To one side is the unpredictable allure of the west; to the other, the numbing suppression of the east.
Now in their third week, protests by angry Ukrainians continue in the capital city of Kiev, demanding the resignation of the corrupt regime of President Viktor Yanukovich. So far, the police have reacted with unusual caution—first, moving in on the protesters with angry batons, then holding back for almost two weeks, and now striking again: dislodging protesters from smaller camps erected near government buildings, generally without violence, while trying to move tens of thousands of others from their stubborn vigil in Independence Square.
For his part, Yanukovich, in a desperate effort to contain the crisis, has convened a "round table" to discuss possible solutions with former Ukrainian leaders. He has also met with Catherine Ashton, the foreign affairs envoy of the European Union, who was visiting Kiev in an effort to cool rising passions. Visiting also was Victoria Nuland, an assistant secretary of state, who has expressed U.S. preference for "Ukraine's European choice," a slippery diplomatic formula for Ukraine signing up with the European Union rather than with the Russian-led customs union, which President Putin has been demanding. In other words, the U.S. wants Ukraine to join the west, and Russia wants it to stay with the east, arguing with a fierce determination that Ukraine has always been associated with Russia, and this is no time for change.
At the moment, that collision of big-power interests represents Ukraine's painful, anguishing dilemma. For hundreds of years, Ukraine has in fact been part of the Russian empire—indeed, a very large and fruitful part, since the territory known as Ukraine was considered Russia's breadbasket. Only for the past 22 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December, 1991, has Ukraine been a truly independent nation, proud of its national borders, of its language, flag and history.
For those Ukrainians living in the western half of the country, they cherish the idea of living and working in their own country. They believe they have earned their own national identity. No longer do they feel they have to check with the boss in Moscow. In the eastern half of Ukraine, where many Russians still live and work, the notion of national independence is not as firmly rooted, and people there look with anxiety and suspicion on the continuing protests in Kiev, feeling more comfortable with a strong, ongoing association with Russia.
Under President Putin, Russian nationalism has been stoked to a high boil, on this problem and many others, and Putin's people have little patience for independence sentiment in Ukraine. They believe that it is in the natural order of things for Ukraine to be if not a part of Russia then at least a reliable associate of Russia. Enough of this independence palaver!
One graphic example of this harsh Putinesque sentiment was on far-fetched display a few days ago when Dmitry Kiselyov, the newly-named head of the just created Russia Today news agency, declared that the Kiev protests are really the result of a dangerous conspiracy by Poland, Sweden and Lithuania to defeat Russia. What?, you ask. Kiselyov explained that this same combination of enemies tried to defeat Russia in the historic Battle of Poltava in 1709, and just as Tsar Peter the Great defeated them then, so will Russia and Putin defeat them now. Kiselyov's message: Russia must beware of foreign conspiracies. "The revenge of Poltava," he warned the current conspirators. Kiselyov is the Putin favorite named to run the news agency, tasked with explaining Russia to the rest of the world.
Putin sees Russia as a great but besieged nation, entitled by history and tradition to the Ukrainian breadbasket, because, in his mind, Ukraine has always been a central character in the Russian story. And always will be. A few months ago, he enticed Kirill, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, to invite the religious leaders of 15 national orthodox churches to a Moscow conference to celebrate the 1,025 anniversary of the adoption of Christianity by the eastern Slavs. And which of the eastern Slavs were first to adopt Christianity? Those in Kiev, of course--those who today call themselves Ukrainians. And, from Kiev, Orthodox Christianity moved on to Moscow, where it sits in paramount ecstasy.
Russian philosophers used to call Moscow "the third Rome." Kiev was the "second Rome." Moscow and Kiev are, in this church-like version of contemporary politics, inextricably linked, one to the other. Putin is no patriarch, no leader of the Orthodox Church, but he runs Russia with a traditional church-like sense of Russian history, in which Ukraine was and is a key part.
Putin is not likely to let go of Ukraine, nor are the protesters in Independence Square likely to let go of their dreams. And so, Ukraine teeters, each day tilting one way and then the other.