When Empires Collapse – Reflections on the Crisis in Ukraine

Tr@nsit Online

Despite the many obvious differences, the current turmoil in the Middle East and the Ukrainian crisis have something in common: both reflect the problematic legacies left behind when centuries-old empires collapse and the successor states appear less stable and viable than originally imagined.

When Empires Collapse – Reflections on the Crisis in Ukraine
Detail from the Sykes Picot Agreement Map, 9 May 1916

In the Middle East, it was British and French colonial statesmen who determined the borders and indeed the very emergence of post-Ottoman states after World War I: in 1916, Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot drew the borders in a secret agreement eventually named after them (“Sykes-Picot”), which was then further elaborated in the conferences and treaties of Sèvres and San Remo (both 1920) and Lausanne (1923). These arrangements set up the separate entities of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This was done with total disregard for history, geography, ethnicity and religious affiliations – and certainly without ever taking into account the views of the local populations: a heterogeneous mixture of Arab Muslims of various sects and denominations (Sunnis, Shias, Alawis), Christians of various churches, Druze, Kurds, Turkmens, Jews, Yezidis and others. This Middle East state system lasted for most of the 20th century, but when it was challenged by the Arab Spring, and before that by the US invasion of Iraq, the quasi-Westphalian nation-states established in the region by the Sykes-Picot system began to unravel. Today, at least five states are in different stages of collapse and it is difficult to foresee them re-emerging as unitary Arab nation-states – Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Yemen. The unity of Lebanon has been seriously challenged for many years, and is now even more seriously threatened. The emergence of IS as a transnational phenomenon suggests the appearance of a new entity, further putting into question the relevance of the Westphalian model to Middle Eastern realities.

Under different circumstances, something similar has happened in the Eastern European space of the former Czarist and later Soviet empires. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 due to the twin impact of Gorbachev’s reforms and the thrust of separatist national movements, especially in the Baltic and the Caucasus, it appeared that the best way to avoid chaos, retain some stability and respect the idea of self-determination was that the 15 Soviet republics would be recognized internationally as independent nation-states. That this historical disintegration of Soviet power occurred with very little violence (the Chechen case excluded), created the impression and hope that a new stable state system was emerging.

Yet some “frozen conflicts” suggested that there were dangers lurking under the surface: Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is in this post-Soviet context that the Ukrainian crisis has to be viewed, and, as justified as the criticism of Russia’s aggressive policies under Putin is, one must not overlook the systemic and structural issues involved. These will not go away, despite all Western criticism and sanctions.

For just as the Sykes-Picot system, which created the Arab states in the post-Ottoman space, did not reflect the wishes of the peoples involved or their historical affiliations and allegiances, but was the outcome of Anglo-French imperial interests, so the 15 post-Soviet states – and their borders – did not represent the political wills of their populations. Instead, they were the outcome of Soviet imperial administrative decisions, expressing Moscow’s understanding of Soviet raison d’état as well as Leninist and Stalinist interpretations of Marxist nationality policies, all coupled with arbitrary decisions of the Soviet leadership. If in the cases of Moldova or Georgia this involved basically marginal issues (which did still lead to local but limited wars), in the case of Ukraine it raised much more serious and far-reaching strategic issues.

Ukraine as it emerged in its currently recognized borders after the collapse of the Soviet Union exemplified, in many instances, the haphazard and arbitrary nature of internal Soviet nationality policy. Hence post-1991 independent Ukraine comprised not only the core Ukrainian space with Kyiv as its centre: Western Ukraine, with Lviv as its capital, which had been for centuries linked politically and linguistically to Poland, also became part of independent Ukraine, because of both the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the Soviet military victory in World War II (endorsed by the victors at Yalta and Potsdam). The eastern regions, led by Kharkiv, with a predominantly Russian-speaking population of approximately 10 million people, has never been linked with a Ukrainian national heritage. Under communism, this region became part of Soviet Ukraine because Stalin’s policies were intended to weaken and dilute historical Ukrainian nationalism (with its anti-Russian and anti-Soviet tendencies) by adding a large Russian-speaking population to the Ukrainian SSR. It was the consequences of this decision that were later inherited by post-1991 independent Ukraine. And last but not least Crimea: it has never been in any conceivable sense part of Ukraine, but rather was Ottoman (and Tartar) before being conquered by Czarist Russia; consequently, its population was predominantly ethnic Russian, and it was part of the Russian Soviet Federal Republic until Khrushchev, himself Ukrainian, decided in a typical arbitrary Soviet ukase to transfer it to the Soviet Ukrainian Republic in 1954. .

