Like many others, I will spend today monitoring the tense situation on Ukraine’s border. The number of Russian and Belarusian troops are increasing. They stand ready to invade at a moment’s notice. Russian naval landing craft of both the Baltic and Caspian fleets have entered the Black Sea. Trainloads of troops from the far reaches of Siberia are moving westward. Strategic bombers have moved to Belarus and Russia’s western bases.
As a Ukrainian-Canadian who has served as an election observer, translator, and researcher in Ukraine, and as a lifelong student of Ukraine’s politics and history, I am concerned that Canadians are confused by Putin’s fanciful narratives that are often picked up by western “journalists”.
What’s in a name: the self-assigned title of Russia
It was Winston Churchill who famously described Russia as a Riddle inside a Mystery wrapped in an Enigma. Today’s Russian Federation is not a nation-state like most of Europe’s larger countries but a geographical, cultural, and political continuation of that multi-ethnic empire which Genghis and his grandson Batu Khan created. Imperial Russia’s citizens’ sense of self, their sense of pride and belonging, are tied to a mythology of imperial grandeur, expansion, and plunder.
It was only in 1721, after gaining full control over the lands of the actual historic Rus’ (the Ukrainian lands around Kyiv), that Czar Peter the Great renamed the Czardom of Muscovy as the Rossian Empire in a transparent attempt to appropriate the legacy of ancient Rus’. (Ukrainians, the inhabitants of Rus’, including the first to settle in Canada, called themselves “Rusyny”, a word Latinized as “Ruthenians”. They later changed to use “Ukrainian” in an effort to differentiate themselves from the Muscovites’ adopted use of “Russki”.)
In the 20th century, to control the recently re-annexed lands of a Ukrainian National Republic that tasted independence between 1918 and 1922, Secretary General of the USSR Joseph Stalin resorted to genocide. In an artificially induced famine (now called the Holodomor) he killed no fewer than 3,950,000, and more likely 6,000,000 Ukrainians, in about 15 months between 1932 and 1933. Today the population of Eastern Ukraine consists of the traumatized offspring of the victims of this genocide mixed with the descendants of its perpetrators.
Despite the horrors of this past, the land of Rus’ is again outside the borders of this Rossian Empire. And strange as it may seem, much of the political elite of the Rossian empire feel a phantom limb pain for this missing land of Rus’.
A widening gap
Certainly, the reassembling of the Rossian Empire is an oft-stated goal of Vladimir Putin. On 24 April, 2005, Putin told his country that the collapse of the Soviet empire “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. He left no doubt that he intended to right that wrong. On July 12, 2021, Putin published his own view of Ukrainian history in which he sees a common “historical and spiritual space”. But it is a space made common by conquest and genocide. It is a brotherhood of Cain and Abel. As the bodies keep piling up, this space, this gap between European democracy and Asiatic despotism only gets wider.
The price Putin will pay
Putin attempted to fraudulently install a corrupt pro-Moscow puppet, Victor Yanukovych, as president of Ukraine in late 2004, but was rebuffed by Ukrainians who staged the famous Orange Revolution demanding new elections. Shortly after, Putin hit upon the idea of using natural gas supplies as a weapon. He shut down natural gas supply to Ukraine in the winter of 2006.
Most Russian gas flows to Western Europe through the enormous Ukrainian Gas Transit network, a system with an annual export capacity of 178 billion cubic meters that includes 13 underground facilities with an active storage capacity of 30.9 billion cubic meters. These storage facilities allowed Ukraine to supply Europe’s and its own energy needs during that winter crisis of 2006. Putin repeated this trick some two years later, managing to destabilize Ukrainian politics but not the economy. (Yanukovych was elected President in 2010.)
