Ukraine’s Ancient Hatreds

Nikolas K. Gvosdev
The National Interest | June 29, 2014

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


IN 1708, Charles XII of Sweden invaded Ukraine. His aim was to use it as a base for a final advance on Peter the Great’s Moscow. The Cossack hetman, Ivan Mazeppa, decided to throw his lot in with the Swedes in a bid to secure Ukraine’s complete independence. His decision split the Cossacks; while some followed Mazeppa, others elected a new leader, Ivan Skoropadsky, who reaffirmed his loyalty to the Cossack alliance with Russia. The following year, Charles was defeated by Peter at the climactic Battle of Poltava, Russia emerged as a player in European affairs, Ukraine was brought under closer control by the imperial government and Mazeppa fled into exile.

Was he a traitor who received his just rewards for his perfidy? Or was he a freedom fighter? The former is a more prevalent attitude in eastern Ukraine as well as the dominant narrative in Russia itself. The Russian Orthodox Church thus anathematized Mazeppa for breaking his oath of loyalty to Peter, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which remains affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate, continues to refuse to lift this sentence. Mazeppa is held up as an example of traitors who would sunder the unity of the East Slavic peoples. For Ukrainians who seek to join the Euro-Atlantic community, conversely, Mazeppa is a tragic hero who failed to bring Ukraine out from under Russian domination through an alliance with Western powers. His portrait graces the Ukrainian ten-hryvnia note. (Keep in mind that neither Benedict Arnold nor Robert E. Lee can be found on U.S. money.) However, a street named in his honor in Kiev was changed after the government of Viktor Yanukovych came to power in 2010.

One of Mazeppa’s predecessors as hetman, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, is lauded by some for his 1654 decision to sign the Treaty of Pereyaslav, by which the Cossacks of Ukraine pledged loyalty to the Russian czars in return for protection against their foes (Catholic Poland and the Muslim Ottoman Empire). One read is to praise Khmelnytsky for reuniting the fraternal Ukrainian and Russian peoples; another is to criticize him for running into the suffocating embrace of the Muscovite state and setting in motion the process of Ukrainian subjugation by Russia. (It was to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of this treaty that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev arranged for the transfer of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine—an act that the 2014 annexation was meant to repudiate.) And, in the aftermath of World War I, another hetman—a distant descendant of the Skoropadsky who had replaced Mazeppa—attempted to create, under German tutelage, another Ukrainian state. However, Pavlo Skoropadsky, a former imperial general, was overthrown in December 1918 by Ukrainian revolutionaries who found his government insufficiently nationalist—because Skoropadsky’s government continued to use Russian in its administration and because the hetman held out the possibility of a future federation between Ukraine and a non-Bolshevik Russia.

Ukrainians disagree vehemently about the legacy of these three figures, but Russian president Vladimir Putin is quite clear about what version of history he adheres to—and this vision is guiding his policies on Ukraine.

In his public remarks, Putin has indicated that he is a proponent of the “triune people” thesis, which holds that the Eastern Slavs form one overarching community, all descendants of the original people of Rus’ and inheritors of the culture, religion and traditions that were centered at Kiev a millennium ago. In this view, the modern division of the Eastern Slavs into Belorussians, Ukrainians and Russians reflects only regional and linguistic variants of a common people, not the existence of separate nationalities. Putin’s address to both chambers of the Russian legislature on March 18, 2014, made this clear when, speaking about the relationship between Ukraine and Russia, he noted, “We are not merely close neighbors, but we are in fact, as I have said many times, one people. . . . All the same, we cannot be one without the other.” (He has made the “one people” comment on numerous other occasions; for example, in a September 2013 interview with press representatives.)

