Every nation’s desire to determine its own course is so strong that it provokes fears in others, who do all they can to maintain their own balance. When this will for autonomy is suppressed, the result is explosive and unpredictable; when satisfied, it can lead to revolutionary change. This is what 19th- and 20th-century history shows, with empires declining and nation states rising. Today the desire for autonomy is expressed either through separatist movements within countries or through the search for prosperity through alliances with other countries.
Today, the European Union is, in a fashion, the equivalent of old empires – with the great difference that this is a union of autonomous nations who want to join it, not to break away. The violence in the heart of Ukraine’s capital in recent days has its roots in the peaceful protests that broke out when the government suddenly stopped the country’s moves toward closer ties with the EU, something which many saw as the road to prosperity. After three months, the demonstrations erupted into violence when the government reneged on a deal to weaken the president’s powers.
The Ukrainian drama is playing out against a backdrop of EU-Russian rivalry. Europe has encouraged the calls for closer ties with Ukraine, while Russia is afraid of losing influence in a country that is part of its identity in terms of history, geography and economics. The EU, as a modern empire, wants to affect events but it does not know how to project power – provoking the exasperation and ridicule of the US. Russia, as the Soviet empire’s successor, knows very well how to play the game: The troubles started last November when Moscow made clear to Kiev that closer ties between Ukraine and the EU would have direct consequences on relations with Russia. President Viktor Yanukovych was forced to choose between the expectation of future benefits from the EU or the immediate fallout from Russian sanctions against his poor country.
The West and Russia, as if obliged to replay the Cold War, have not come to any agreement which would enable the protagonists in Ukraine to escape the circle of violence. The issue is complicated: The Ukrainian president is elected but has acted in a most authoritarian way; the opposition forces have a right to protest, but no one will benefit from a collapse of the state; Russia does not want to look weak in its neighborhood; some European countries support the protests but worry about separatist tendencies within their own borders.
No one can gain from bloodshed in Ukraine. Whoever can influence the protagonists has to make it clear that further support is not guaranteed, that if the conflict does not stop now the country will cross the point of no return.