Nothing in international law (which usually endows the status quo with normative legitimacy) can justify Russian current policies against Ukraine, especially as the Russian Federation committed itself in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But the problem goes deeper.

The fact that post-1991 Ukraine included vast areas – and populations – with tenuous historical and linguistic ties to Ukraine, its history and culture, made it much more difficult to create a functioning, coherent modern Ukrainian nation-state. The endemic corruption that has been part of all Ukrainian governments – regardless of the personality of the president – is inextricably bound to the difficulties of establishing a coherent state administration. No post-Soviet country has been plagued as Ukraine has been by the power of oligarchs who have continually decided the politics and policies of various administrations and who have marginalized any attempt at a coherent administration. The deep split among the various Ukrainian Orthodox churches adds to this – in addition to the existence of the Uniate Greek Catholic Church which has been, on the one hand, perhaps the most vociferous bearer of Ukrainian nationalism, but is, on the other hand, almost non-existent in the core Ukrainian regions. And political parties have tended to be either highly personalistic or regional – not a good omen for a successful transition to consolidated democracy.

In a way, all this reflects the fact that, unlike the Baltic states or Georgia and Armenia, there has never been a coherent Ukrainian state in the past. Despite a vibrant Cossack tradition, and the emergence of Ukrainian nationalism in the 19th century, for centuries the region has been a battlefield between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the expanding Czarist Empire. The short-lived Ukrainian independent state, which owed its birth to the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, collapsed not only because of the strength of the Red Army, but also because of internal violent disputes among various Ukrainian nationalist factions, which greatly weakened the state’s ability to defend the new country against the Soviets. Modern states do not of course owe their legitimacy solely to historical predecessors or memories, but the complex and differential histories of the various geographical components of post-1991 independent Ukraine certainly made the forging and consolidation of a coherent modern commonwealth much more difficult.

Current Russian propaganda , which has branded the Maidan demonstrators and the current government in Kyiv as fascists, is of course absurd. Yet one cannot totally disregard the fact that at least one political party in the current coalition – Svoboda, formerly named the Social-Nationalist Party, whose emblem was clearly modelled on the swastika – is the historical descendant of those Ukrainian nationalist groups which fought alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union during World War II. That this has been cynically instrumentalized by Russian propaganda cannot overshadow the fact that it presents a real issue for many Russians – and for Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine.


Ukraine is not exactly a failed state, but one can see that even the Poroshenko administration faces serious problems in overcoming 25 years of a failed attempt at coherent and democratic nation-building. Western sanctions against Russia, no matter how justified, will not change Russian policies or bring down Putin and give rise to a democratic alternative in Russia. Russian civil society is too weak for this. Nor will it bring Crimea back to Ukraine or put an end to the pro-Russian insurrection in Donetsk and Luhansk, or stop Russian support for the secessionists.

From the perspective of Warsaw, there are ominous associations with the current direction of Moscow’s policies, Similarly, one can also well understand the nervousness in the Baltic states, with the large Russian-speaking populations in Latvia and Estonia, who, with some justification, feel themselves being discriminated against. When Putin, trying to justify the annexation of Crimea, spoke in his speech to the Duma of millions of ethnic Russians who one night went to sleep in their homeland and the next morning found themselves a minority in other nation-states, he spoke to the authentic feelings of many. Even if this was propaganda, it reflected a real situation – and a real problem that has not been adequately addressed by the West or the international community as such. Absolutizing the administrative internal borders of the former Soviet Union in the name of stability and territorial integrity may, after all, run in the face of national self-determination and the civil and human rights of minorities.

So what is to be done? First of all, to realize that self-righteous rhetoric is not a substitute for viable policies. Secondly, that if we would like to avoid further crisis, we have to realize that sanctions are not the solution. Maybe it is too much to ask, faced with Russian Soviet-style policies and false analogies with the 1930’s, but what is needed is a willingness to consider a grand bargain: a courageous attempt to address the unresolved problems left behind from the dissolution of the Soviet Union and pushed under the carpet for more than two decades.

Not realizing this may invite further instability, wars and aggression. Precisely because neither the European Union nor the USA are ready or willing to go to war against Russia – nor should they – diplomacy should prevail: and if Obama’s Washington is distancing itself from Europe or world politics in general, this could be the supreme test for the European Union. To leave countries like Ukraine as a black hole is dangerous not only for them, but for stability and peace in Europe as a whole. We should not wait for the next crisis.

Shlomo Avineri is Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences (PAU). He is a former Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of the IWM Advisory Board.