The Ukrainian Factor

Courtesy Reuters

After centuries of colonial anonymity Ukraine is finally making its mark on world affairs. Although relegated to secondary status by the West, Ukraine is rapidly emerging as a forceful and important actor in defining the contours of post?Soviet Europe. Russia and its President Boris Yeltsin may have taken the lead in defeating the August 1991 putsch and the Soviet Communist Party. But it was Ukraine, led by President Leonid Kravchuk, that ultimately provoked the unraveling of the Soviet empire: Ukraine’s refusal to sign Mikhail Gorbachev’s union treaty precipitated the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the creation of the new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Ukraine emerged from the Soviet Union’s dissolution as a strategically significant state. Its 700,000?strong armed forces are continental Europe’s second largest—nearly 50 percent larger than Germany’s Bundeswehr. That is even larger than British and French forces combined and two and a half times the size of the entire complement of U.S. forces in Europe. Moreover, although it has agreed to remove them, Ukraine still possesses tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.

Ukraine’s weight in post?Soviet geopolitics comes as a consequence of its large population (52 million). It is Europe’s second?largest state in terms of territory, an expanse that strategically hugs the shores of the Black Sea and divides Russia from its former east European satrapies: Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania. The state is not only a major agricultural producer but also an industrial center, in 1990 accounting for 16 percent of the U.S.S.R.’s economic output.

Since its December 1, 1991, referendum, in which 90 percent of the population voted for independence, Ukraine has acted quickly to demarcate its sovereignty. It created its own army, moved to establish a currency, introduced the Ukrainian language into state offices and schools and secured diplomatic recognition from more than 100 countries. But the emergence of the new state has not been free of conflict—the most significant of which remains with Russia

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