Hello! Could you please comment on the political and cultural impact problems in Ukraine might have on Slovakia?… My son lives in Slovakia and I was curious about your viewpoint. any input would really be appreciated. Thank you so much and I’ve enjoyed reading your online writings.
Worried in Florida
Thank you for writing. The internal affairs of the Ukraine will have close to no impact on Slovakia.
First of all, the Ukraine is relatively large (233,062 sq miles), making Eastern Ukraine far away from Slovakia. The Ukraine is a breadbasket (usually around the tenth largest grain producer in the world, producing about 1/3 to 1/2 as much grain as the much larger neighboring Russia (6.602 million sq miles)). The Ukraine is only 3.5% the size of Russia, or to put it differently, that makes Russia 28 times larger than the Ukraine. Its size makes the Ukraine about the size of a few Kansases (82,277 sq miles) or Nebraskas (77,421 sq miles) stacked next to each other, only it has a coastline. The coastline, is what, according to numerous historical arguments is what has long made the Crimean Penninsula attractive to Russia – a desire for a warm water port.
Odessa, on the Black Sea, is nearly a 1,000 mile drive from Bratislava. Even if you go to the far Eastern end of Slovakia, it is still quite a distance. From Odessa it is 660 miles from Cierna nad Tisou in Slovakia on the Slovak-Ukrainian frontier. Cierna nad Tisou is where the trains are jacked up to switch them onto tracks of different gauge between Slovakia (and the lands West of there) and the Ukraine (and the lands East of there). 1,520 mm (4 ft 11 27/32 in) is the size of Russian Gauge, whereas 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1/2 in) is the size of Standard Gauge. You’d have to travel a day and a half or maybe nearly two days by train to get to Odessa from Bratislava. That’s a long trip. And east of Odessa is still more than half of the Ukraine. To say the least, the eastern portion of the country, where there is currently some unrest is distant from the Slovak border.
During my travels through active war zones – say the West Bank (of the Jordan River) for example, 500 or 1000 feet meant the difference between blissful innocence and the middle of danger. Miles from the areas of conflict posed close to no danger. Simply being in Israel or in the West Bank also posed little danger. When a violent event takes place, it does not usually directly affect an entire country or even an entire region of people. Slovaks and the overwhelming majority of the Ukrainian population are not in a life threatening situation right now. You are much more at risk of dying from violence while living in practically any dense urban area in the United States. Similarly, during the worst fighting in Iraq, the Kurdish areas of Iraq were almost entirely peaceful.
Secondly, the issues in Ukraine are ultimately of minimal importance even for many of the people of the Ukraine. This is a land that was part of the Russian sphere of influence for nearly the entire existence of the United States and spent only a few years relatively independent after the fall of the Soviet Union. As I have an appreciation for nations, and for local government over centralized government, I am happy that the Ukraine was independent. I understand there is national pride involved and issues of self-determination and definitions of what democracy means in situations of secession. Those are all complex issues. I have a hard time believing life will suddenly become so different in the Ukraine. It has, sadly for the Ukrainians, become the location of a proxy battle between the US and Russia. If either the US or Russia stopped caring about that proxy battle, nothing notable would have taken place in the Ukraine over the past year. Both country’s government’s are clearly involved in the internal affairs of the Ukraine to an extent that most Americans will probably never realize.
The CIA and other intelligence agencies term this concept Blowback – when government so sufficiently keeps its people in the dark about its actions that the populace has no ability to understand the behavior of actors in foreign policy in their proper context. Often this is the consequence of an covert action. The population of the aggressor nation, not realizing that it behaved aggressively has not method of understanding what took place. The fact that many American observers do not understand why Russia would suddenly act out and seize a piece of the Ukraine is a good example of blowback.
I have a number of reasons that I would love to vilify Putin, but denouncing him as a villain for sending Russian troops to occupy parts of the Ukraine would not be a very high complaint on my list. Simply pointing the finger at him is likely to lack context and is likely to be an oversimplification of what is in deed a complex situation. More on that, in a bit.
