- - Monday, February 24, 2014

Viktor Yanukovych may be gone as president of Ukraine. New elections may bring to power the opposition forces that emerged in response to his faulty leadership. Western politicians and journalists may see these events as a triumph of democracy over oligarchy and a righteous slap at Russian interference in Ukrainian affairs.

After this current drama plays out, however, two realities will remain unchanged, and they are the two most important realities guiding the fate of this troubled country.

The first is that Ukraine will still be what the late Samuel Huntington of Harvard called a “cleft country” — meaning one that encompasses two distinct and often antagonistic cultures. The western portion is dominated by people who identify with Europe, who look to the pope in Rome for religious guidance, who speak Ukrainian and are ardent nationalists. The country’s eastern lands, on the other hand, are dominated by people who are Orthodox in religious identity, who speak Russian, and who derive a significant part of their identity from Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s fate over the past 450 years.

Thus, if the Europe-oriented people of Ukraine’s western regions emerge triumphant in the current crisis, as is likely, it will not definitively settle the question of whether Ukraine will align with the West or with Moscow. That conflict is embedded deep in Ukrainian politics (and demographics), and it will continue to roil the nation for generations to come.


Consider the seesaw nature of Ukrainian politics since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. Western-oriented presidential candidates, such as Leonid Kravchuk in 1994, have captured nearly 90 percent of the western precincts, while Moscow-oriented candidates, such as Leonid Kuchma in that same year, have garnered similarly lopsided majorities in the country’s east. In that particular election, Mr. Kuchma squeezed out a slim, 52 percent victory.

Or consider Mr. Yanukovych’s own electoral fate: elected president in 2004; lost his position in the famous “Orange Revolution” that followed allegations of a corrupt electoral outcome; elected prime minister in 2006; lost that position in 2007 to Yulia Tymoshenko; elected president again in 2010; and now bumped from the presidency by a vote of Parliament, with Ms. Tymoshenko emerging as a possible successor if she wants to re-enter politics. This is the kind of electoral history one finds in a country that operates always on the political margin — in other words, a cleft country.

The second reality is that Russia will never fully relinquish its influence over Ukrainian politics, for two reasons. The first is Russia’s geopolitical fate as a nation that lies vulnerable to invasion. Its unremitting grassy steppes extend from Europe to the Far East, with hardly a mountain range, seashore or major forest to hinder encroachment by army or horde. This has generated a national obsession to control territory as a hedge against incursion, which has occurred from the West in each of the last two centuries and from many directions during previous centuries.

This territorial obsession is not new. It began with the Kievan Rus back in the ninth century, until its tribes were overrun by the Mongols in the 13th century. It guided medieval Muscovy until it succumbed to invading Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians and Cossacks in the 17th century. It was embraced by the Romanovs for more than 300 years and later by the succeeding Bolsheviks, who saw their vast empire disintegrate and Russia shrink to a smaller size than it had known since the mid-18th century.

Thus, far from an idle matter for Russian leaders, this territorial obsession is viewed as a matter of survival.

Second, while Russia has little real pretense to serious global reach these days, it does want to be a significant regional power in the Eurasian heartland. If Ukraine were to be fully integrated into the Western sphere of influence, that aim of regional dominance would be dead. The resulting balance-of-power shift in the region would be a huge blow to Russia, whose sphere of influence has included Ukraine since 1654, when Ukrainian leaders appealed to Russia for help in protecting their land from the threat of Polish incursions. As Huntington has written, “From then until 1991, except for a briefly independent republic between 1917 and 1920, what is now Ukraine was controlled politically from Moscow.”

Thus, it is a fantasy to think we will see a definitive outcome from recent Ukrainian events leading to the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych. True, the president generated abundant anger in his country’s western regions when he spurned a negotiated agreement designed to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union and opted instead for a Russian bailout package worth some $15 billion. His brutal response to pro-Western demonstrators sapped his support even in the east. No doubt ongoing governmental corruption also contributed to Mr. Yanukovych’s loss of public support.

His fall became a national imperative to bring the nation back from the brink of burgeoning civic strife and death in the streets. Perhaps that strife now will subside, and perhaps Ukraine can find a way to restore stability — at least for a time — with some kind of balanced program to sooth the sensibilities of the country’s two distinct cultures. But Ukraine isn’t going to stop being a cleft country, and Russia isn’t going to stop viewing that territory as a necessary part of its sphere of influence.

Robert W. Merry, political editor of The National Interest, is the author most recently of “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians” (Simon & Schuster, 2012).