Ukraine: The great game revisited

Feb 18, 2022
Created in the midst of the medieval period Ukraine was from its inception a magnet for expansionary forces intent on expropriating its resources.  (Image: Flickr/cleevehome)

Just as the history of modern Afghanistan is inexplicable without an understanding of great power politics the same maxim applies to Ukraine.

As Afghanistan and the imperial struggles termed the ‘Great Game’ in the novel ‘Kim’ by Rudyard Kipling slips from the front pages of the international press another country that has experienced its share of competing colonial games takes the media spotlight.  

Nothing can be understood about the struggle for control of this country rich in valuable resources vital to modern economies without an understanding of the competing ruling groups that have littered Ukranian history. Today contemporary powers are as bent on shaping the destiny of this wealthy and strategically important region as their medieval counterparts were. 

Created in the midst of the medieval period Ukraine was from its inception a magnet for expansionary forces intent on expropriating its resources.  

The early Ukraine with its capital in Kiev was established in the ninth century. The political power of its rulers was based on onerous taxes imposed on rural peasants. Foreign invaders in the form of the Mongols supplanted the local power elite. A few centuries later the princes of Moscow broke the Mongol yoke and a new ruling elite based in Moscow emerged.  

The Muscovite ruling group annexed Ukraine. It was to become a core region of the Tsarist dynasty established in 1613 that survived until 1917 when the Bolsheviks took power. 

In the age of modern colonialism Ukraine became a focal point for a new set of foreign invaders bent on establishing a great Eastern empire. 

In the spring of 1918 German soldiers marched into the Ukraine. With its grain and other resources Ukraine was to be the springboard for Germany annexing the Crimea, and then advancing through the Caucasus to Persia, Afghanistan and ultimately India. The 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk forced on the reluctant Bolsheviks was the first step in a great imperial venture. 

Defeat on the Western Front destroyed Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s imperial dream, but when army planners pointed out to Hitler in 1940 the benefits that would flow from smashing the rule of the Bolsheviks he needed no encouragement. The Ukraine would be his breadbasket, the Crimea his Riviera, and then on to the oil fields in the Middle East and the annexation of India. The British Empire would be reduced to dust and ashes. 

The collapse of Hitler’s empire only provided a brief interlude before Ukraine once more became a pawn in the ‘Great Game.’ 

As the Soviet regime imploded the West led by the US angled to make the newly independent Ukraine and other ex-Soviet regions client states. The prize was the elimination of Russia as a great power rival, and hegemony in a swathe of territories rich in agricultural, industrial and energy resources.  

Russia was in financial straits as its empire fell apart. Gorbachev and Yeltsin offered to join NATO. A neoliberal shock therapy administered by Washington engulfed Russia. 

The West led by the US exhibited imperial hubris. It was not magnanimous in victory. In its pursuit of humbling Russia it spawned a blowback. 

Gorbachev thought that at the very least he had an assurance from the US that NATO would not move east. The US duped him and the scene was set for talk of Ukraine joining the EU and incorporation into NATO. 

A deaf ear was turned to the Russian plea that the Ukraine fell within Russia’s sphere of influence. The US was blind to the fact that Russia would never countenance a hostile pact and anti-ballistic missiles poised on its borders. It could point to the US and claim it would never accept such humiliating treatment against its satellite states in the Caribbean and Latin America. 

Thus it should be no surprise a resurgent Russia has spearheaded a drive to reclaim Ukraine, Georgia and the Crimea. Russia after its intervention in Georgia and triumph in the Crimea is now intent on picking off the rest of Ukraine 

Russia is back in the ‘Great Game.’ 

Russia has a foothold in the Russian speaking highly industrialized Donbas region of Ukraine where it backed a pro-Russian rebel movement. It is confronted by Ukranian nationalists who govern the bulk of the country from their capital in Kiev, and want admission to the EU and membership of NATO whilst their language blankets the Ukraine. 

 Economics and proximity to contested territories is cardinal to the chess game in Ukraine. Russia has pieces in play.

Paul Keating has noted how the US cannot take a trick, and this fading colossus is now heading for a pincer movement in Ukraine. Russia and China have been cementing economic and military ties. A Sino-Russian axis is confronting a parallel power bloc dominated by US decline. 

The Chinese will revel in the US being ensnared in the Ukraine as it will strengthen their hand in Taiwan’s future. Taiwan is another ‘Great Game’ flashpoint.  

To compound the US problems their coalition against Russia in Ukraine is shot through with contradictions. Forget Britain. It is a mirage of power that could not even hold the province of Helmand in Afghanistan without a desperate call for US aid. 

On the other hand Germany is the biggest economy in Europe and yet it is on the horn of a dilemma. Germany has forged an economic partnership with Russia, and the political ramifications have been clear in its soft response to Russia’s moves in Georgia and the Crimea. Now it is saying it will not funnel arms made in German owned arms factories in Estonia to Ukraine.  

German companies are heavily invested in Russia. Natural gas flows from Russia to Germany providing rich profits for Gazprom, but it is not all about gas. German investment and industrial goods of all types flow into Russia. 

Whilst Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Hitler botched their Eastern empire dreams German companies like Siemens are deeply invested in Russia and this is ensuring Germany will not go to the wall for Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev.  

French economic interests are also behind their reluctance to go near a boots on ground policy in Ukraine. The French were unfazed by Russia’s occupation of the Crimea in March 2014, and now Macron has forged a close relationship with Putin. France was the heaviest foreign investor in Russia during Czarist times. Some things never change in the ‘Great Game’. 

If Moscow ultimately prevails in Ukraine, German and French economic interests will be at the table sharing part of the ‘Great Game’ prize.

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