I watched a lovely bit of propaganda from Russian television on prime recently, the first two seasons of Ekaterina, the story of Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia in the mid 1700s. Though the second season paled in comparison with the first, it was still entertaining, and I’m looking forward to more. And I don’t really mind the propaganda; I’m watching Atlas Shrugged right now, which is even more heavy-handed. It’s all about perspective.
Anyhow, the point of the second season of Ekaterina is to depict the eastern region of Ukraine as ‘the Wild Fields’. To be sure, there was no Ukraine at the time; western Ukraine was at various times part of Poland or Poland-Lithuania, while the south and eastern parts, historically the lands of the Golden Horde, were occupied by the Crimean Khanate and Circassia (the conquest of which was the longest war in Russian history. Over the years Russia expanded into the region, first under the direction of Ivan the Terrible, then later under Catherine the Great.
In the television show, the lands are depicted as basically unoccupied, outside the domain of civilization and of Europe generally, and where Russian settlers were attacked by marauding outlaw Turks, to be bravely defended when solders like Grigory Orlov and Grigory Potemkin would come riding in to the rescue. After prevailing in her wars against the Ottomans, Catherine eventually occupied and defined the region as Novorossiya – New Russia.
So yeah, there’s some history there. But it should be clear that it’s a history of conquest and colonialism. The land lies beyond the furthest reaches of Kievan Rus and parts of it were resisting Moscow into the mid-1800s. It is no more Russian than it is Bulgarian, Turk, Mongol or Khazar. What makes it Ukrainian – now – is the fact that it lies within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders. There isn’t some magical historical or demographic fact that makes it Russian, no matter what the doctrine of the Wild Fields or Novorossiya may say.
I am the first to say that national borders are stupid, that they are a legacy of Europe’s colonial past, and that they don’t sufficiently respect history or culture. I personally would welcome a world in which people of regions of a certain (small) size can determine for themselves how they would like to be affiliated. But that is not grounds for the reassertion of colonialism. Nor is it grounds for the forceful redefinition of borders.
The world quite rightly protested when the United States unilaterally invaded Iraq on a trumped-up pretext, and many people presciently warned of the consequences of diplomacy based on invasion and regime change. We are seeing more of the same here, and the same objections apply. Whatever Russia may feel its right may be, or where its interests lie, it does not have the right to invade another country in an effort either to alter borders or change governments.
The willingness of major powers to intervene militarily into smaller nations’ affairs is precisely why nations like North Korea and Iran seek the protection of nuclear arms. Ukraine, when it split with the U.S.S.R. in 1991, made the decision that it would give up its nuclear arsenal and join the nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty. The present Russian incursions and potential for invasion should rightly cause other smaller nations to consider that a mistake.
Nobody in Russia is going to listen to me tell them not to invade. I have no illusions. And we in the western world have not been angels. We’re scarcely in a position to argue against their militarism or their propaganda. But that still doesn’t make it right, and we should be clear that tales of the historic Russian claim to the region are nothing more than fanciful rationalization. At some point, all colonizers must give up their colonies. The only question is how steep the cost will be in blood and treasure.
It would be nice if Russia, which has suffered so much from invasion from the west and the east, could offer a better example for the rest of us, and let its neighbours live in peace.