Putin realized that a full-scale war could not be waged against Ukraine without affecting European (read German) energy supplies and Russia’s own cash flow. Natural gas could not be a weapon until he bypassed the Ukrainian Gas Transit system. And so, even though the existing Ukrainian system had plenty of excess capacity to supply European needs, bypass pipelines were laid. These pipelines: Turkstream, Nord Stream 1, and Nord Stream 2 (finished Sept. 2021), have no economic justification (see below). Their raison d’etre is political; their purpose is war. Nord Stream 2 alone cost $11B, illustrating the price Putin is willing to pay while impoverishing his own citizens for conflict in Ukraine.
Total actual transit volumes for the Ukrainian Gas Transit system in 2020 were reported at 55.8 billion cubic meters, down from 89.6 bcm in 2019, a 78.4 bcm average in 2014-18 and a 107.6 bcm average in 2004-13. This means the existing capacity was being utilized at only 31-61%. The potential of the bypass pipelines is: Turkstream (31 bcm capacity built 2016-2020), Nord Stream 1 (55bcm built 2011-2012), and Nord Stream 2 (55bcm built 2018-Sept. 2021).
Where does the EU stand? The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement
It was a shock when President Yanukovych declared in August 2013 that Ukraine intended to sign an association agreement with the EU, and not join Putin’s Russian customs union.
Previously under pro-western President Victor Yushchenko, Ukraine had been rebuffed by Europe. Europe’s, and specifically Angela Merkel’s, newfound receptiveness could only be explained by the discovery of two major shale gas fields in Ukraine. Shell Oil held the contract to develop the fields. An energy independent Ukraine or even Ukraine as an energy supplier was very attractive.
Putin reacted to Ukraine’s unexpected European overtures with a vicious campaign of trade interruptions, threats, and anti-shale gas propaganda. Yanukovych’s determination appeared to waver after two off the record conversations with Putin.
On November 21 while Yanukovych was in Vienna still talking with the EU, his Prime Minister Mykola Azarov (a Russian) declared that Ukraine would not sign the association agreement. That day, the first protesters took to the Maidan (city square) in Kyiv for a peaceful demonstration. The brutal and bloody attempt by the Yanukovych regime to put down these demonstrations backfired and resulted in the Revolution of Dignity. President Yanukovych went AWOL Feb. 21, 2014 and showed up in Russia. He was formally impeached by the Ukrainian Parliament. Later that year, Ukraine signed the Association Agreement with the EU.
Occupation of the Crimea
As the curtain closed on the Sochi Winter Olympics on 23 February 2014, Putin began his war with Ukraine. As the last visitors to the Olympics were filing through the airport gates, the Russian military rolled its armoured personnel carriers beyond the confines of their Sevastopol base to begin the occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. A second incursion by Russian Special Ops and the Wagner PMC (Private Military Company) began in Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region. Ukraine’s military had been gutted intentionally by Yanukovych to the point that only 6000 troops were battle ready out of a paper force of 130,000. Civilian volunteers, many fresh from the Maidan, formed both the backbone and supply network of the Ukrainian defense.
As the Ukrainian defenses began to push the aggressor back, on Aug. 24, 2014 Putin sent in his front line armour and between 4000 and 9000 troops. In Feb. 2015 a ceasefire was declared with the front lines still safely far away from the main pipelines of the Ukrainian Gas Transit system. Reading the realpolitik tea leaves, Shell Oil abandoned its shale gas field contracts and invested in Nord Stream 2.
For seven years the military conflict was put on hold. Occasional shelling and sniping ensured a steady flow of “cargo 200” (Russian-speak for dead bodies) in both directions from the trenches of the so-called “line of contact”, but the line was not allowed to move.
Now that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is built, Russia’s bypass pipeline system is complete allowing Putin to execute his plan. Since September 2021 NS2 stands full of natural gas, awaiting certification papers from the European Union. Putin expects that when Ukraine’s Gas Transit System is shattered by Russian Kindzal air-launched ballistic missiles, shivering Germans will overcome EU bureaucracy and maintain a steady flow of Euros to the Kremlin’s coffers.
You can track the events in Ukraine along with Myroslav by following his author Facebook page.
Editorial note: this article was completed before news on February 19 of the pipeline near Luhansk being destroyed.
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