A CENTURY SINCE the end of the Great War, but the unraveling of Europe’s old empires at its finish — the Austro-Hungarian and Russian, especially — continues to haunt this peninsular landmass. It’s actually why you see these issues with nationalist governments, not only in Hungary and Poland, but also in Russia.
Russia’s issues with its neighbors mostly date back to this key period between the October Revolution (November 1917) and the Treaty on Creation of the USSR (December 1922). It was in this period that the modern borders of Ukraine, for instance, were drawn up, presumably by the Soviet leadership. Stalin himself no doubt played a role in creating this new “republic” that was never intended to operate independently from Moscow.
In 1991, this republic became independent, and was recognized as an independent state by the international community. But nobody knew what Ukrainian independence would mean. It is only now, nearly 30 years later, that this state is beginning to assert itself as an independent entity. Following the protests that ousted Yanukovich in February 2014 the state was put on a new, nearly irreversible trajectory, especially after Russia occupied and annexed Crimea.
Any political leader that came to power in Ukraine would have to defend Ukrainian sovereignty. But since Russia had annexed a part of Ukrainian territory, no political leader could emerge that would recognize that annexation. There simply is no way for Ukraine to “return” to Russia’s sphere of influence anymore. The West nominally supports the old borders, but what is really happening is that these two states are now finding their actual balances of power. Russia thought it would advance quickly west, perhaps linking its mainland with its outpost in Transnistria, with a defeated Ukraine suing for peace. Several years on, and Russia is still mired in the Donbas. A new line of control emerges.
Estonians look on this situation uncomfortably. Its original border with Russia was not drawn up by Stalin, but rather agreed to via a treaty with Lenin in 1920. It was only after it was occupied by the Soviets again in 1944 that Stalin conducted some cosmetic surgery on the eastern border. Historically, most of the land within Estonia was part of two duchies or governates — Estland and Livland. The city of Narva, however, was for a long-time part of the Petersburg Governate, and parts of Setomaa in the southeast belonged to Pskov. Narva is an interesting situation because of its Russian super-majority.
Yet among the Russians of Estonia, it’s not language or culture that apparently counts most, but living standards. Russians can and do live anywhere in such enclaves — in London, in New York, in Israel — and that does not mean that the Russian Federation needs to annex Brighton Beach or neighborhoods in Tel-Aviv or London.
The Baltics have always been an interesting, exceptional case when it comes to post-Soviet affairs. They were full-fledged European states that were occupied and annexed at a fraught moment in history, when German Luftwaffe planes were bombing London while ground troops swarmed into Denmark and France. I have long thought that if the Soviets had secured cooperative but democratic governments in the Baltics in 1940, then NATO would have never arrived at its doorstep. This would still be “neutral” territory.
Unfortunately, Russia’s fatal flaw has remained its out-sized sense of importance. Over and over again, the great Russian Bear has been undone by his immense yet fragile ego.
Hindsight is 20/20 as they say. In little over a year, it will actually be 2020. Imagine that.