How to Break the Cultural Gridlock in Ukraine

July 12, 2021 Topic: Ukraine Tags: UkraineRussiaEuromaidanCrimeaDonbas

How to Break the Cultural Gridlock in Ukraine

When the seven-year war in Ukraine began, it was primarily an interregional conflict. By choosing sides at its outset, however, Russia and the West have made it international. With the domestic and international aspects of this conflict now so thoroughly intertwined, the solution will also have to address both of these aspects simultaneously.

It is also possible that a more pragmatic form of Ukrainian nationalism will someday emerge; one that feels secure enough that it no longer sees the identification and elimination of dissonant Ukrainians as top priority, and instead tries to broaden its social base. In theory, this would also allow Ukraine to mend ties with Russia which, for obvious geographical, cultural, historical, and religious reasons, remains the one indispensable nation for Ukraine. 

Such a transformation is unlikely in the foreseeable future. The classics of political science do indeed suggest that revolutionary movements tend to lose their fervor after the first generation and that politics then slowly shift back to traditional historical patterns. What political science cannot tell us, however, is whether Ukraine can manage its internal divisions long enough for that Thermidorian Reaction to take place, or instead be split asunder by them.

What is the West’s Interest in Ukraine? What Should it Be?

Ukraine is caught in the crossfire of the global East-West rivalry because of the Eurasian Union, which Russian President Putin sees as the key to establishing Russia’s regional hegemony, and the United States, therefore, sees as a threat. Since the United States cannot prevent the Eurasian Union from becoming the largest commercial pathway of the New Silk Road that will connect China to Europe and the Middle East, it has decided that, at the very least, Ukraine must not become a part of it.

That is why the United States and its NATO allies worked so hard to undermine president Yanukovych during the 2014 Maidan, and specifically why the peaceful transition of power to the opposition, that both sides had signed on 22 February 2014, was immediately repudiated by its Western authors when it became clear that the radicals had a chance to seize total control. Western government officials expected that the restoration of order in Ukraine would take no more than a few weeks. The popular unrest that erupted throughout Maloross Ukraine, and spilled over into outright rebellion in Crimea and Donbass, came as a total surprise because all of their attention had been fixed on pro-Western forces inside Ukraine, which dutifully told them what they wanted to hear—that reports about cultural tensions within Ukrainian society were vastly overblown.

Since 2014, therefore, Western governments have been engaged in defending their choice to back Galician Ukraine in its effort to impose a unitary national ideology, while at the same time being unwilling to commit the resources that would be needed to make that ideology succeed. Meanwhile, Russia has proclaimed consistently since 2014 that it will not simply stand by and allow Galicia to eradicate Maloross Ukraine.

We are witnessing the reverse of the Judgment of Solomon. In this famous parable, King Solomon is asked to judge which of two women is the true mother of a child. He orders the child split in two. The true mother relinquishes her claim in order to save the life of the child. In this instance we have achieved the opposite: the West and Russia would each rather see Ukraine torn apart, rather than let the other side have all of it.           

But what many observers fail to realize is that in this competition Russia has an enormous advantage over the West. It retains overwhelming cultural influence within Ukraine thanks to centuries of common history, language, and religion. Judging from the latest year-end tallies for searches on Google and YouTube, Ukrainians still conduct internet searches overwhelmingly in Russian, and for cultural content from Russia. This appears to be as true for young people as it is for older age groups.

In other words, Russia can influence the Ukrainian agenda in nearly every walk of life much more easily than the West can. Over the past seven years, the Ukrainian government has tried desperately to counteract this influence —through the banning of Russian books, movies, television programs, Ukrainian language quotas, and restrictions on a vast swath of commercial and social activity—but while these restrictions enjoy broad support in Galicia, in Maloross Ukraine they are viewed as human rights violations.

Given the variety of economic, political, geographic, cultural, and religious influences it retains in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, Russia has a staying power in Ukraine that no other nation can match, with the possible exception of Poland. Geopolitical strategists like to point out that power is never applied in the abstract, but to specific regions with specific historical characteristics. What this means, in essence, is that in Ukraine it is Russia, not the United States, that will always be the superpower.

But don’t sanctions change this? No. Sanctions allow politicians to claim that they are doing something when outright warfare is not an option. But as nearly every comparative study of the impact of sanctions has shown, they have almost no perceptible impact on key decisions of the target country. Politicians in the West acknowledge as much, saying that they do not expect Russian policies to change, but that it is still important to “send a message.” But, as French President Emmanuel Macron said of NATO if your strategy consists of sending messages that you know will be ignored, then you are becoming brain-dead.

The only approach that might actually reunite all of Ukraine is a complete course reversal. Although it is customary to treat complex diplomatic issues by breaking them down into smaller components, in this case, every attempt to achieve a settlement using this process has failed. That is why we need to think bigger, not smaller.

We need a reconstruction package for Ukraine that, in scope and ambition, would be beyond the wildest dreams of George C. Marshall. The beauty of such a project is precisely that it would be a challenge so massive that it would require the combined resources of Russia, the European Union, and the United States to fund and administer. This would necessarily require placing the entire post-Soviet region into a broader context, one that considers the needs of all of the constituencies I mentioned previously—international, bilateral, and domestic.

We should be working toward a new Treaty of Westphalia, the gist of which would be this: Russia and the United States should each take a step back, Russia and Ukraine should each take a step back, and all parties would stipulate that both Ukraine and Russia must, at the end of this process, become part of a new pan-European security arrangement. A framework that would welcome both Russia and Ukraine might just provide enough of an incentive for Russia and Ukraine to deal creatively with Donbass and Crimea. Failing that, they should both forego the benefits of European integration, investment, and security guarantees.

A project of this magnitude demands a level of cooperation among states that, sadly, seems to be beyond our current political leaders. They would much rather shrink into their national shells, blame others for rising tensions, and quietly allow Ukraine to suffer its fate.

We will pay twice over for this lack of vision and compassion. First, in the demise of Ukraine as its fragments fall into the very spheres of influence that Western government so fervently claims to abjure.

Second, in what I call the Great Shift Eastward—Russia’s embrace of her Asian destiny foretold by the great Russian polymath, Mikhailo Lomonosov, three centuries ago. His prediction, that “Siberia is destined to magnify Russia’s greatness,” may yet prove to be the most lasting outcome of the latter half of the 21st century.

Remarks prepared for the 2021 Monterey Summer Symposium on Russia.

Nicolai Petro is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island (USA). He is the editor of Ukraine in Crisis (Routledge, 2017), and served as Special Assistant for Policy in the U.S. State Department in 1989-1990. He writes from Odessa, Ukraine.

Image: Reuters