Ostensibly you could say, “Well, Slovakia used to be part of the Soviet sphere of influence, what’s to stop Slovakia from being seized by Putin?” Slovakia has a much different history than the Ukraine. It was never a part of the USSR. It was never under the Imperial Crown of the Russian Tsar. Even ignoring that, there’s such a buffer of opposition right now hundreds of miles wide preventing Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine from spilling over into Slovakia. That buffer is most of the land mass of the Ukraine. The Red Army has of course occupied Slovak land in time of war and time of peace. Still, it is presumptuous to expect that the Russian government has an interest in returning there.
Slovakia, one must remember, is a NATO country. A military entity crossing its border uninvited would ostensibly trigger a military reaction from the other 27 members of NATO. The other NATO countries have committed to protecting the integrity of the borders of their fellow NATO members. If Putin comes for the rest of Ukraine, we can revisit that topic that he may also be interested in Slovakia. I doubt Putin wants anything to do with a mess like taking over Slovakia.
It would make no sense, because while Slovakia is a treasure to me, the difference between doing business and having relations with Slovakia unoccupied and Slovakia occupied is negligible. There is little to gain by occupying Slovakia. Likely, the occupation could even prove bad for business. The turn of events leading up to the entry of Crimea presented Putin with a chance to seize Russian culturally dominant areas while looking like he was protecting his people from the big bad US. That’s simply a PR loss on the part of the White House. While that PR loss has taken place,
The appealing sight of a resource-rich Ukraine and Ukraine’s sizable Russian populace are both important issues to consider from the Kremlin’s perspective. More important is that the US government is very involved in the internal relations of the Ukraine, a county on the border with Russia. Putin would be stupid to pretend that such intervention does not affect Russia’s long-term security. Russia too is very involved in the internal relations of the Ukraine. The difference is that the US is half a world away and that Russia is a neighbor to the Ukraine. The US has intelligently always shown some concern whenever belligerents have come close to American borders. To turn the table, if Russia had bases and favorable governments in all of Latin America except Mexico and was now attempting to install a favorable government in Mexico that was belligerent to the US, the US would certainly feel forced to act.
It’s possible that Putin could get more aggressive, but fretting about Putin unrest in Slovakia – a very peaceful place – is unlikely. My homeland of Chicago, for example is much more dangerous. For years, more unarmed American civilians were killed on the streets of Chicago by gun violence than the number of US soldiers killed in all of Iraq. So few soldiers are killed in Iraq now that such a statistic has lost relevance. The danger of Chicago remains. That danger in Chicago poses no danger however to a someone on the other side of the city at the moment of a shooting, or on the other side of the state, let alone to a Floridian.
Does a string of tornadoes in my homeland of Illinois pose a threat to you hundreds of miles away in Florida? Of course not, though it is in the same country. You would probably laugh at overseas relatives calling you to see if you were okay, because they heard about “all the tornadoes in the US.”
I have a hard time imagining the situation under which the uber-peaceful Slovaks would turn aggressive over a skirmish hundreds of miles away.
It’s possible that oil flows will make Slovakia slightly more important on the geopolitical front, where it was once let’s say the 65th most important country geopolitically worldwide, it is now the 62nd most important. That’s a 5% bump, which really isn’t bad.
Migrants could move West to Slovakia, leading to the spotting of more Ukrainians, but that’s more an excuse to go West rather than a genuine need for asylum, since the overwhelming percentage of the Ukraine is seeing no fighting. Ukrainians concerned only about peace are likely to just move from a place in the Ukraine that sees clashing to a place in the Ukraine that sees no clashing.
In terms of your son’s presence there, please do write me and tell me what he is doing and where he is living – not because I’m concerned with his safety (he lives in one of the least aggressive places this world traveler has ever set foot in) – but because I’m excited to hear the stories of people who spend a part of their lives in Slovakia (whether that be days or years).
The current conflict in the Ukraine won’t hurt him. Caution him to avoid honey, berries, mushrooms, or game caught in the vicinity of Chernobyl. That might hurt him as those foods are believed to contain generous amounts of the elements (healthful and unhealthful) from the surrounding environment. Caution him not to talk trash about the Ukraine in a Ukrainian bar. That might hurt him. Avoid talking trash about Russians in a Russian bar. Caution him to avoid deep sunburn when visiting the Black Sea resort towns. That might hurt him. Living in Slovakia, 1,000 miles from a conflict zone is not going to hurt him.
If anyone else has any input for Worried in Florida, please do share in the comments section. Whether it be fear-mongering or reassuring, I bet she’d love your perspective.
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.