Ukraine is gradually becoming a mere circumstance factor for Russia. Of course, this circumstance cannot be ignored, but the difference between a foreign policy circumstance and a problem is that it is customary to solve the latter, and “make adjustments” in policy to cope with the fortmer. So, it becomes obvious that an active Russian policy regarding Ukraine cannot emerge in the near future: neither strategic expectations nor instruments suitable for changing such a “circumstance” are associated with it, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.
In 1991, most of the newly independent states became participants in a large experiment: before the collapse of the Soviet Union, they had not had national statehood, the experience of state building, or a long history full of defeats and victories. The hastily completed end of the USSR, which gave rise to these states, left them with a legacy of many structural problems, some of which have yet to be resolved. For example, this concerns the rights of minority ethnic groups within states centred on a certain ethnicity. These people were often simply not asked which country they would like to live in and whether they want their country to follow one or another path of development.
One can cautiously compare the situation after the collapse of the USSR with the situation in Germany after the end of World War II and see striking differences. After the defeat, Germany received new national borders, the German population was divided between several occupying countries, and there was international control over the demilitarisation and stabilisation of the new state structure. In 1991, the Russians, like Germans in the past, found themselves a divided people and became a large ethnic minority in the new post-Soviet countries. But unlike the Germans, who were expelled from Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Netherlands and other European countries, suddenly making Germany the largest nation of migrants in Europe, the Russians remained to live in the newly independent states, hoping their opinion would be taken into account amid the new political realities.
It was not easy for the Ukrainian elite, of course. Although the Ukrainian SSR was represented in the UN at the behest of Joseph Stalin, its then-foreign policy couldn’t have been called independent. The young Ukrainian state suddenly gained sovereignty in 1991 and, in addition to it, a great Soviet legacy — in terms of economic potential, Ukraine was not inferior to Poland at the time, which made this young state the most interesting active player in the post-Soviet space. On the other hand, the Ukrainian elites faced the pressing issue of national self-determination, which they were unable to answer. The only recurring answer, voiced by Leonid Kuchma, was the motto “Ukraine is not Russia”. In this logic, an explanation of the existence of an independent Ukrainian state can only be given by opposing it to Russia, by gradually becoming an “anti-Russia”. This is a simple answer, and the Ukrainian elites leaned towards it when they tried to formulate their own identity.
For all post-Soviet states, nationalism turned out to be very attractive, as it became a convenient and effective political instrument to ensure legitimacy. You can always mobilise the public around the nationalist banner. There are “us” and “them,” “them” being Russians for most of the post-Soviet states. Even for constructive governments that understand the importance of interethnic harmony, the pressure of domestic nationalists has often turned out to be a challenge that is difficult to cope with.
Obviously, however, Russian national irredentism in all post-Soviet states would be a direct path to civil war. An example of parallel developments — when Slobodan Milosevic took the path of supporting the Serbian communities during the collapse of Yugoslavia — became an important factor in the principled decision of the Russian leadership to respect the existing state borders and established sovereign countries, rather than supporting irredentists, if Russia wasn’t provoked to do so. Of course, the Russian leadership hoped that the Russian communities in different countries would play an active role in their domestic politics and would actively defend their interests, and not give in under pressure when the issue of language or education was under discussion.
But Russian hopes are unequal within the former Soviet countries. Russia’s policy towards Ukraine is an example of a combination, to put it bluntly, of exclusive wishes, many of which constitute “red lines” for Moscow. After the collapse of the USSR, the largest Russian community ended up in Ukraine — in 2001 it numbered over 8 million people. These people cannot be physically moved away, and the Russian law that protects their interests cannot be extended to Ukraine.
In turn, Russia cannot afford to watch calmly when monstrous disasters happen, such as the events that transpired in Odessa on May 2, 2014. While this event harmed Ukraine itself most of all, it also became a fundamental event for the Russian public consciousness, reminding Russians that the security of the Russian community is the first “red line” for Russia. Another important “red line” concerns the great Orthodox holy sites: namely, their preservation and safety. Of course, there are also military-political issues, for example, the need to have a neutral Ukraine to protect national interests to the West. None of these circumstances apply to any post-Soviet country except Ukraine.
The 2010s, which marked, as I said earlier, a “new Ukrainian policy”, consolidated the trend in Russian strategic planning on the need to go further without Ukraine: Russia cannot rely on it, either in terms of economic cooperation or in integration associations. Apparently, according to the Kremlin, the negotiability of the Ukrainian political class was so low that Moscow decided to withdraw any strategic assets from the influence of Ukraine. Thus, we see the construction of pipelines and railways bypassing Ukraine, the withdrawal of defence orders, and the construction of a new base for the Black Sea Fleet near Novorossiysk. The problem of Ukraine has always been in that it has failed to formulate a vision of its national development goal; it often compensates for this by playing on its strategic position between the West and Russia. Russia’s relations with its other neighbours, for example, with Kazakhstan or Belarus, are not smooth tither, but they have a foundation that was formed partly due to the stable internal political structures of these countries. In Ukraine, however, there is a major shake-up every four years, and every winter there is another energy crisis.
With the exception of the aforementioned “red lines”, Ukraine is gradually becoming a mere circumstance factor for Russia. Of course, this circumstance cannot be ignored, but the difference between a foreign policy circumstance and a problem is that it is customary to solve the latter, and “make adjustments” in policy to cope with the fortmer. So, it becomes obvious that an active Russian policy regarding Ukraine cannot emerge in the near future: neither strategic expectations nor instruments suitable for changing such a “circumstance” are associated with it. The dynamics of Russian life and international problems today is so great that Ukraine is turning into just one of many subjects of debate.Previous attempts by Russia to take part in Ukraine’s domestic politics have had a negative effect for various reasons. Some of these reasons can be associated with the ineffectiveness of the actions themselves, but the chief culprit has been the political and constitutional structure of Ukraine. For Russia, the best option would be the implementation of the Minsk agreements, the integration of Donbass into Ukraine, its federalisation, and the introduction of Russian representation in government bodies, including the Verkhovna Rada and the government. In other words, it is beneficial for Russia to remove the acuteness of the issue of interethnic hatred, and to alter the Ukrainian national project so that it favours taking greater account of the opinions of Russians and Russian-speaking residents. The current authorities in Kiev are obviously making the opposite choice. Apparently, this time Russia should give Ukrainian voters the opportunity to assess the consequences of their own choice.