By Bill Powell
“In the words of the popular proverb, Moscow was the heart of Russia; St Petersburg, its head. But Kiev, its mother…”
Just hours after a truce had been established between protesters and the government, violence erupted again today in the central square of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city.
A trio of officials from the European Union—the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland—now head to Kiev to try to breach the fundamental divide roiling the country: a struggle between east and west, its outcome highly uncertain, the possibility of a civil war undeniably looming.
This divide has been at Ukraine’s core for centuries. What’s unfolding now is nothing less than the violent struggle for a nation’s soul. To some current and former diplomats, what is surprising is not that Ukraine appears to be coming apart, but that it has taken this long into the post Soviet era for something like this to happen.
At its origins, more than ten centuries ago, what was known as “Kievan Russia” was, as James Billington wrote in his classic study of Russian culture, “closely linked with Western Europe—through trade and intermarriage with every important royal family of Western Christendom.”
But , he continued, “those promising early links with the West were, fatefully, never made secure.”
Focus on that one word. “Fatefully.” “Increasingly,” Billington writes, “inexerorably, Kievan Russia was drawn eastward into a debilitating struggle for control of the Eurasian steppe.”
What we’re witnessing now, make no mistake, is the latest chapter of that struggle. And it is one in which Moscow has an important, inherent and obvious advantage: Ukraine matters more to President Vladimir Putin, and Russia, than it does to Barack Obama, or German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union is the central, disastrous geopolitical fact of Putin’s life (See Newsweek cover story February 13, Putin’s Games). And among the new states that were created when the empire imploded, Ukraine was first among equals. It was, as Walter Russell Mead, professor and author at Bard College wrote recently, “the largest and most important republic within the Soviet Union.”
If Putin dreams of reassembling a reasonable facsimile of the Soviet empire—and he does—then, as Russell wrote, “everything pales beside the battle for Ukraine.”
When it appeared last fall that the government in Kiev was going to more closely align itself politically and economically with Europe than ever before, Putin moved forcefully to block it. Flush with oil and gas revenue—the beginning and the end of Russian economic strength–he offered Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych a $15 billion bribe to spurn the European Union.