Ukraine figures prominently in the Russian foreign-policy hierarchy of interests for a number of reasons. To begin with, the two countries share a nearly 1,500-mile border where Ukraine nestles up against the soft underbelly of the Russian Federation. The worst nightmare of the Russian General Staff would be NATO forces deployed all along this frontier, which would put the core of Russia’s population and industrial capacity at risk of being quickly and suddenly overrun in the event of any conflict.
Ukraine remains a vital link that connects Russia to the outside world. Even though, in the aftermath of the 2004 Orange Revolution, Russia accelerated plans to develop new energy pipelines to reach lucrative European energy markets that would bypass Ukraine, a little more than half of Russia’s exports of natural gas westward must still traverse Ukrainian soil. A friendly Ukraine—or at least a neutral one—is a sine qua non for the projection of Russian power and influence into Europe. Conversely, a much less friendly Ukraine could, if given sufficient support by its neighbors and other major powers, serve as a powerful barrier to curtail Russian ties with Europe and to contain its power and influence to the steppes of Central Eurasia.
Moreover, there still remains a high degree of economic integration between the two countries. Most commentators have focused on Ukraine’s continued dependence on Russian energy, without realizing that Russia is also vulnerable to supply disruptions of a different sort from Ukraine. Russia’s military, for instance, relies on a number of Ukrainian firms for the procurement of everything from rocket motors to turbofans. These include such companies as Motor Sich in Zaporizhia, which is the main “inheritor” of the Soviet capacity for airplane-engine production, and Kharkov’s Khatron plant, which manufactures the guidance systems for Russian ICBMs. Russia’s own effort to wean itself from Ukrainian suppliers by focusing on indigenous capabilities is still far from complete, despite the best efforts of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin in this area.
In addition, eastern Ukrainian industrial firms still supply Russia with a number of critical goods, including machinery, pipe and railway cars. Russia remains Ukraine’s single largest trading partner and foreign investor. Economic trouble in Ukraine does have a negative impact on Russia and other post-Soviet states, as Putin himself observed this March, when he noted that problems in Ukraine could have “negative consequences” for its trading partners.
Thus, the push for full Ukrainian membership in Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union, or, at the bare minimum, having Ukraine become an associate of this grouping, is grounded in expectations that Ukraine’s forty-five-million-strong market, its industrial base and its natural-resource endowments would become important components of a single Eurasian economic space led by Moscow. One of the goals of such a project would be to make it much less likely that Russia’s neighbors would be able to join blocs or groups that exclude Russia. The association agreement that was negotiated between Ukraine and the European Union that Yanukovych ultimately declined to sign in November 2013 (but which has been endorsed by the interim administration) would foreclose any possibility of Ukrainian participation in the Eurasian Union.
Finally, there is no easy separation between the two peoples in ethnic, historical and cultural terms. Both Russia and Ukraine (as well as Belarus) claim their origins from Rus’, the federation of East Slavic tribes centered at Kiev a millennium ago. Ukrainian scholars and intellectuals in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries played a key role in helping to forge the modern Russian identity. Centuries of shared experience, beginning with the Treaty of Pereyaslav, which connected a good portion of Ukraine with the Russian state, forged lasting bonds, not to mention the familial ties produced by generations of intermarriage and migration across what was the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. Twenty years after independence, despite the existence of two separate Ukrainian Orthodox jurisdictions, the choice of millions of Ukrainians to continue to affiliate with a Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church reinforces the perception of belonging to a common nation and is an important part of the Moscow Patriarchate’s claim that there is a distinct civilizational space that, in turn, ought to be defined by common political and economic institutions. Linguistically, the forms of Russian traditionally spoken in southern Russia shared some features with Ukrainian (notably in pronunciation); moreover, there were significant Ukrainian-speaking populations in the area, notably in the Kuban District. In turn, the current Ukrainian-Russian border does not mark the definitive delineation for language; use of Russian as the principal language spoken in daily life only phases out the further west one moves in Ukraine. The continued existence of variants of spoken Ukrainian that are strongly influenced by Russian usages in various parts of Ukraine also contributes to the sense that a Ukrainian identity need not exist in total opposition to a Russian one. And the penetration of Russian in Ukraine means that Ukraine is part of the larger Russian-language information space, sharing with Russia common television programs, music, movies and other forms of media—including social media.
