Former British Ambassador in Moscow Gives Historical Perspective On Ukraine Crisis


Rodric Braithwaite, the British ambassador in Moscow from 1988 to 1992, recently wrote a column in The Independent that provides not only valuable historical context to the ongoing crisis in Crimea, but also outlines why the best way for the crisis to be resolved is going to involve "eating of words on all sides."

Credit: SeikoEn/wikimedia

Early on in the column, Braithwaite outlines a brief history of the last thousand years of the area now known as Ukraine:

So perhaps we should start with a short history lesson. A thousand years ago Kiev was the capital of an Orthodox Christian state called Rus with links reaching as far west as England. But Rus was swept away by the Tatars in the 13th century, leaving only a few principalities in the north, including an obscure town deep in the forests, called Moscow.

What became known as Ukraine – a Slav phrase meaning "borderlands" – was regularly fought over by Tatars, Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Turks, Swedes and Cossacks. One large chunk, including Kiev itself, joined Russia in the 17th century. Galicia in the west fell to the Austrians in the following century, but was taken by Poland after the First World War, when the rest of Ukraine joined the Soviet Federation. Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin handed Galicia and its capital Lviv to Ukraine in 1945. All these changes were accompanied by much bloody fighting.

Ukraine's Crimean peninsula followed a different but equally tumultuous path. The seat of a powerful and predatory Tatar state, it was conquered and settled by the Russians in the 18th century. Stalin deported its Tatar minority in 1944 because, he said, they had collaborated with the Germans. They were later allowed to return. Crimea only became part of Ukraine in 1954, when Khrushchev gave it to Kiev as a present.

Ukraine became an independent country for the first time since the Middle Ages when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Braithwaite goes on to outline the attachment many Russians feel towards Ukraine:

…most Russians feel strong emotional links to Ukraine as the cradle of their civilisation. Even the most open minded feel its loss like an amputated limb.

Credit: Norgler/wikimedia

Braithwaite believes it is irresponsible to talk of Ukraine joining NATO, an organization he says most Ukrainians do not want to join. He adds that the majority of Ukrainians want to be on good terms with Russia.

One of the most important points Braithwaite makes in his column is that the West does not have the means to stop Russia being overly involved in Ukrainian affairs:

…the West does not have the instruments to impose its will. It has no intention of getting into a forceful confrontation with Russia. Lesser sanctions are available to it, both economic and political, but they will hardly be sufficient to deflect a determined Russia from its meddling.

The alternative is for the West to talk to the Russians and to whoever can speak with authority for Ukraine. So far the Americans have been ineffective on the sidelines, the British seem to have given up doing foreign policy altogether, and only the Germans, the Poles and the French have shown any capacity for action.

Braithwaite concludes by saying a deal that would likely be better than any other proposed resolution to the crisis would have to include both the West and Russia agreeing to stop interfering with Ukraine, NATO making assurances that it will not work towards recruiting Ukraine, and the West and Russia both offering support to Ukraine's economy.

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  1. It is called “sphere of influence”. We have no more business telling the Russians what they can and cannot do regarding the Ukraine than they do telling us what we can and cannot do regarding Mexico.

    The problem with internationalism is that it creates conflicts where none existed before and escalates what once were regional conflicts into world ones. Everyone turned against the old great power system because it gave us both World Wars and especially World War II. There is clearly some truth to that. But you can learn too much from history. Not every great power is Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union bent on world domination or ruin. I don’t think Putin’s Russia is that. But internationalism demands that the world treat every aggressive act like it is Munich 1936. That is lunacy.

    We need to go back to a world were great powers recognized each others’ spheres of influence and stayed out of each others’ way within them. I feel bad for countries like Georgia and Ukraine. But sometimes life sucks. And it definitely sucks when you are a small country with a big, nasty neighbor like Russia. I don’t see how turning regional aggression into a world problem is a very good solution to this reality.

    1. Basically this. As nice as it would be to have the magic bullet to this circumstance, we are essentially playing in Russia’s home court without so much as a pop gun. They are in control and they know it. Perhaps a more powerful Germany would be able to challenge them on the Ukraine (as they did historically in WWI), but that’s not going to happen today and there is no sense in giving the Ukraine a false hope that the Light Brigade is coming.

