Vladimir Putin’s article attaches such great importance to the common historical experience of Russia and Ukraine because it is important for him personally. But those who were just starting their lives at the time of the collapse of the USSR are hardly likely to see things the same way. To sum up, as long as the aggregate power capabilities of Russia are maintained, our neighbours can expect unpleasant news, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
From the point of view of international politics, the most important thing in the recently-published article by the President of Russia on the Ukrainian issue is the indication that Russia continues to supports the sovereignty of this country if it reflects its genuine ability to maintain an independent foreign policy. It cannot be otherwise — Ukraine and Russia share a common geopolitical space, and Moscow is the strongest player.
Therefore, the logic of the Russian leader is quite simple and should be intelligible, since it addresses the ability of a neighbouring country to behave rationally. Russia is directly indicating (as it had not always done before) that a neighbouring country is expected to behave adequately in its position and understand that it is very dangerous to ignore Russian security interests. Notably, this is a serious departure from domestic foreign policy tradition, wherein Russia usually indicates its interests indirectly.
Historical experience is no less important — Ukraine, like a number of other countries, has been part of a single political space with Russia. Moreover, in this case Russia did not play the role of a metropole in its pure form — Ukrainians have occupied leadership positions in the Russian elite since the middle of the 18th century. During the Soviet era, this republic was in a very special position — it was where most of the opportunities for economic development were concentrated; executives from Ukraine, along with Russians, occupied leading positions in other Soviet republics. Such historical experience significantly limits the ability of Ukrainian citizens to adequately assess their place on the map and in the balance of power next to Russia.
Now, 30 years after the disappearance of the USSR, all newly independent states, without exception, are at a stage when their behaviour towards Russia must become responsible, corresponding to real sovereignty. This, as we can see, is hindered by historical experience. In some cases, it manifests itself through the significant presence of national diasporas in Russia, in others — through rent-seeking behaviour, and most difficultly — through the perception of Russia as a metropole. At the same time, all three of these negative aspects of the region’s shared experience are supported by an objective balance of forces and presence in the common geopolitical space. However, Russia is no longer a metropole and policy towards it should be formed on the basis of the understanding that it is a different state from the Soviet Union, but at the same time the most powerful state to emerge from it.
How much can Russia itself contribute to such a change? First, this will really only happen as the political generations change in Russia, when more pragmatic politicians from the different nations of the region come to replace those who grew up together in the Soviet Union. Russia’s neighbours quite often turn to the question of how this change in generations affects their attitude. But at the same time, we cannot forget that the significance of a similar process in Russia itself is more important, given its power capabilities. Vladimir Putin’s article attaches such great importance to the common historical experience of Russia and Ukraine because it is important for him personally. But those who were just starting their lives at the time of the collapse of the USSR are hardly likely to see things the same way. To sum up, as long as the aggregate power capabilities of Russia are maintained, our neighbours can expect unpleasant news.
Second, Russian foreign policy towards Ukraine and other neighbours will gradually shed its ethical, fraternal component, derived from the perception of “our” neighbours as “our people.” As you know, “the Russians do not leave theirs behind”.
Third, Russian policy towards its neighbours should be more demanding precisely so that the situation does not go as far as it happened with Ukraine. So far, we see only signs of movement in this direction, however, if we look at a 10-15 year timeline, the disciplining effect may turn out to be more significant. This, of course, depends on how chaotic the international environment of our common space becomes. Now, most of the signs indicate that none of the significant world powers is ready to take on a large share of responsibility for the fate of the countries of Central Asia or the Caucasus.
In general, Vladimir Putin’s article on Russian-Ukrainian relations equally reflects both objective and subjective components of Russia’s interaction with practically all countries of the former Soviet Union. Even the Baltic states cannot be an exception in the full sense of the word — they are still connected with Russia in the power field, although soon after gaining independence they entered another institutional jurisdiction. Moreover, economically, these three countries are significantly connected with the huge Russian market in the east.
The subjective factor in relations is the historical experience; most of the article of the Russian head of state concerns this aspect. In the case of Ukraine, it is the lengthiest, and therefore very difficult to overcome.
The argument in the concluding part of the President’s article deals with objectivity and geopolitical conditions. The presence of the former can interfere with the perception of the latter — the logic of the usual interaction of powers in accordance with their power potential is hardly linked with the recognition of the special nature of relations that has been formed over several centuries.
In any case, the Ukrainian issue, in its modern, post-independence incarnation, provides a very good lesson to learn from, both for Russia and for all the surrounding states.