government and society

Bouncing off Russia

16.08.2013 | Volodymyr Karbivnychiy

Russians still see the independence of Ukraine as a historical anomaly. Thank goodness that over the past 22 years they have failed to convince Ukrainians of that

In his interview with a leading Ukrainian media outlet in July 2006, well-known Russian political analyst Sergei Karaganov said, Ukraine will always bounce off Russia until it rises on its own feet, but I cannot predict when this will happen. Before that, though, Russia has to get on its feet as well. This diagnosis is still relevant. A considerable part of the 22-year modern history of Ukraine has involved escaping the grip of Russia, which has been relatively successful

Monetization of relations

For a great number of Russians the very existence of an independent Ukrainian state is something they have a hard time wrapping their minds around, a concept that is barely conceivable. In the country where the history of the 20th century was written many times over, the depth of historical memory is shallow. In contrast, the English are acutely aware that Scotland has always been exceptional and in many ways a separate part of the United Kingdom, whereas Russians, if they know anything at all about the time when the heart of their country was called the Moscow principality, accept that period as myth and a necessary stage on the way towards the essential gathering of Russian lands. Moreover, there is no acceptance of Ukraine within its present borders. In todays Russia, finding people critical of Vladimir Putin with his anti-Western rhetoric and imperial games is an easy task, but to meet someone who would agree wholeheartedly that Sevastopol is a Ukrainian city is a fools game. Therefore, policies aimed at holding on to Ukraine will remain widely popular amongst Russians for a long time to come.

As a result of such attitudes, Ukraine has had to deal with such existential challenges from the first day of independence. Fortunately, historical luck was on Ukraines side because, unlike the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, Russian President Boris Yeltsin had the wisdom to acknowledge the Soviet republican administrative borders as the new state frontiers. Back in 1991, most Western analysts believed that the chances of civil war in the totalitarian and impoverished Soviet Union were much higher than in the more prosperous and democratic Yugoslavia. Fortunately for Ukraine, history decided otherwise. Today, many people talk about the low rent the Russia Black Sea fleet based at Sevastopol pays to Ukrainian coffers, but in 1992-93 the huge victory for Ukrainian diplomacy was that the Russians consented to negotiate a lease at all.

The 1990s in Ukrainian-Russian relations were marked by a concentration of the newly created national elites on primary accumulation of capital, often in close coordination with one other, like what happened with the purchase and transit of natural gas, for example. The survival of the old party and economic nomenclature at the helm of post-Soviet states made the gradual estrangement of Ukraine from Russia less visible and painful.

The rise to power of the pragmatic Vladimir Putin, whose different life experience resulted in his attaching much less importance to brotherly embraces, fundamentally changed the nature of relations. Moscow began monetizing its connections with former Soviet republics while making it clear that the old benefits could only be enjoyed once full political loyalty was ensured. Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004), after being politically weakened by the Gongadze murder scandal and quarrels with the West plucked the courage for rapprochement with Russia. The apogee of this game was the direct meddling of the Russian leadership in the presidential election of 2004, the result of which Moscow interpreted as its greatest geopolitical defeat since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Response to the Orange challenge

Letting their emotions cool and putting insults aside, the Russian ruling class was able to give an adequate response to the orange challenge. However, then led to a tightening of screws within Russia, which resulted in arrested economic and social development, but that is another story. In the context of relations with Kyiv, the waiting game and bet on monetization of dialog paid off: at the end of the Orange reign, Moscow got a most powerful lever of pressure on its neighbor in the form of gas contracts signed by now former PM Yulia Tymoshenko, as well as serious doubts by the US and EU about Ukraine as a reliable ally of the West.

Viktor Yanukovych was not obliged to Russia for his victory in the 2010 presidential election. Had he won out in 2004, he would have become the Kremlins puppet, but during Yanukovychs second bid at the supreme office Putin placed his bet instead on Tymoshenko, and then President Dmitry Medvedev spoke in favor of non-interference. The Kharkiv Agreements, which gave rise to the formula of you let us keep the Black Sea Fleet anchored in your bases and we give you cheaper gas, were motivated not by political but rather purely economic reasoning. To the dismay of the Russians, Yanukovych did not give up the European integration course and dropped forced Russification (everything Dmytro Tabachnyk did in this regard has only slowed Ukrainization). An unpleasant surprise for Yanukovych was that Moscow was not satisfied with Ukraine´s refusal to join NATO or support openly anti-Russian projects on post-Soviet parts.

In 2010 the Kremlin began to make more serious demands: complete submission in issues of foreign, military, foreign-economic, and humanitarian policy. Nothing can be achieved with the help of classic pro-Russian Kuchma-style rhetoric, to which the new foreign minister Leonid Kozhara has resorted. This time around Moscow has explained what Kyiv will lose as a result of disobedience rather than what it might win by submission: restricted imports of Ukrainian cheeses, caramel, and pipes, a ban on placement of Russian defense and civilian orders at the major Ukrainian machinery companies, forbidding entry into Russia on Ukrainian internal passports (as opposed to foreign passports), and perhaps worst of all renewed gas troubles. These are more powerful arguments than the promises of riches that might result if Ukraine joins the Eurasian Customs Union.

Should Ukraine join the ECU, it will be the beginning of the end of Ukrainian sovereignty, but not as a result of any specific regulations that might be imposed. Rather, as Ernst Haas, one of the early developers of international relations theory, argued, loyalties might shift from the national decision-making center to the supranational center, i.e. the danger of restoration of the Soviet model in Moscow-Kyiv relations.

Russia has a final historic chance to return Ukraine to the orbit of its dominance. In the near future, the inevitable decline in energy prices, structural problems in the Russian economy, and destabilization of Putin´s stagnant regime will deprive Moscow of its ability to fight for restoration of even the mildest configuration of a regional empire.

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