Ukraine's Ancient Hatreds

June 29, 2014 Topic: HistoryGrand Strategy Region: UkraineRussiaEurope

Ukraine's Ancient Hatreds

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


THE IMMEDIATE impact of Maidan on the Russian political environment may be negligible, but the longer-term question is whether or not successful reform in Ukraine—particularly in generating political and economic transformation in the largely Russian-speaking southern and eastern parts of the country—might lead to change. It’s worth recalling that in the upheaval of the Russian Revolution a century ago, some of the southern regions of Russia—particularly the Don and Kuban Cossack communities—even sought to escape being drawn into the maelstrom after the fall of the Provisional Government and considered throwing in their lot with the Ukrainian Hetmanate headed by Skoropadsky. Skoropadsky’s overthrow in December 1918 and the eventual triumph of the Bolsheviks terminated those plans. Yet it is not inconceivable that in the future, especially if the prosperity engendered by Russia’s status as an energy superpower is eroded by the shale revolution, this pattern could repeat itself. Certainly, the vision laid out by Zbigniew Brzezinski in his 1997 Foreign Affairs essay, “A Geostrategy for Eurasia”—of a Russia that is decentralized into a looser confederation of geographic regions, with western and southern Russia drawn into the sphere of influence of an expanded European Union and with Ukraine as a full member of the Euro-Atlantic community—is based on an assessment that a Ukraine which successfully completed reforms would serve as a pole of attraction to those provinces of Russia along the border.

A decentralized Russia with different parts of the country ending up under the sway of the other major power blocs in the world is, of course, precisely what Putin has spent his entire political career working to prevent. He has done this first by reversing the devolution of power in Russia itself, and then by promoting Eurasian integration to create, as Putin himself put it in an October 2011 essay in Izvestia, “a powerful supranational association capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world and serving as an efficient bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.” Ukraine’s membership in this Eurasian Union, while desirable, is not absolutely necessary, but this scheme will not work unless Ukraine is at least a close associate.

Therefore, Putin is pursuing a reversed version of the Brzezinski strategy: instead of a Western-oriented Ukraine influencing European Russia, Russia will dazzle Ukraine with the benefits of being the westernmost bastion of a rising Eurasia. In the short run, Russia may have the advantage. Recognizing the challenge, the Russian government has already committed itself to a massive spending program in Crimea, committing 243 billion rubles ($6.8 billion) for 2014 alone in an effort to raise living standards and provide a positive point of comparison with Ukraine’s struggling regions in the south and east. Ukrainian interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk hoped Ukrainians would embrace painful economic reforms as the “price of independence.” But he recognized that Moscow’s strategy is to convince many Ukrainians that reversing the westward direction of the government in favor of closer relations with Russia would result in higher living standards and would avoid the short-term economic suffering that the austerity demanded by the International Monetary Fund, the EU and the United States would bring.

Putin’s comments to George W. Bush in Romania in 2008 provide us with a glimpse into his thinking on Ukraine. If the Yanukovych gamble has failed, then returning the western portions of Ukraine to the Central European world it longs to rejoin while drawing the southern and eastern parts of the country back into a closer embrace with Moscow might be an acceptable alternative. The federalization plans being touted by Russian representatives would devolve a good deal of authority to the regions, including more control over their finances and, in some versions, the rights of regions to pursue closer links with neighboring states. And if western Ukraine wants to go its own way, Putin may be quite happy to give a tacit blessing to the emergence of a separate state in Halychyna (Galicia), breaking apart the Ukrainian national project of the last century, which attempted to encourage its western and eastern portions to identify more with each other and less with their former historic overlords of Poland and Russia. (Not surprisingly, some Ukrainians see these proposals as a prelude to an outright partition of the country and the absorption of the eastern part directly into the Russian Federation.) But federalization is the only compromise Putin seems prepared to accept, and he seems to risk much to protect what he sees as Moscow’s vital interests and equities in Ukraine—including disrupting Russia’s own economic progress and the survival of the partnerships he has forged with key European states.


IF THE preservation of any semblance of a U.S.-Russian partnership is a priority, especially in order to support U.S. goals in the Middle East and East Asia, then Washington must be willing to compromise and promote the so-called neutralization of Ukraine as well as its decentralization, returning the country to its status as a nonaligned intermediary between Russia and the West. In addition, any offers for closer economic integration between Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic community would have to be nonexclusive in nature and not threaten Russia’s economic interests. The United States and its European allies would also have to convince a recalcitrant Ukrainian government, as well as significant segments of the population that are hoping for substantial Western assistance to break Ukraine out of the Russian orbit once and for all, that such help would not be forthcoming and that Ukraine would have no choice but to reach some sort of modus vivendi with Moscow. Essentially, this approach would concede to Putin many of his preferences for how Ukrainian-Russian relations ought to be defined, with the proviso that some degree of Western influence would be permitted. Finland and Austria both lived under such regimes during the Cold War, as a price for retaining their democratic forms of governance and capitalist economic systems, so there are precedents.

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.