s level of enthusiasm for Kiev’s assimilation into NATO. Uninterrupted supply of Russian gas via Ukraine is of far greater value to the Central and Eastern Europeans than any grandiose plans to secure the downfall of Russia. It isn’t that Germany is against Ukraine joining the West, but that it would rather pick that fight another day — preferably when Europe wasn’t so dependent on Russia for energy. But it is Ukraine that is being tugged and pushed from all sides, leaving it to balance precariously between surviving with a very aggressive Russia to its east, ambivalence to its west and a Washington eager to use Kiev as its pawn to stick it to Moscow. For the next week, Ukraine will toe the line — not accepting or rejecting the other and waiting for the United States and Russia to decide how far this battle will go. In short, Ukraine is not just the premier battlefield of Cold War II, but a more-or-less permanent standoff arena –- unless, of course, one side decides to back off, which isn’t about to happen anytime soon.

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