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The New Great Game: Why Ukraine Matters to So Many Other Nations

Why the country matters to so many other nations
The New Great Game: Why Ukraine Matters to So Many Other Nations
Photo illustration by 731

Ukraine doesn’t seem like the kind of place that world powers would want to tussle over. It’s as poor as Paraguay and as corrupt as Iran. During the 20th century it was home to a deadly famine under Stalin (the Holodomor, 1933), a historic massacre of Jews (Babi Yar, 1941), and one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters (Chernobyl, 1986). Now, with former President Viktor Yanukovych in hiding, it’s struggling to form a government, its credit rating is down to CCC, a recession looms, and foreign reserves are running low. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, head of the opposition party affiliated with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, said on Feb. 24 in Parliament, “Ukraine has never faced such a terrible financial catastrophe in all its years of independence.”

But Ukraine is also a breadbasket, a natural gas chokepoint, and a nation of 45 million people in a pivotal spot north of the Black Sea. Ukraine matters—to Russia, Europe, the U.S., and even China. President Obama denied on Feb. 19 that it’s a piece on “some Cold War chessboard.” But the best hope for Ukraine is that it will get special treatment precisely because it is a valued pawn in a new version of the Great Game, the 19th century struggle for influence between Russia and Britain.