ALL OF these factors combine in the eyes of much of the Russian elite to produce the assessment that Ukraine and Russia share a special relationship that goes beyond just economics or geographic proximity. Current disputes are but a “family quarrel”—and outsiders should stay out. Even if they are willing to accept the status of Ukraine as a separate and independent state, they still expect some sort of binding union between the two countries that keeps the old connections intact. If the West encourages Ukraine to sever those ties, then, as Putin told Bush in Bucharest, Moscow would consider taking back that part of Ukraine it perceives as being connected to Russia. And if the charge of “losing” China could prove to be so devastating in American politics sixty years ago, imagine the impact on the Kremlin’s position—and Putin’s narrative that he is the restorer of Russian greatness—of having to explain how Ukraine became dissevered from Russia.
If Putin’s primary fear is the “loss” of Ukraine, his second concern might be that a Ukrainian “sneeze” in favor of political change would end up giving the Kremlin a cold, posing a fundamental threat to the political and economic status quo. Because Ukraine and Russia still, to a large extent, share a common information and civilizational space, the thesis has been advanced that significant political change in Ukraine would spill over into Russia itself. In particular, if a Western-style liberal free-market democracy could take root in Ukraine, the argument runs, it would work to counter the narrative increasingly heard in Russian intellectual circles that Western institutions are alien to the core values of a Slavic-Orthodox civilization. It would further serve as an example to ordinary Russians that they too could embrace political reform without having to sacrifice their cultural identity. This point is critical because the growing sense that accepting Western-style forms of governance is akin to abandoning and rejecting one’s own national identity has become more noticeable in recent years. Indeed, Russian pride in the country’s cultural achievements was on full display during the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, while sustained criticism from the West of Russia’s preparation for the Games struck a nationalist nerve, even among some of the most solidly anti-Putin liberals.
After the 2004 Orange Revolution, some in the Russian opposition (as well as in the U.S. democracy-promotion community) were optimistic that a “color revolution” might be possible in Russia, pointing to the cultural and psychological similarities between the Ukrainian and Russian populations. They were wrong. The Kremlin met this challenge by tightening controls over civil society and improving its techniques for youth mobilization. It also concentrated media coverage of events in Ukraine by highlighting the decline in the population’s standard of living, the failure to move forward on closer integration with the West and the lack of progress in dealing with corruption by the administration of Viktor Yushchenko. For many Russians, who had emerged shell-shocked from the economic collapse of the 1990s, the message was heard loud and clear: imitating Ukraine would jeopardize the prosperity and stability of the newly emerging Russian middle class. The same arguments are being voiced again in the aftermath of the Maidan uprising—that Ukraine’s fortunes will worsen rather than improve as a result of the change in government and the rupturing of ties with Russia.
Moreover, the extent to which the Maidan protest movement champions the narrative of Ukrainian distinctiveness and separateness from Russia diminishes its potential impact on the Russian political scene, since the core of the argument is that Ukraine can be democratic and liberal precisely because it is not similar to Russia. The Kremlin’s focus on the role of “fascists” in the Maidan movement—the far-right parties and militias with a pronounced anti-Russian agenda—reinforces this and is intended to delegitimize the entire protest by associating it with the Nazis. All of this makes it less likely that the protesters’ arguments for change will resonate with ordinary Russians, at least in the short run. The Maidan is not going to be followed by a similar manifestation on the Manezh in Moscow. (In the longer run, a Ukrainian-style protest movement might emerge in Russia for the same reasons it did in Ukraine: if the economy enters a new period of stagnation, if corruption becomes intolerable, and if the question of who will succeed Putin as president of Russia begins to divide the Kremlin elite into competing factions that then seek to mobilize the larger population to assist in their struggle for power.)