A year ago, the "Euromaidan" protests in Ukraine against the pro-Russian Yanukovich government culminated in a mass shooting in the centre of Kiev, followed by the flight of Yanukovich himself. Since then, Ukraine has been the centre of a 21st-century power-play between the West and Russia.
While some people thought that such games of power, for control of "spheres of influence" were relegated to the European history books, the reality is that, in some ways, the ideological battles that dominated the twentieth century were themselves a historical aberration.
The twentieth century was unique in finding new methods to create mass human suffering, but it was also unique in finding "isms" to use as justification. The First World War was not, despite the use of modern warfare, any different from the pan-European wars of succession that occurred during the 18th century, in terms of the basic human causes. Like most wars, the First World War was sparked by nationalism (Serbian nationalism, in that case) but quickly spiralled out of control to include all other major European "players". The Balkans was the source of the conflict, but the Balkans had been the source of various European conflicts for nearly half a century prior to the First World War. Some people forget that.
"Right, where were we?"
The crisis in Ukraine has been a proxy war for the last eight months. The historical region of Ukraine has been a bone of some contention for at least the last two hundred and fifty years, ever since the Russians conquered the Crimea, creating the region now famously known as "Novorossiya".
The collapse of the Eastern Bloc saw the ideological battles that had dominated Europe (and the world) for most of the twentieth century come to a close. In that sense, with these aberrant ideological conflicts over, the "historical clock" was wound back to 1913, and old historical grievances were "re-discovered". Across the former Soviet Union and former Communist Eastern Europe, ethnic and nationalistic causes that had been on ice for the best part of a century, began to rapidly heat up - in some cases almost instantly. This explains why the wars in former Yugoslavia should perhaps be better seen almost as continuations of the First and Second Balkan Wars that immediately preceded the First World War: once Communism collapsed it was almost a case of: "right, where were we?"...
We could therefore re-phrase Francis Fukuyama's famous quote about the end of the Cold War being not so much the "end of history", but the "resumption of history".
This explains why the territory of modern-day independent Ukraine, itself a creation of the internal politics of the Soviet Union, found itself in an awkward geopolitical position. In effect it is - like Belgium, but much bigger - a country with two linguistic halves, and likewise with people looking in different directions. This was Communism trying to put history to one side for the sake of centralising authority - a very deliberate policy of divide and rule. This was carried out all across the various "republics" of the Soviet Union, including, for example, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (which explains the inter-ethnic conflict that occurred there some years ago).
In Ukraine, these issues were put on the back-burner during the nineties government of Kuchma, and it was only when the pro-West, "pro-democracy" opposition became more vocal that the problems with Moscow started, ten years ago.
That is the context. Ukraine is a power-play, and it is clear that Vladimir Putin doesn't want to "let go" of Ukraine. For the past year, people have been trying to fathom the psychology of Putin, and what he is hoping to achieve. Does he want to occupy Ukraine? Does he want to divide Ukraine? Does he want to create a geographical "Greater Russia"?
By now, it seems evident that he does not want to invade every neighbouring country that has a (small) Russian-speaking population. Comparisons with Hitler are unhelpful, crude and very wide of the mark. Vladimir Putin's mind is made of different stuff - he is much more the calculating opportunist, with Ukraine conveniently serving as his "playground". In essence, he does whatever he thinks he can reasonably get away with. And because he has (rightly) calculated that no-one in the West will seriously want to stand up to him militarily, this is why he sends troops and hardware into Eastern Ukraine.
This was evident back when there was the war with Georgia in 2008. No-one in the West wanted to intervene militarily. It was the diplomatic intervention of France's Sarkozy that helped bring the conflict to a close, and prevent the possibility that Russia would drive its tanks all the way to Georgia's Presidential Palace in Tblisi.
The efforts of Merkel and Hollande in "Minsk II" are noble, but pitiful by comparison. By now, Putin knows that no-one will stop his actions in Ukraine. While the sanctions are hurting Russia, Putin is able to turn this domestically into a "blame the West" action; thus, whatever the West does, Putin wins.
With Ukraine, Putin is really the "puppet-master", able to dictate events. His hope, we assume, is that by dragging out the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, it destablises and destroys the popularity of the Poroshenko government, until he is removed from power, one way or another. Who replaces him is up to debate, but as long as the war continues, and the "Donbass" remains out of Kiev's control, Putin has a mill-stone to hang around the Kiev government's neck, preventing it from ever being truly independent.
The result of the Georgia war was a "frozen conflict" in the two break-away regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These are now effectively Russian satellites, and since then the then Georgian President, Saakashvili, has gone and been replaced by one who happens to be more amenable to Moscow. Georgia no longer seriously talks about joining NATO or the EU - and even if they did, no-one in the West would ever take up the proposition.
Putin created the "Eurasian Union" to rival the EU. Indeed, it was this institution that Yanukovich had originally agreed to join in late 2013, that was one of the reasons for the protests in the first place. This Russia-centred economic association is another of Putin's power-plays. Initially with just two other members - Belarus and Kazakhstan - it now also includes Armenia, and is likely to include Kyrgyzstan in the near future.
The latter two are both economically reliant on Russia as much of their population are migrant workers in Russia, but also have ethnic problems of their own (Kyrgyzstan's mentioned earlier). Armenia has been locked in a "frozen conflict" with its neighbour Azerbaijan over Armenia's occupation of Karabakh for more than twenty years.
Obviously, this issue pre-dates Putin's rise to power, but the situation in Georgia does not, with the 2008 war seen as a "resolution", and effectively a method of keeping Georgia under Moscow's thumb. With the two "occupied territories", no-one in the West will touch Georgia's status with a barge-pole.
Ukraine now resembles the situation in Georgia, except that Ukraine is a far bigger country, and is part of Europe. With Russia's annexation of Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine locked in warfare over the status of the "Donbass", Ukraine's economy is in free-fall. Ukraine is literally paying the price for going against the Kremlin. As mentioned earlier, having the mill-stone of the Donbass War around Ukraine's neck is Putin's way of keeping the country from escaping Russia's orbit.
Having plucked Ukraine's prize fruit, Crimea, from under their noses, Putin is now clamping a ball and chain around Ukraine's feet, in the form of an unresolved conflict in the "Donbass".