Ukraine and Latvia: Welcome to "The Clash of Civilizations"

"Like Ukraine, Latvia is a cleft country, with ethnic Russians making up nearly 30 percent of the population and the Russian language being the native tongue for nearly 40 percent."  

Ukraine and Latvia. One is large and located down on the Black Sea; the other is small and situated up on the Baltic Sea. But both sit upon the Russian border, and both encompass internal cultural conflicts that put them in play amid the current tensions between the West and Russia. Major lessons can be drawn from what they have in common and what distinguishes them. The biggest lesson is that culture matters—and culture tied to any nation’s fundamental strategic interests represents a force that shouldn’t be trifled with.

Realists who have advocated a cautious and measured approach to NATO expansion and, more recently, to events in Ukraine, have been attacked by neoconservatives and Wilsonian liberals as weak agents of appeasement. But these neocons and Wilsonians are dangerous, because they ignore distinctions based on culture. Indeed, they generally dismiss culture as irrelevant, except the Western culture, which they wish to spread throughout the world. That is the outlook that has generated so much havoc since the end of the Cold War, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Syria—and now in the border regions of Europe, where the dangers are much more ominous.

Hence, it isn’t surprising that neocon and Wilsonian commentators and officials can’t see a distinction between Ukraine and Latvia. In their view, both should be bathed in the glow of Western attitudes and Western institutions. Yet, an analysis of the two nations’ history and cultural currents can lead to an understanding of the geopolitical realities along the fault line between the West and Russia and the proper approach to U.S. foreign policy in the region. Let’s begin with Ukraine.

When the United States and the European Union adopted a policy of NATO expansion, without regard to cultural boundaries (the so-called Open Door policy), it set in motion a confrontation between the U.S.-led West and the Russian-led Orthodox civilization. Particularly combustible was Ukraine, a nation that is split down the middle between a Western half (nationalist in outlook, oriented toward the West and toward the Uniate Church, which practices Orthodox rites but acknowledges the authority of the Pope) and an Orthodox half (adherents of Eastern Christianity and oriented toward Russia). This is a nation with two separate cultures, two religions, two heritage concepts. As such it is intrinsically a flash point nation, as we’re seeing in the current crisis.

By way of illustration, consider the vote totals in the 1994 presidential election between Leonid Kravchuk, who identified himself as a nationalist, and Leonid Kuchma, a product of eastern Ukraine. Kuchma carried the eastern provinces with vote totals as high as 88 percent in Luhansk, 90 percent in Crimea and 79 percent in Donetsk (scene of much of the recent violence). Meanwhile, Kravchuk carried the western provinces with similar vote totals—84 percent in Volyn, 93 percent in Lviv, 95 percent in Ternopil. When Kuchma won with 52 percent of the vote, American foreign policy expert Ian Brzezinski said the election “reflected, even crystallized, the split between Europeanized Slavs in western Ukraine and the Russo-Slav vision of what Ukraine should be. It’s not ethnic polarization so much as different cultures.”

Hence, Ukraine is what the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington called a “cleft country,” where large groups belong to different civilizations. Cultural tensions inevitably arise in cleft countries, Huntington noted, “when a majority group belonging to one civilization attempts to define the state as its political instrument and to make its language, religion, and symbols those of the state.” This is particularly true when two groups are largely equal in population and influence, as in Ukraine. When America and the West sought to foster Western dominance of Ukraine, it was sure to set off Russia-oriented peoples in the eastern part of the country.

But Ukraine is also crucial to the strategic interest of Russia, which has maintained it as part of Russia’s sphere of influence since the mid-seventeenth century. For one thing, Russia has few natural protective barriers and hence feels a need to control territory in order to be secure, particularly from the West, whence came devastating military invasions in each of the last two centuries. Beyond that, Ukraine represents a fundamental element of Russia’s national identity. Without Ukraine, Russia lacks even a pretense of being a serious European power; with Ukraine, it retains the continental leverage it has enjoyed since Peter the Great. And of course Crimea, part of Russia for centuries before being attached to Ukraine arbitrarily during the Soviet era, represents a crucial piece of strategic territory for Russia, given its pivotal Black Sea position.