Few subjects have been more misunderstood in the West than the Ukraine. Moscow is being portrayed as a revanchist bully. Russian President Vladimir Putin is depicted as intruding upon the internal affairs of the country.
None of this is true. However, we can now conclude that with all due respect for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, should mass clashes and bloodletting happen in the East, the South and Crimea, the Russian Black Sea Fleet and Russia itself cannot just watch impartially from the sidelines. Ukraine is home to millions of Russians and to the relatives of millions in Russia itself. The Russian government will be under immense pressure to act to protect its own people.
Moscow has always recognized, and continues to do so, the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and despite the many opportunities to intervene and destabilize the young state since the fall of the USSR, it never once acted to do so. In 1992-1993, the Supreme Soviet of Russia demanded the return of Crimea and Sevastopol to Russia. In 1994, the Russian party in Crimea won the elections, and its representative Yuri Meshkov, upon becoming President, turned to Russia with the request to annex Crimea. Even then, the Russian government refused to do so.
How has the Ukraine preserved its territorial integrity? All the politicians and analysts talking about the deep ethnic, language, and religious cleavages in the country are correct, which is further supported by the permanent political crises in the country. It is obvious that Ukraine’s integrity was kept by just a few circumstances presently lacking in Kievan politics.
The status of Ukraine as a unitary state has been greatly enhanced by the fact that successive candidates for President from the East (Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Yanukovich) won elections against their Western competition--winning the support of the Eastern and Southern electorate with slogans of respect for Russia and the Russian language. Once in Kiev, however, they understood that they de facto ruled over two different peoples and two different states, and that they must take into account Western Ukrainian preferences and, moreover, maneuver between Russia and the West. Carefully but consistently, they pushed Russia, Russians, and the Russian language outside of the political, cultural, and educational spheres in Ukraine. This approach inhibited the ability of Russians and pro-Russian political forces to organize themselves--and fooled the Eastern and Southern populations into believing that their interests were taken into account in Kiev by having an Eastern President. In this process, the Presidents constantly lied to both Moscow and their voting blocks in the East and South, crudely trampling upon their own electoral promises. Kuchma was the worst of them all, especially with regard to Crimea.
In 1994, at the pre-term elections, Kuchma won, largely because of Southern and Eastern support, and especially because of the support of Crimea, whom he promised wide-ranging autonomy secured by treaty on the model of Tatarstan with Russia. Then, right before the elections, Nezavisimaya Gazeta published an article of mine in which I argued that Crimeans ought not to vote in the Ukrainian Presidential elections until such a treaty was ratified. In 1993, Tatarstan refused to participate in the Duma elections in Russia until Russia signed a treaty codifying larger wider self-rule for the autonomous Republic of Tatarstan.
Unfortunately, neither Crimeans nor Russian political circles listened to my advice, while Russia considered him a pro-Russian politician. And as usually happens with the South, East, and Russian-supported Presidents in Ukraine, in the cases of Kravchuk, Kuchma and Yanukovich, they promptly forget their promises to both Moscow and their electorate. And so, Kuchma nearly destroyed Crimean autonomy after his election, and substantially reduced their already-given self-rule.
As the backdrop of these past developments, statements by Western politicians and analysts that successive Ukrainian governments elected by the East and South were merely Kremlin puppets showed either profound ignorance concerning Russo-Ukrainian relations on the part of the commentators or absolute dishonesty.
The populations in the East and South, having already learned from bitter experience, will, I think, decide to forsake their participation in the May elections that would legitimate the power of the new Ukrainian President and put them in a position of powerlessness. In view of this, the statements of Kharkov’s governor Mikhail Dobkin of his intention to run for President sound scandalous. As the people say, “a leopard does not change its spots.”
