Bloomberg Businessweek reports: Ukraine doesn’t seem like the kind of place that world powers would want to tussle over. It’s as poor as Paraguay and as corrupt as Iran. During the 20th century it was home to a deadly famine under Stalin (the Holomodor, 1933), a historic massacre of Jews (Babi Yar, 1941), and one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters (Chernobyl, 1986). Now, with former President Viktor Yanukovych in hiding, it’s struggling to form a government, its credit rating is down to CCC, a recession looms, and foreign reserves are running low. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, head of the opposition party affiliated with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, said on Feb. 24 in Parliament, “Ukraine has never faced such a terrible financial catastrophe in all its years of independence.”
But Ukraine is also a breadbasket, a natural gas chokepoint, and a nation of 45 million people in a pivotal spot north of the Black Sea. Ukraine matters—to Russia, Europe, the U.S., and even China. President Obama denied on Feb. 19 that it’s a piece on “some Cold War chessboard.” But the best hope for Ukraine is that it will get special treatment precisely because it is a valued pawn in a new version of the Great Game, the 19th century struggle for influence between Russia and Britain.
Russia, which straddles Europe and Asia, has sought a role in the rest of Europe since the reign of Peter the Great in the early 18th century. An alliance with Ukraine preserves that. “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire,” the American political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in 1998. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants Ukraine to join his Eurasian Union trade bloc, not the European Union. Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet is headquartered in Sevastopol, a formerly Russian city that now belongs to Ukraine. [Continue reading…]