      As you say, Putin is not another Hitler. It is not Stalin’s portrait hanging in his office — it’s Peter the Great. An expansionist Russia is not an appealing prospect, but the US had good relations with Tsarist Russia at the height of its imperialist reach and can have similar relations again.

      1. It’s really becoming clear that the only reasonable counterpoise to Russia is a rearmed Western Europe, which has different interests and concerns than the U.S. It’s the one thing that might pull them a little out of their total welfare state mentality, assuming they decide they fear the Russians enough.

        Something to keep in mind is that, aside from the nukes, which really aren’t usable in any real sense, Russia is not a huge military power. That’s one reason Europe isn’t that worried. They’re still more concerned about oil than tanks.

        1. Yes. Europe is going to have to wake up and realize that the fantasy of a post nationalist militarist world is just that, a fantasy. The US cannot and will not defend them forever.

          It is long past time for Europeans to be Europeans again. They invented the Western way of warfare and are along with their American cousins the greatest soldiers the world has ever known. There is no excuse for them not being so again.

          1. It really would not be that difficult for the biggest Euro states (UK, France, Germany, Italy, etc.) to amass far greater conventional power than Russia is capable of having. Those four states alone have nearly double Russia’s population and 3-4x as big an economy. Russia’s oil and gas gives them economic leverage, but that works both ways.

            1. That’s why I mentioned this yesterday as a legitimate fear for the Russians. Germany alone could easily exceed Russia’s military strength in technology, and Europe’s population is great enough to match or exceed Russia’s numbers.

              1. Indeed, the latter is true several times over. Germany and any one of France, Italy, or the UK have about the same population as Russia. Russia does not have the numbers or economic might to defeat an alliance of Western European states in any sort of conventional warfare where both sides are at full capability.

          2. Yes, and we’ll sell them shit when they finally start killing each other again, but NO INTERVENTION THIS TIME. I’m serious.

        2. But right now Western Europe wants the US to do all the heavy lifting. As you say, a welfare state mentality.

          1. “You Americans are heavily armed, irrational, ready to kill at the slightest provocation. Why are you being so hesitant here? We promise not to protest for at least a week, maybe two. SIC!”

    2. We need to go back to a world were great powers recognized each others’ spheres of influence and stayed out of each others’ way within them.

      Not that I’m saying we ought to go out there on a white horse wielding a lance to defend the Ukraine’s honor. But if the Ukrainian people don’t want to be dominated by Russia anymore, I see no reason why we’re obligated to say “Sorry, Shit outta luck, you’re Russia’s property.”

      It’s the Ukranian people’s business whether they want to be more aligned with Russia or the EU and if they want to go join the EU we’ve got no business stopping them.

  2. It’s funny to see this. I was just re-listening to an episode of my favorite history podcast that discusses this very topic, the destruction of the Ukraine and cradle of Russian civilization. The only people ever to occupy Russian territory for a long period of time, the Mongols. Those people were incredible in their imperial “success”, causing the end of arguably the three oldest and most advanced societies of the time (the Russians, the Muslims, and the Chinese.

    1. “causing the end of arguably the three oldest and most advanced societies of the time (the Russians, the Muslims, and the Chinese.”

      I assume you mean conquest, as Chinese and Islamic society certainly did not end with the Mongol conquest, and in the case of the former, only a small portion of Muslim lands were every conquered by the Mongols. Also, Russian society was nowhere near the third oldest in existence at the time.

      1. There is a school of thought that says the Mongol’s destruction of Baghdad in 1258 ended classical Islamic civilization in that it never recovered from the blow and its best days were forever behind it after that event.

        All of the things that people point to as “great contributions” of Islamic culture, occurred before 1258. I would equate it to the 4th Crusade’s sacking of Constantinople. It may not have ended Byzantine culture, but it sure as hell was never the same after it.

        1. I think it’s fair to point out the devastating effect that the conquest had on Baghdad, which was the heartland of Islamic civilization at the time. It’s nonetheless not accurate to say that the conquest ended Muslim society. The majority of Muslim lands were not conquered by the Mongols.

