Author: by Stephen Hill
At certain times it’s best to resort to an atlas, and this is one of them. Have the butler bring in your Times Atlas of the World and open it at Ukraine (page 45 in my millennium edition).
Before you go any further, remember a thing or two about Ukraine: it is bigger than ‘the vasty fields of France’, with a population of just 46 million; it has 70 per cent of the planet’s black earth – the most fertile of all; and in its 23 years of independence, $20 billion of gold has disappeared, $70 billion in cash has gone walk-about and $37 billion of government loans have been written off. It is bust.
Ukraine is up for grabs, and Putin has easily outmanoeuvred the West in his successful annexation of the Crimea; he could easily be now about to go for much else besides. So what will he do next?
There are Ukraine’s elections on 25 May, but Putin wants control over Kiev as half Russia’s gas supplies to Europe go through the pipelines of Ukraine – a name that literally means ‘on the edge’: on the edge of Europe and Russia, and across the Black Sea, Asia as well, and now on the edge of being split in half.
Divide Ukraine with four vertical lines on the map, starting on the right – the next bit Putin wants, where his paid agitators are already at their subversive work, namely the Oblasts (regions) of Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkiv. See how easily, almost naturally, these three regions fit into Russia… but why does Putin want them?
Because they contain giant coalfields, and coalfields mean gas, which is the main income of the Russian economy. And symbolically, Kharkiv was the ancient capital of Russia, before Moscow. Above ground, these three Oblasts contain the heavy industries of steel atop the coalfields, mostly owned by Rinat Akhmetov, an oligarch who controls the East.
The orders for these factories all come from Russian customers, not Europeans. In Crimea, the oligarch Sergei Aksyonov, an alleged gangster, is in place and has already delivered to Moscow. Will Akhmetov now quietly help to deliver the East? How many roubles are on the table, Vlad?
The second division of the Ukraine follows the mighty Dnieper River, which rises in the north at Mazyr in Belarus and beyond, and is the big blue near-diagonal slash down the page, trickling into the Black Sea at Kherson.
Belarus is the first building block of Russia’s emerging customs union, which now embraces the huge oil and gas fields of Kazakhstan to the east, 2.5 times the size again of Ukraine with just 17 million people. This union would be neatly completed by Ukraine, plus tiny Moldova thrown in for good measure. Then the Russian customs union would be the same land-mass as the EU, but with less than 20 per cent of the EU’s population.
What is here in this second division for Putin? First, massive grain fields, and the prize of Dniepropetrovsk: control of this Oblast gives him the land mass annexing Crimea into Russia proper and the factory whose 22,000 employees make the rocket-booster engines for the ICBM SS60 and most modern civilian satellites.
Giant rocket-boosters drive a rocket into the stratosphere, so that on re-entry their speed becomes the trigger for MIRVs – Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles – each one of which vehicles can blow up sixteen western cities in one shot.
There is only one problem for Putin with this second division, however, and that is that Kiev sits atop the Dnieper, and the Ukrainian armed forces – without the West – will fight to save this city to the last, so attempting to seize the whole of this second division means outright war… unless Putin here only takes the southern route, which gives him the three key prizes anyway.
And why destroy the city he means to control one way or another, before or after May 25, anyway?