Putin’s assertion has been echoed by other senior Russian government figures. Konstantin Zatulin, the first deputy chairman of the State Duma committee overseeing relations with Russia’s “near abroad,” remarked in 2013, “Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians are all one and the same people who due to historical circumstances happened to be called differently.” Even among those Russians who would recognize the existence of a separate Ukrainian nation, most would agree with the formulation often used by Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov: that Ukraine is a “brotherly nation” to Russia. A small minority of ethnic Ukrainians accept the triune view; more might agree that Russians are a related, though separate nationality; and a view that is more prevalent the further west one goes in Ukraine sees contemporary Russians as barbarian interlopers who stole the legacy of Rus’ and thus have no legitimate claim to share in a common culture with Ukrainians.

A common nation may nonetheless be divided among separate sovereign states, each with their own distinct identity—the nations of the Anglosphere come to mind, or the division of the larger German nation into Germany, Austria and Switzerland. But for Putin, as well as much of the Russian elite, Ukraine’s independence is conditional. For Putin, it is axiomatic that there should exist a “special relationship” between the two countries that would be characterized by even closer political, economic and security ties than the ones that define the vaunted British-American connection—a feeling that is reciprocated in some segments of Ukrainian society but vehemently rejected in others. Six years ago, at the Bucharest NATO summit, Putin reportedly said to then president George W. Bush, “You don’t understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? Part of its territories is Eastern Europe, but the greater part is a gift from us.” In other words, he acknowledged that the western portion of Ukraine was territory that had been part of Poland, and before that, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but asserted that the core of the country had historically been connected to Russia. But what Putin said afterward is even more important to consider. He apparently warned the U.S. leader that if any effort was made to pull Ukraine completely into the Western orbit and into opposition vis-à-vis Russia (specifically referring at the time to extending Ukraine a Membership Action Plan for NATO), then Ukraine would cease to exist as a state and Russia might be forced to take steps to detach Crimea and eastern Ukraine from Kiev’s control.

DURING HIS fifteen-year tenure as either prime minister or president of Russia, Putin has made forestalling Ukraine’s closer alignment with the West while pulling that country into a closer relationship with Moscow one of the organizing principles of Russian foreign policy. When he appointed Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia’s prime minister from 1992 to 1998, as his ambassador to Ukraine in 2001, many Ukrainians saw in this move the beginnings of a new campaign for the Kremlin to increase its economic influence in the country. One critic labeled Chernomyrdin’s nomination as “the appointment of a new prime minister for Ukraine by President Putin.” However, because of his willingness to abandon far-flung Soviet Cold War outposts and to facilitate the introduction of U.S. military forces into Central Asia after 9/11, some in Washington assumed that Putin was no longer interested in treating former Soviet republics as geopolitical chess pieces and might even be convinced that fostering closer ties between the non-Russian Eurasian states and the West would be beneficial for Russia.

This illusion was quickly dispelled when the warming U.S.-Russian relationship during the first presidential terms of both Bush and Putin ran aground on the shoals of the so-called Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004—a tectonic shift in Ukrainian politics brought about both by popular discontent with electoral corruption and a split in the Ukrainian elite over the direction of the country. What was seen in the West as a triumph of “people power” was viewed in Moscow as a direct and possibly mortal challenge to Russia’s position in the post-Soviet space. For a variety of reasons—historical, cultural, political and economic—Putin could not be indifferent to the question of who would sit in the halls of power along Mykhailo Hrushevsky Street in Kiev. No Russian leader could have been.

From that point onward, the relationship between Russia and the United States (as well as with the European Union) has been directly connected to the balance of political forces in Ukraine. The attempt to “reset” relations between Moscow and Washington in President Barack Obama’s first term in office bore fruit only because the Ukrainian question had been taken off the table, first by the efforts of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to warm up to the Kremlin in 2009 and then by the election of Viktor Yanukovych in 2010. Yanukovych’s subsequent decisions to eschew NATO membership for Ukraine, to renew a long-term lease for the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol and to give official status to the Russian language reassured Moscow that its equities in Ukraine were secure. His deposition from office in the wake of the Maidan protests in February, in turn, triggered the present crisis, which has effectively nullified any of the progress made in U.S.-Russian relations over the last two decades.

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.)

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.

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.


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