          1. The devastation of Merv was probably more significant, as it was an enormous source of prestige and learning in the Muslim world (and was the largest city in the world at various points in history). As far as percentage of Muslim land overtaken, basically everything except for Turkey, Egypt, and Arabia was overtaken by the Mongols, including most of their population centers. It’s hard to overestimate the impact of the Mongol invasion on classical Islam.

            1. At that time, Muslims also ruled Syria, Palestine, all of North Africa, a significant part of Subsaharan Africa (including the Mali Empire, at the time the most powerful state in SSA that was very wealthy due to the gold trade), and they still had parts of Iberia.

        2. True in part, but the real killer of Islamic civilization was that the Muslims turned against the large religious minorities running most of their empire, and became very insular due to perceived disloyalty of those minorities during the Mongol occupation pre-conversion. Much of the mathematics, architecture, philosophy translation, and medical advances of the Islamic empire was due to the large Syrian, Coptic, Jewish, and Zoroastrian minorities in the region. (Aramaic and Coptic were the prestige dialects of Mesopotamia and Egypt, respectively thanks to the outsized influence wielded by these minorities.) Thanks to relentless persecution following that period, these communities dwindled to much smaller minorities (~10% of the population) and so did ‘Islamic achievement’.

          1. Not enough of an expert to argue with you. But didn’t the trauma of the Mongol invasions contribute to that turning inward?

            1. Yes, it was interrelated. I am not an expert either and am speaking out of what I have read, but one complication is that many Mongols and steppe peoples involved in the invasion belonged to the same church and were in communion with the Syro-Persian Christians who were themselves overrepresented in Muslim bureaucracy and universities. The Mongols initially favored Christian and Zoroastrian minorities in ruling their conquered realms (the Patriarch of Baghdad, for example, was given effective control of Baghdad after the Mongols sacked the city), allowed Christian communities to proselytize (not allowed under Sharia law), and often provided them patronage.

              None of this endeared these minorities to Muslims when they came back into power, and once the Mongols converted to Islam they were harshly persecuted. So yes, the harshness of Mongol’s invasions was a contributor but IMO less so than the elimination of a large part of the region’s intelligentsia, bureaucracy, and mercantile communities.

              1. My knowledge of this period is limited, but my understanding of the Islamic societies reaction to this invasion was deeply conflicted, with scholars and historians having a hard time reconciling this devastation with their faith in their one true god. Many chroniclers seemed to blame this on the “sins” of their society. Could this have been a contribution to the purge of minorities? Or is this too simplistic?

        3. So the original silent film of “The Thief of Baghdad” really isn’t that far off with how the city is portrayed. I had that thought the last time I saw it, that Islamic civilization hasn’t looked like that in a very long time.

      2. Poorly worded, I agree.

        I think I meant more to point to the idea that on top of taking out the Ukraine, certainly some of the most advanced societies of the time (into Iran and China) were crushed in a way that is hard to comprehend.

    2. The Mongols settled in the South but didn’t occupy the rest of Russia. They just extorted enormous amounts of protection money. The Mongols kept the Russians from advancing past the dark ages. Thanks to the Golden Horde as it was known, Russia lost contact with the Middle East and classical civilization. So it never experienced the high middle ages much less the Renaissance. They have been playing catch up to the West since Peter the Great. And when they started to get close, World War I and the Bolshevik truck hit them setting them back at least a hundred years.

    3. The Russians were neither old nor sophisticated compared to their neighbors — pre-Mongols, they tended to take their cues from the Byzantines, a people whose culture, tech, and level of urbanization were much higher than that of old Rus.

      That said, Russia would be so much better of a country had Novgorod and Rus not been weakened enough by the Mongols to let a despotism like Muscovy overtake them.

      1. Right, as I mentioned above, I let my train of thought ruin what I was trying to say.

        I was mostly just trying to relate my fascination with how devastating the Mongols were to world history.

      2. Sure they did. And so did Western Europe. The Mongols cut them off from that and deprived the Russians of developing along with the rest of Europe.

