Ukraine, Unexpected.

Author:Erlanger, Steven
Position:Review
 
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Andrew Wilson, The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 366 pp., $29.95.

OF ALL the weak, corrupt, semi-independent semi-states that emerged, willingly or not, from the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine is both the most important and the most disappointing. It is also the most troubling, with the reckless waste and selfishness of the last decade bringing Ukrainians to compare their venal leaders to those of the Congo, and to charge them with undermining the very independence they were elected to preserve and enhance.

Belarus, with little tradition or history of independence from Moscow, is the most ludicrous of the successor states, unless one happens to be a Belarusian; the Baltic nations, moving with all the speed they could muster, have been the most successful. But from Georgia through the Caucasus and the five "stans", there is little to admire from those politicians who promised a free democratic future, with open markets and transparent justice, allied to the values of the West. Crippled and failing states litter the post-Soviet landscape. The preservation of independence itself, in the face of Russia's intermittent reach for renewed empire, has been their single great triumph. But they have had historically unusual help, for Russia itself has been hopelessly confused about what kind of state it wants to be, and within what borders. Luckily, Moscow's flickering ambitions have been restrained by poverty and weakness. But for how long?

Russia has been preoccupied with its two disgraceful wars in Chechnya, with the West tolerating from Moscow behavior for which it bombed Belgrade. But the mess in Chechnya has been oddly salutary, too; it has sharply deflated Russian military arrogance and may have saved Ukraine from an altogether different kind of Russian pressure.

For most American policymakers, Ukraine, now nuclear-free, matters only because of its proximity to Russia, and because of what its independence means for Russia's future and for European stability. In 1994 Zbigniew Brzezinski famously (and Eurocentrically) posited: "It cannot be stressed strongly enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire." [1]

To keep Ukraine alive (and Russia counterbalanced), Washington has provided more than $2 billion in aid since 1990, far more than has been given to any other former Soviet republic. Brzezinski's admonition did not, however, seem to bring Ukraine the kind of thoughtful Western media attention it deserved. Still, seven years later, some of the most dire predictions about Ukraine's collapse (and Russian appetites) have come to nothing, even as new fears arise over Vladimir Putin's efforts to reassert Russian authority in the so-called near abroad.

Andrew Wilson's fine book, The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation, helps explain why. A lecturer in Ukrainian studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, he has worked hard to explore and dispel many of the contradictory myths about Ukraine held most fervently by both Ukrainian and Russian nationalists.

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