Luc Brunet - First published on January 27th 2022
Several readers asked me to publish something about the situation in Ukraine and the present hysteria around it, with the potential risk of a new war in Europe.
The topic is definitely touchy and is composed of many elements. One point that I would like to underline at first is that all the hostility between Russia and Ukraine is only caused by a small minority of extremists, mainly from the western part of Ukraine, or by politics using it to build their power, as always. The ordinary people in Russia and Ukraine do not perceive such hostility and basically reprove it.
After Maidan, you could see crowds of cars with Ukrainian plates in Moscow, but those people were in total security. Russian traveling to Kharkov or Kiev over the past years did not feel any danger. The only dangerous place for Russians is western Ukraine and we shall come back to that in this article. But overall, and like in most conflicts, the populations are not the driving forces of hate, unless they are pushed and manipulated by leaders
and their ideology.
But let's start with the origin of everything: history.
Ukraine and earlier history
Like for many European countries, and especially eastern European countries, the history of Ukraine was not a quite river. Everybody can learn about it if interested in more details, but the region is mostly linked to three major poles of attraction/repulsion: the North, now Russia, initially associated with Kiev at the time of Rus' Kiev, the South with the Turks and Tatars, and Central Europe, with Poland, Hungary and Austria.
The attraction/repulsion between those three poles played a key role in the composition of the country and the different tendencies and political trends in the various regions. Only the Turkish pole lost most of its influence, being clearly very foreign to most Ukrainian people outside of small minorities in the south. The 2 major zones of influence today are between the regions with a large majority of Russian speakers (South and East) and the regions with mostly Ukrainian speakers in the west of the country (close to Central Europe in many instances, including religion and architecture), while the north including Kiev is a mix of both.
Most of the hostility we see today between those parts of the country comes from the Soviet and WW2 period. Ukraine was independent for a few years after the fall of the Russian empire and integrated the USSR in 1921 only, after a few years of instability, being a battle-field for the Red Army, the White Russians and Germany. The country suffered a lot in the 20's as the Stalin power decided to eliminate the farmers. Farmers are indeed the ultimate entrepreneurs, and are visceral enemies for a Communist regime like the USSR. Ukraine, as a large agricultural region with very rich soils, was together with other southern soviet region a primary target for that, and millions starved to death. Was the hunger started by the central power, or used by it to get rid of the farmers? Many still debate about it, but the least we can say is that the government was not very active to save the life of those farmers, both in Ukraine and in the rest of the country.
Another split between the regions took place during WW2, and the German troops were received like liberators in the west of Ukraine. Many men served under German flag, like in the infamous SS Division Galicia. For many people in that region, the end of WW2 in 1945 was really perceived as a defeat, and local partisans still fought against the Soviet regime until the early 50's. Bandera, often cited today in articles about Ukraine is one of the major figures of that period. If you are familiar to plans and ethnic theories of expansion to the East (Generalplan Ost) by the Nazis, you can understand that the hope to be saved from the USSR by Germany was a very naive posture. If the Reich had won the war, the Nazis would have come back to the plan and transformed Ukraine as an agricultural production site for the Reich, using some Ukrainians as cheap workers (as was the plan with Poles) and exterminating the rest (as was the plan with eastern Slaves in general). The Generalplan Ost states for example that 65% of western Ukraine should be sent to Siberia, the rest being "germanized".
Add to join the Galicia SS-Division, 1943
Anyway, the west of the country continued to seek revenge and developed an anti-Russian sentiment in the population, even encouraged in school books after the end of the USSR. Of course such a sentiment should be turned against the USSR and not Russia, as many leaders of the USSR were not Russians and are even considered by many as anti-Russians, like Stalin, Beria (both Georgians), and later Khrushchev or Brezhnev (both Ukrainians), but simple ideas are always selling better.
Ukraine and recent history
Ukraine became fully independent in 1991, after the split of the USSR. Like Russia, the 90's were difficult years, with a number of ineffective reforms and privatizations, leading to a general decrease in living standards for most of the population, while a few business speculators and corrupt public servants made a lot of money, most of it laundered outside of the country. The trend in Russia changed a lot in 2000 with the election of Vladimir Putin and his efforts to "make Russia great again" as would love to say Donald Trump. This was not really what was expected in the west, as discussed in my article published in 2015 at
But Ukraine could not get out of that declining trend and had to live until now in such a "Yeltsin type" regime. The GNP per capita is now in Ukraine at roughly the same level as in Russia in the 90's, in other terms four times lower that in Russia today.
Again reading my assessment of what could have happened in Russia in such a case, we see that most of the events I imagined actually happened in Ukraine. Here is an extract of my article published in 2015 on what should have happened in Russia if the western supported 90's type of regime had survived, with my related comments linked to Ukraine:
- US controlled Black Sea, and a base on the shores of the Caspian Sea: it is quite safe to assume that the intention after Maidan was to move Sevastopol from a Russian base to a US base. The Crimean referendum made that impossible
- most industrial and natural resources under the control of western firms: this is what happened in Ukraine, with a disastrous over-exploitation for example of the Ukrainian forest by European companies, or the purchase of what is left of the local industry to western companies. The low cost labor from Ukraine is also largely used by Europeans countries, in particular Poland
- Russia split into countries under direct US or EU influence: the split of Ukraine already started and we shall come back to that later.
