Human history is all about lines. Lines which are continuously drawn and cancelled according to ever changing systems of power. The making of empires and their dissolution has required a constant endeavor of redefinition of lines in time. A pencil a rubber, that is all, apparently. But those peoples who find themselves entrapped in those mutable lines often end up paying the consequences of that political artistry, which is always the result private interest and greed rather than real taste for art. Being within a new line means losing certainties, identity, the world as you knew it. A line is a wound.
The recent Russian Ukrainian conflict is nothing but the result of yet another wound, which is particularly painful if we understand how these two countries are bound one to the other. It is important to know that Russian identity and the very name of Russia were born in the centuries around the 10th century in Kiev and the surrounding region. The first population that took the name of Rus’ (“rowing men” a term introduced during the High Middle Ages to refer to the Scandinavian populations living in the regions that are currently part of Ukraine, Belarus and Western Russia) lived in the present-day Eastern Ukraine. So, we may say that Russian identity, Russian people and Russian culture were born in what they call the Rus’ of Kiev.
It was the great prince of Kiev Vladimir who converted to Christianity giving rise to the long history of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Then, over the centuries, Russian and Orthodox civilization extended to North to the Slavic population living in what is now Russia, while Ukraine gradually became a more peripheral region. In fact, Ukraine means “borderland” and this is what Ukraine was reduced to around the 15th century, as the centre of Russia was further North in Moscow.
When Ivan the Terrible, the great prince of Moscow, imposed his hegemony on the Russian world taking for the first time the title of Tsar in the 16th century, at that point Ukraine was only one of the many territories of the vast Russian area where different dialects and forms of Russian were spoken. Ukraine became also the target of many invasions and it was conquered and subdued by non-Russian peoples: the Lithuanians first and then the Poles. For centuries Ukraine remained part of Poland and when Poland was divided in the 17th century, the current Eastern Ukraine re-entered into the Russian Empire, while Western Ukraine became part of the Austrian Empire. From this moment on these populations had different destinies.
Western Ukrainians lived in a Catholic empire, while in the Eastern part of the country the Tsars conducted a policy of” Russification”, hence, Ukrainian language at some point disappeared, as it was no longer taught or used in the written form. The great writers born in Ukraine wrote in Russian and felt Russian like Gogol, for example. To cut a long story short, Ukrainian identity under the Tsars remained mostly provincial, just a small part of a great Russia.
The story reversed with the Soviet Union. The problem of nationalities and languages was very much felt, therefore, an intense policy of development of national identities and languages was pursued, no need to say, under the Russian supremacy. Multiple Russian republics bloomed and multiple different identities with them. After the collapse of the Soviet Union those republics for the first time matured a marked sense of independence which resulted eventually in an explicit refusal to be Russian.
The case of Ukraine is even more serious, as in the Eastern part of the country, where now separatism is developing, the population is predominantly Russian. The Ukrainian republic as it was designed at the time of the Soviet Union includes both Ukrainian and Russian areas, but for those who handled the pencil to draw the lines the matter of identity was only a small detail, it was the line that mattered. The consequences are before us.
Now, why has that “borderland” become so vital in the international arena? Well, because it is a border land, actually, and in this last hand at the game of Risk Ukraine is perceived as a sort Trojan horse, the last frontier to penetrate Russia. The strategies of the game board players are quite clear: the USA want to detach Ukraine from Moscow and incorporate it into NATO, while Russia wants to recover the Russian-speaking Ukrainian territory and avoid Ukraine from entering NATO , while I have to confess that I find the European tactic somewhat obscure, as EU countries keep fanning on flames rather acting as mediators. Trying to corner Russia has only had the result of attracting China to Moscow so far, is that wise? Negotiation is the answer to any war and not only because it is everybody’s best option, but also because “the greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”(Sun Tzu, The Art of War).