The present-day situation is indeed fraught with danger of territorial collapse. The nationalists in the West, having stolen weapons and taken over the government in the Western parts, de facto ruined the precarious balance in this ineffectual society and country. The power aggrandizers, as their first steps show, are unwilling to continue the careful march away from Russia. The radical nationalists are set on a revolutionary creation of a Ukrainian state and nation. They are set on outlawing Russian and Russians, as well as all pro-Russian political forces, and impose their dictates on the South and East, including on Crimea. In this way, they will single-handedly light the fuse that will deprive them of the very state they dream of creating.
This is why even such a “fan” of Russia as former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski began offering strange ideas such as the Finlandization of Ukraine.
Far-sighted strategists like Brzezinski understand the danger of power going into the hands of radical nationalists and how serious the threat this is for the territorial integrity of the country. To avoid such a situation, Brzezinski in his article in The Financial Times calls for the Finlandization of Ukraine. This idea coincides with the main tenet of the declaration of Ukrainian sovereignty of July 16, 1990, in which Ukraine is considered a neutral, non-bloc participating country, which of course never prevented Ukrainian pro-Western politicians and analysts and Western Russophobe politicians and experts to try and drag Ukraine into both NATO and the European Union employing all sorts of half-truths to this end. I believe the canny Brzezinski understands that a territorial collapse of Ukraine could easily mean the transformation of its Western part into a vehemently and radically anti-Polish country right on the Polish border. At the same time, the incorporation of the East and South into Russia, or at least their close political, military, and economic ties to Russia, could mean a new place and role for Russia in both European and global affairs. In my view, Brzezinski detects more than anything else a threat to his beloved motherland Poland. This is why, for the more realistic politicians in the West, a preservation of a united Ukraine is crucial as a buffer zone between Russia and Eastern Europe.
During recent discussions at the Center for the National Interest, the thought was voiced that there are two factors in the Ukrainian situation that scare Putin. The first was that the mass anti-government protests in Kiev can give an impetus to the Russian opposition to organize similar ones against the Russian government. The second was that Ukraine would turn into an effective democratic country in which political and economic institutions work well and are based on high moral principles. This would frighten the Putin government into understanding that it needs to implement similar radical reforms in order to form more “democratic” political and socio-economic institutions. By the way, these ideas are frequently exaggerated in both Russian liberal and Western media.
Let me address the alleged threat to Putin’s government by the Maidan. I think the individuals pushing those ideas in the media cannot begin to imagine how much the Maidan events strengthen Putin’s position and disgust Russian society, prompting more widespread disgust with all events occurring in the Western part of Ukraine. Those individuals do not understand that no one discredits the ideas of the Maidan and the Orange Revolution more than the very leaders of those revolutions. During the Orange Revolution, the very instigators began to hurl accusations at each other, both credible and not very, of corruption and other sins once they got in power. After just a few months, the Orange revolutionaries tossed aside all slogans of freedom and democratic catharsis; slogans, which now appear again on the Maidan. The situation degraded to the point where, in 2010, the former felon Yanukovich won the elections against the Orange revolutionaries. And all these above-mentioned analysts seriously think that Putin is afraid of such revolutions and such a Maidan celebrating under swastikas and radical nationalist symbols. Woe to all those politicians that will base their policy on such analysis with regard to Ukraine and Russia from Washington, Berlin, and Brussels.
The current situation in Ukraine differs enormously from the situation there in the 1990s and even from the time of the Orange Revolution, and needs sober evaluation and sober decisions.
It is obvious that power has passed into the hands of the Maidan revolutionaries, led by armed radical nationalists. Moderate politicians at present have no control over the Maidan, the radicals, or the street. It is hard to believe that in this case politicians in the EU and Washington will continue to pay lip service in support of the current “authorities” in Ukraine; at a maximum, they will promise them economic aid of the size of $1-2 billion. Neither Brussels nor Washington has the money to offer anything substantial. When I asked the German ambassador whether Angela Merkel had the money to save the Ukrainian economy, he remained silent. This means that an aggravated economic situation will only bring more chaos and give more power to the radicals.