The chess piece that Russia desires for its new great game

Ukraine has been a chess piece in a strategic game played out by stronger regional forces since it was first mentioned in the fourth century BC.

Ukraine has been a chess piece in a strategic game played out by stronger regional forces since it was first mentioned in the fourth century BC.

Occupied at turns by the Turks, the Tatars, the Poles, the Russians and the Nazis, its very name, Ukraine, which means borderland or "on the edge", is symptomatic of its struggle for self-determination, as is its gloomily named national anthem, "Ukraine has not yet died."

Ukraine differs from many other former Soviet states because of its size. With 48 million inhabitants, it shares borders with seven nations and covers a bigger area than France.

It also sits between the enlarged EU/Nato and Russia itself, its former imperial master, lending it geo-political clout. But the country is divided on linguistic lines, with the west dominated by fiercely nationalistic Ukrainian speakers and the east and Crimea by more Moscow-friendly Russian speakers. Ukrainian nationalists see Russian as a threat to their linguistic and cultural tradition.

Under the Soviet Union, the official language was Russian and Ukrainian was relegated to second place.

Independent since 1991, Ukraine is now trying to find its own way in the world. But with a quarter of the population ethnic Russians, and up to two thirds of the country able to speak the language, opinion polls consistently show large numbers in favour of some form of "reunification" with Russia and Belarus. Since independence, successive elections have always been fought on whether the country should look east or west.

Ukraine has great symbolic importance to Russia. In the 10th century it was the hub of an empire - Kiyvan Rus - from which Russia itself eventually sprung. Many Russians do not regard Ukrainians as foreigners. Instead they are seen as "the country cousins who speak a bit strangely." After years of decline a new, self-confident Russia is also trying to reassert its grip on the former Soviet Union and to forge a new EU-style union of states that would include Ukraine.

For the project to work, Moscow needs Ukraine, and to watch the country slip from its sphere of influence with a Viktor Yushchenko win would stick in Russia's craw. Moscow also has huge business interests in Ukraine, supplying the bulk of its energy needs.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, who made two pre-election trips to endorse Viktor Yanukovich, has spoken in favour of dual Russian-Ukrainian nationality for Ukrainians.

But Ukrainian nationalists see a different future for their country. A future which includes the EU and Nato, western-style living standards, dramatically lower levels of corruption and a free and fair press.

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