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Ukraine's East-West Dilemma Evokes Century-Old Memories

Ukrainian children under a giant national flag in Kyiv in August 2010.
Ukrainian children under a giant national flag in Kyiv in August 2010.
It's been nearly a century since Ukraine's last effort to decisively embed itself in the West ended up instead with the country being subsumed by Moscow.

Is that history now repeating itself?

Sparking shouts of "shame" from opposition lawmakers, Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, on November 21 failed to pass legislation that would have facilitated the release of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a key condition for Ukraine's integration with the European Union.

Shortly after the vote, Ukraine's government also announced it was suspending preparations to sign an association agreement and free-trade pact with the EU.

"We express our deep disappointment at the unilateral decision of the Ukrainian government to postpone the signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union," EU envoys Pat Cox and Aleksander Kwasniewski said in a statement.

Ukraine's stalled drive to the West has evoked memories of the country's brief period of independence from 1918-21, when Kyiv appeared poised to shed centuries of Russian domination.

Push For Sovereignty

In the final stages of World War I, the Russian Empire collapsed, spinning off captive nations including the Baltic states, Poland, Finland, Belarus, and Ukraine.

For Poland and Finland, it was the dawn of their modern independence.

But for Ukraine, it was the beginning of a desperate and ill-fated effort to establish itself for the first time as a sovereign, modern state.

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And it had to do so under the harshest conditions -- as World War I in that region merged seamlessly into the Russian Civil War, the Polish-Soviet War, and scattered partisan fighting. The nascent country had ill-defined borders, divided internal loyalties, no historical allies, and no diplomatic traditions.

The story of Ukraine's emerging national identity goes back long before World War I, gaining momentum throughout the 19th century, says Ostap Sereda, a visiting professor at the Central European University in Budapest and a researcher with the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.

He describes it as triangle of geopolitical and national interests.

"There were two parallel processes [going on in Ukraine] of separating from the Russian cultural sphere and separating from the Polish cultural sphere. Both processes took place in the context of the Polish-Russian contest over the territories that used to belong to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and then were incorporated into the Russian Empire or into the Austrian Empire," Sered said.

"So one has to take into account the Polish side as well. One can call it a triangle, if you wish -- but maybe it was a more complicated figure than a triangle."

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Russia's national identity also emerged in the 19th century and was centered on the idea of a Slavic-Orthodox unity of which Ukraine was an essential part.

Klaus Richter, a historian at the University of Birmingham, says "for Russia, letting go of Ukraine was much more difficult than letting go of the Baltics, although the Baltics were also important because they had the Baltic Sea ports, and they were economically very important."

"But Ukraine was for Russian nationalism something that had to be part of any Russian state," Richter says.

One hears echoes of this world view today. Pro-Kremlin Russian ideologist and former Duma Deputy Sergei Markov wrote in "The Moscow Times" this month that those who are pushing Kyiv to sign the Association Agreement "are hoping to torpedo any chance of Ukrainian-Russian unity as a means of preventing Russia from ever restoring its superpower status."

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On February 9, 1918, in the city of Brest-Litovsk, now in Belarus, a delegation from the fledgling Ukrainian National Republic met with representatives of the Central Powers -- particularly, Germany and Austria-Hungary -- to sign a treaty to end part of the hostilities of World War I.

Embattled And Land-Locked

German Foreign Minister Richard Kuhlman opened the meeting by praising Ukraine, "a young and promising state that grew out of the storm of war." The head of Ukraine's delegation, Oleksandr Sevriuk, said the agreement would enable his country "to rise to a new life…and as an independent state to enter into international relations."

The signing of the treaty itself was something of a triumph for Ukraine. Soviet Russia tried hard to prevent the Ukrainian delegation from being recognized, arguing that Russia represented the entire region. When Germany signed a treaty with Soviet Russia a few weeks later, Moscow was forced to acknowledge Ukraine's independence.

In retrospect, however, the treaty signing was the beginning of the end of the short-lived independent Ukrainian state. Even as it was being signed, pro-Bolshevik forces were at the gates of Kyiv. Desperate Ukraine quickly signed an additional agreement under which Germany agreed to provide military aid in exchange for Ukrainian grain.

That agreement proved disastrous when Germany and its allies were defeated in the war in November 1918 and representatives of the victorious Entente, or Allies, who were victorious in World War I gathered outside Paris to negotiate a postwar world order, historian Richter says.

"Ukraine had very little support from abroad. Ukrainian independence was part of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which stipulated an independent Ukrainian state," Richter says. "And in some way after the November armistice, this was perceived by the Entente as a kind of collaboration with the Germans."

He adds that the embattled and land-locked Ukrainian government was unable to send a proper delegation to Versailles to press its case for self-determination with U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and the other Entente leaders.

The fate of independent Ukraine was sealed in March 1921 when Poland and Soviet Russia signed the Treaty of Riga, ending the Polish-Soviet War. The treaty partitioned Ukraine between the two countries.

Richter says that many independence-minded Ukrainians felt betrayed by the West -- and particularly by neighboring Poland. "[Ukraine] fought in the Polish-Soviet War on the Polish side, and the idea behind that was that in any Polish-Soviet postwar settlement, Ukraine would emerge as an independent state. But this was not so," Richter says.

"In the peace treaty of Riga, signed in early 1921, Ukraine did not receive statehood but was split up between Poland and Soviet [Russia]. So this feeling of having been let down is much stronger vis-a-vis Poland than vis-a-vis the Entente."

By 1922, Ukraine had been fully incorporated into the newly formed Soviet Union, and its aspirations for independence were to be subject to repression for decades to come. As Soviet dictator Josef Stalin said, Ukraine was "the weak link of Soviet power."

Nearly a century later, Ukraine finds itself again positioned between a resurgent Russia and Poland, which has spearheaded the EU's Eastern Partnership initiative.

With all eyes on Kyiv and whether it would clear obstacles to signing a long-negotiated Association Agreement at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius later this month or align itself with Russia's nascent Eurasian Union project, a Ukrainian government decree on November 21 said the EU process was halted in order to fully analyze the impact of such an agreement on industrial production and trade with Russia.

So Ukraine has put off its EU accord for a year or more. The next Eastern Partnership summit is set for Riga in 2015. As Mark Twain quipped, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."