Ukraine's Ancient Hatreds

Three hundred years of history explain why Putin can never see his neighbor as a fully legitimate sovereign nation.

July-August 2014

But Russia is not the Soviet Union. It is not clear that Washington ought to make such accommodations—necessary as they might have been during the Cold War, when Moscow posed a global challenge to U.S. interests—to a regional power that has significant geopolitical Achilles’ heels, starting with demography. But casual remarks about how this is the twenty-first century and how great-power machinations for spheres of influence ought to be relegated to the past are insufficient and ill advised. If the choice is made to confront and contain Putin’s Russia—with the eventual goal of initiating change in Russia itself—then Ukraine is on the front line of that campaign. During the Cold War, the United States was willing to marshal huge amounts of resources, first to reconstruct Western Europe and Japan, then to aid the development of states from Korea to Pakistan—and to extend defense commitments to boot. If this is going to be the strategy, however, the United States would need to use its leverage to push for a significant improvement in the standard of living of ordinary Ukrainians and to encourage a greater responsiveness of the government to the concerns of ordinary people. In addition, it would have to encourage a new government to preserve Ukraine as a bilingual (Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking) state that did not restrict the ability of its citizens to espouse a (culturally) Russophile Ukrainian identity. It would need to reduce the possible attractiveness of Russia to key portions of Ukraine while, in the longer run, setting up Ukraine’s ability to serve as an alternate example for successful governance to the Putin model.

There would be costs for such a strategy, starting with the short-term disruptions to Western European economies, the need to make massive new infrastructure investments to diversify from Russian sources of energy, and the likely loss of Russian help in everything from evacuating Afghanistan to securing a lasting diplomatic settlement with Iran over its nuclear program. Furthermore, Washington would have to take all the steps to bail out and assist the transition in Ukraine that it and Europe were unwilling to take ten years ago in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution, when it was easy for lawmakers to wear orange ties but much more difficult to implement preferential access for Ukrainian goods or make it easier for Ukrainians to visit and work in the West.

The worst choice, however, would be to make rhetorical commitments to Ukraine that the West has no real intention of fulfilling. This would only anger both the Russians (who see it as unacceptable interference in their affairs) and the Ukrainians (who have trusted the promises made to them by Western politicians). Putin takes the fate of Ukraine seriously, and has shown he will take major risks to secure the Kremlin’s position. He may be willing to reach an accommodation with the United States—but it is not clear that the United States should or would accept it. But Putin won’t meekly accept that Ukraine, like the Warsaw Pact states before it, will drift into the Western orbit. In his view, Russia, since the end of the Cold War, has signed off on too many compromises and found itself pushed out of Europe. In Ukraine, in 2014, he has drawn the line and effectively said, “This far, and no further.” The decision by the United States—and its allies—to accept that line or to cross it should not be made lightly.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College and a contributing editor at The National Interest.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Aymania Khikari. CC BY-SA 3.0.