        Yes, the Rus were nothing but Viking barbarians. But so were the Normans and for that matter the French and Germans.

  3. Funny how the history lesson left out Stalin’s mass starvation of Ukraine. The Ukrainians I know still hold a deep resentment towards Russia for that and other abuses.

    1. Whine, whine, whine!

    2. I’ve had that come up in conversation lately, too, but I don’t think historical grievances should be settled at the expense of the living, and the legacies of Stephan Bandera and the Galicia Division really shouldn’t be celebrated by anyone trying to win hearts and minds. Aside from a moderately-worded note from Abe Foxman, there’s been surprisingly little mentioned in our media about what Jews in western Ukraine might be facing.

  4. What wrong with this map? I didn’t see Schmoeland or the Giva Dam.

    1. I’m probably one of the only people who gets the reference…

      1. You win 1,000 chilblainas.

  5. “…most Russians feel strong emotional links to Ukraine as the cradle of their civilisation. Even the most open minded feel its loss like an amputated limb.”

    OK, and how do the Ukrainians feel about this? Presumably, as a group, they don’t feel like a limb of Russia and will object strenuously if Russia tries to reattach them.

    1. This.

  6. “One of the most important points Braithwaite makes in his column is that the West does not have the means to stop Russia being overly involved in Ukrainian affairs”

    While this may be the case (and I believe it is) – Feeny doesn’t explain exactly *why* this is so important. I assume the idea is that from the default libertarian perspective, we should not “interfere” in any case, whether we had the means to do so or not = however, the fact we lack the means simply makes the desired outcome a foregone conclusion?

    “Braithwaite concludes by saying a deal that would likely be better than any other proposed resolution to the crisis would have to include both the West and Russia agreeing to stop interfering with Ukraine”

    This is probably the most desirable outcome.

    I find it hard to see how any particular POV expressed so far by people like Ron Paul, Sheldon Richman, et al would ever lead to this outcome, given that any such negotiation to reach this end would be by itself considered ‘meddling’ and involve using the threat of force/influence of money/making entangling ‘alliances’ and other tools of diplomacy uniformly rejected by libertarians as generally yukky, ‘intervention-y’, and to be avoided altogether regardless of expected outcomes.

    1. Part of the non interventionist fantasy is the fantasy that other countries will make a deal with us out of the goodness of their hearts rather than because the threat of military intervention forces them too.

      I can respect the view that saving Ukraine is either not possible or not worth the effort. But I cannot abide by the anti interventionist lie that we can somehow magically save the Ukraine though “making a deal”. That is just retarded.

  7. I’m a little confused by this version of history since it portrays the Ukraine as a battlefield between different countries, and yet … does not explain why there is a distinct Ukranian language.

    Generally, where there’s a distinct language, we tend to think of the people speaking it as a distinct people. In this case, there’s a distinct ethnic group, and it happens to exist within the boundaries of a distinct state. Yet the quoted article seems to take the position that Ukranian, and Ukranians don’t even exist. They’re just a bunch of territory that doesn’t really belong to anyone. So why shouldn’t Russia control it?

    We might perhaps consider that, regardless of whether the West can do anything about it, there might be a bunch of people who call themselves “Ukranians” who don’t really want to just be a satellite state of a Russian empire.

    And maybe even the notion of considering the Ukraine part of Russias “back yard” is itself arrogating ourselves the right to judge what the Ukrainian people may or may not do.

    Mayhaps, Russias recent actions could change a lot of Ukrainians minds about how close they want to be to Europe vs. Russia. Maybe they might decide they would rather align themselves with the EU and NATO than Russia. Isn’t it their business to make that decision, not ours?

  8. It’s doubtful that Braithwaite’s suggestions would work. First, Putin can agree to stop meddling in Ukraine all he wants, but he’s not going to do so. The Finlandization of Ukraine is simply not an option for Russia; Ukraine is too emotional of a subject for Russians to keep their hands off of the country. And second, given that Putin believes that the West broke an earlier agreement not to bring into NATO any former Russian satellites beyond than Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, it’s doubtful he would believe any promises made today about Ukraine.

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