Maidan was of course a major event in that recent history, and I shall not elaborate on the Maidan event as such, but rather focus in the consequences of the event.
In terms of regime change, the difference was essentially on the nature of the relationship with Moscow on one side and the West on the other side. As far as governance and day-to-day life for the average citizen, the regime is just one more corrupt and ineffective regime coming after many others. But the major consequences of Maidan was the desire of parts of the country to leave the Ukraine, as a reaction to clearly anti-Russian words and actions of some of the Maidan supporters, namely para-military groups. People from Crimea coming back from a demonstration in Kiev to support Yanukovich have for example been stopped on the road back home, beaten and several were killed. Many people were as well killed in Odessa. The subsequent events are well known, with Crimea voting to join Russia, benefiting from the military presence of Russia in Sevastopol, and the eastern part of the country starting an armed secession, still not pacified today.
The partition of the country is however not complete, but I believe it s just a matter of time before it happens.
What can happen now?
We see from time to time, and in particular in the past month or two, a verbal escalation, mostly on the western side, often coming with a military escalation. On the Ukrainian side, this translates into more shelling of Donbass targets (mostly civilian) and the move of more material closer to the border. On the Russian side, it translates into maneuvers a few hundreds kilometers from the Ukrainian border. Damages and victims along the border between Ukraine and the Donbass are limited, though of course regrettable. Over the past weeks, and as it happened before, the PR exercise gets more aggressive and the world is talking about and fearing a new World War.
My views on what can and should happen is based on a few key points.
- Russia is in no way interested in gaining territory from Ukraine. Each piece of territory means large expenses to rebuild the infrastructure and sustain the living standard of an impoverished population. Russia has the experience with Crimea, that joined Russia peacefully, but however required a high level of investment to catch up the development level of Russia, and the process is not finished yet after 7 years. Although Russia may accept the joining of the Donbass and other Russian speaking regions, this shall create a lot of tension on the Russian budget and shall be difficult to manage
- the imminent invasion of all of Ukraine by Russia, as announced by some (probably very emotionally disturbed people in the west), is a nonsense. Although technically possible in a few days, having Russian tanks in Kiev or Lvov would be a disaster on the long run. Russia does not need a new Afghanistan
- however, and if Russia is itself attacked (for example a missile shot on the Kerch bridge between Crimea and continental Russia), the answer may be tough, but even in such a case, I do not believe in an invasion by ground personnel. A few days of air-ground attack - very accurate, as most Ukrainian military infrastructure dates from the soviet period, and thus is known in details by the Russians - would bring the Ukrainian army to its knees, and plunge the country in chaos, initiating the collapse of the central power and boost the separatist tendencies that are hidden and sleeping today. Such events would remind us a lot of the bombing of Belgrade in 1999, hopefully more focused on military targets and less on infrastructures and civilian objects!
Belgrade under NATO bombs
- the US and NATO are not ready to enter into an armed conflict with Russia, even if they show muscles from time to time. Biden's declarations a few days ago state that Russian may get severe sanctions if it invades Ukraine. The phrase is quite clear: even T90's on Kreshatik (main street in central Kiev) may not mean a military intervention by NATO. Several European countries by the way already stated they would not join an armed conflict for Ukraine
- Zelensky knows the point above and shall not commit suicide, already voicing concern and asking for moderation.
My views is that no major war shall derive from the Ukrainian crisis. This however does not mean the present situation can go on and on for decades. Ukraine as a country is failing and everybody knows that. The economy is in critical state and shall not be better when gas starts to flow through North Stream 2 instead of Ukrainian pipelines. The situation in Ukraine is becoming more and more embarrassing for the west, as they realize they shall not be able to control the country totally, thus making the risk to support it less palatable. For most players, the option is now to use the Yugoslavian approach: if you cannot control the big fish, split it in several smaller fishes and at least you shall be able to control a few of them.
In Yugoslavia, the result was the emergence of three groups of countries. The first group, quite integrated with Europe (in fact with Austria and Germany), includes Slovenia and Croatia. The second much more unpredictable and difficult to integrate, Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro. Finally a third group of quite unmanaged countries that may create serious issues in the future, with Kosovo and FYR of Macedonia (even its name is a problem!).
The split of Yugoslavia was also part of the Russia-NATO fight, and was achieved under the control of NATO in a position of force, while Russia was in a weak position diplomatically and on the military viewpoint. The opposite shall happen with Ukraine.
As a matter of fact, I cannot predict when this shall happen, but I am pretty sure this shall be the solution to avoid a general conflict nobody wants to initiate. The result should look as follows, something that could be predicted years ago, just looking at the linguistic statistics of each region of the country!
Three zones can be identified:
- the south and east, from Donbass to Kerch, and may be down to Odessa should either create a new country or join Russia, fully or on special status federal member
- the center-north including Kiev, possibly with a balanced leadership establishing reasonable partnership level with both Russia and the EU
- the western part, the geographical heart of the pro-German movements during WW2. This part shall probably be similar to the unmanaged countries in the ex-Yugoslavia, being hostile to Russia and to its western neighbors as well, like Poland or Hungary (see the history of WW2 and the crimes committed against Poles in the region). Hungary may by the way recover a small region populated with ethnic Hungarians.
Such a solution would bring peace and prosperity back to the region, and all would be better off.
So on my views, no WW3 to start in Ukraine. Unless someone makes a stupid mistake and presses the wrong button!