Rebuilding the Russian Empire

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By John Barnhart

    As 2013 wound down, the Kiev’s main square was filled with protesters. These Ukrainians were angry with Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych because he backed out of a potential deal with the European Union. Yanukovych had promised to sign a document which would have put Ukraine on the road to European Union membership. The deal would have included European Union bail-out money for Ukraine’s ailing finances as well as money from the International Monetary Fund. The protest started small, but got much larger after a heavy handed reaction to the initial protest by Yanukovych’s police.
    Yanukovych had been under heavy economic pressure from Russia not to sign the EU deal, but, rather, join a customs union that consists of countries that were formerly part of the old Russian Empire. Russia is Ukraine’s principal trading partner and trade roadblocks that Russia put up, in an effort to strong-arm Ukraine, were hurting an already ailing Ukrainian economy.
    By year’s end, Yanokovych had something in common with Barack Obama. Last summer, after Obama had painted himself into a corner with his red line on poison gas rhetoric, Vladimir Putin bailed him out by getting Syria to agree to get rid of it’s chemical weapons stores. Now, Putin has bailed Yanokovych out by agreeing to buy $15 billion worth of Ukrainian debt and provide natural gas to Ukraine at a very low price.
    Some have suggested that Yanokovych got the better end of this deal as Russia is getting bonds of dubious quality and selling gas at a deep discount when it’s revenue from gas sales is already under pressure. As was true of the deal he offered Obama last summer, Vladimir Putin does not bail people out of troubles out of the goodness of his heart
    Why would Putin give Yanokovych a bail-out?
    I think Tsar Vladimir I is trying to rebuild the old Russian Empire. The fact that the money used for the Ukrainian bailout consists of a sixth of Russia’s foreign currency rainy day reserve gives an inkling of the extent the Tsar will go to keep Ukraine within the bear’s embrace.
    Ukraine means a great deal to Russians. I recall talking with a Russian about Ukraine, a little more than a decade ago. “It’s ours,” she commented.
    All of Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire from the days of Catherine the Great after Grigoriy Potemkin defeated Turkish forces following the annexation of Crimea, which had been a Turkish vassal state. It was only with the collapse of the Soviet Union, two decades ago, that the country became independent.
    Russia’s psychological attachment to Ukraine goes back even farther. Kiev, Ukraine’s capital is the 10th century cradle of Russian civilization. Kiev became a golden center of Byzantine civilization at a time when Western Europe was still crawling out of the Dark Ages. It was all destroyed by the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.
    The Russians finally emerged from Mongol domination after a massive, bloody battle between the Mongols and Russian forces, led by Dmitriy Donskoy, Grand Duke of Moscow, took place at Kulikovo Field in 1380. Moscow became the center of Russia, but Kiev still remained hugely important to Russians. It was so important that, in the late 17th century, Russia agreed to go to war with Turkey, a war for which Russia was not prepared, rather than cede Kiev to Poland, a major power at the time. Poland and the Holy Roman Empire were at war with Turkey at the time
    Tsar Vladimir I isn’t going to cede Ukraine to the European Union, either. At least, he isn’t going to cede it without a struggle. I'm sure Yanukovych understands this, which is why he flirted with the EU to get more money from the Tsar. It's also something that President Obama needs to understand as well.