The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Ukraine, Russia and Two Horses
Published on August 21, 2012

Nearly twenty years ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski famously said, “Russia can be either an empire or a democracy, but it cannot be both. . . . Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” Uninterested in becoming a democracy, today’s Kremlin has not given up the hope of regaining a facsimile of its old empire, with Ukraine at its core. To be sure, the Kremlin today is pragmatic enough to understand that it can’t revive the corpse of the USSR (though Georgians may beg to differ), but it would like to create the Eurasian Union—a new version of “satellites along its periphery.”

Russia’s leaders sure have a strange way of pursuing this agenda, as illustrated by the most recent meeting in July between the leaders of Russia and Ukraine. Vladimir Putin kept his host, Viktor Yanukovych, waiting three hours—not due to any dramatic circumstances but out of sheer rudeness. Putin left Moscow late, but then, to add insult to injury, after arriving in Crimea he stopped first to meet with a bunch of bikers. Only after that did he make time for an official visit. Such appalling lack of diplomatic etiquette was a direct slap in Yanukovych’s face, an intentional gesture of both impudence and intimidation (albeit one Putin has made to other foreign leaders and CEOs). Big Russia was teaching Yanukovich and Ukraine a lesson—or so the Russian leaders thought!

This incident demonstrated not only the personal animosity between the two leaders but also the mutual suspicion and distrust that plagues the relationship between the two states. Russia’s leaders never hesitate to remind Ukraine who the big boy on the block is—a strange way, to say the least, to win over friends and allies. Indeed, one should not underestimate Moscow’s ability to alienate potential partners through its arrogant, aggressive approach to foreign policy, especially when its immediate neighbors are involved.

Of all the states in Eurasia, Ukraine is the most important test of the Kremlin’s neo-imperialistic longings and of Russia’s readiness (or not) to be a modern state. It is also is a test of the West’s interest in expanding its normative principles eastward, which can best be advanced if Ukraine itself demonstrates a desire for deeper integration based on a democratic path.

For Russia, Ukraine is important in Moscow’s desperate and ongoing search for a new identity. A significant part of the Russian elite and society at large resented having to recognize Ukrainian independence more than two decades ago; to many Russians, it was like losing a limb. Those feelings have not gone away, as many Russians look at Ukraine’s trials and tribulations and hope that Kiev will come limping back into Moscow’s fold, reuniting the “Slavic brothers” again. Even many Russian liberals stop being liberals when they think about Ukraine and the possible reconstitution of the “family.” There is no other country in the region that creates in Russia such a longing to embrace without first asking the object of its attention if it wishes the same. They are linked by history, family ties, language, and many Russians see Kiev as the birthplace of their statehood.

While today’s Kremlin does not demonstrate overt, military aggressiveness toward Ukraine, there is no doubt about Ukraine’s importance for the Kremlin agenda. As his own grip on power starts to erode, Putin seeks to compensate for that erosion by turning to the international arena. The Eurasian Union is not a new Putin hobby. Strengthening Russia’s role in the region is the Kremlin’s instrument for finding legitimacy and leverage. But the Eurasian Union isn’t a serious entity if only Kazakhstan and Belarus join Russia. It needs Ukraine as an anchor. As in 1991, when the Soviet Union could not survive without Kiev, today the new alliance can’t be formed without Ukraine. That is why the Kremlin will pressure, cajole and intimidate Kiev into “re-joining” its orbit. This goes beyond Ukrainian assets and the gas pipeline (in fact, after Nord Stream and the start of South Stream, Ukraine is less essential to Moscow for carrying gas to Europe). More important for the Kremlin is the search for new ways to energize the Russian political system, which can’t reproduce itself without global aspirations and satellite states. Indeed, the Kremlin understands that if Ukraine—especially a democratic Ukraine—moves toward the West it would be a crushing blow for the Kremlin’s authoritarianism and an invitation for Russians to do the same.

Ukraine has its own drama, with different leaderships (both the one in charge now and the one that was in charge during the Orange days and is now in the opposition) that have greatly disappointed the population. Ukraine’s leaders have been preoccupied with pursuing their own interests at the expense of the country.

Yanukovych came to power after Ukrainians tired of their Orange leaders. But instead of pursuing a truly Ukrainian path, Yanukovych sought to turn Ukraine into another, smaller Russia—not in the sense of wanting to be absorbed by Moscow, but in the sense of pursuing Putinism on a Ukrainian scale. This has meant keeping Ukraine in a gray area: controlled from the top, rife with corruption, but pretending to be a democracy and at the same time riding two horses on the international scene—one moving toward the West and another away from the West. To succeed at such a trick, Yanukovych needs to have a West that is truly interested in having Ukraine move toward Europe to counter the push-and-pull from Moscow. Instead, Europe’s interests have turned inward because of financial crisis and waning interest in integrating Ukraine, which is often viewed as a headache. So when Yanukovych started to clamp down on freedoms and his behavior began to resemble Putin’s, the West responded by delaying free trade and association agreements but also, for the most part, just looking the other way.

Putin can get away with his behavior because of Russia’s nuclear weapons, its permanent Security Council seat, its energy resources, and its overall size and importance. Yanukovych, however, doesn’t get away with similar behavior. He instead gets ostracized by the West—and left to the vicissitudes of Russia’s leadership.

On top of all this, Yanukovych has showed poor understanding of his Russian counterparts. The April 2010 Kharkiv deal signed with then-President Dmitri Medvedev—in which Ukraine granted Russia continued use of Sevastopol’s port for the Black Sea Fleet for another 25 years, until 2042—only whetted the Russian Bear’s insatiable appetite. Putin viewed this deal as evidence of weakness on Yanukovych’s part and wanted to extract more from his Ukrainian partner.

Yanukovych should take heed of Aleksander Lukashenko’s fate in Belarus. By turning to dictatorship, Lukashenko lost his ability to balance his country between Europe and Russia and immediately became the Kremlin’s hostage, in turn essentially giving up parts of Belarusian sovereignty and economic assets to Russia. Even if Putin loathes Lukashenko, the Kremlin has Belarus and Lukashenko exactly where it wants them: as the Kremlin’s satellites and dependents.

Yanukovych’s clampdown on democratic actors and institutions pushes him down the same road. Ukraine can be truly independent only if it is democratic, for only then will the West be interested in deeper relations—and be willing to help buttress Ukraine from Moscow’s acquisitive instincts. Yanukovych either fails to understand this or just doesn’t care. The policy of balancing is over, because neither Europe nor the Kremlin will allow Yanukovych to ride two horses.

In 2004, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians turned out in Maidan to insist on free elections and a brighter future. Close to eight years later, the population is tired and frustrated with political leaders of all stripes, but there is a stirring throughout Ukrainian civil society that suggests that tolerance for poor leadership is running out. For many Ukrainians, the answer to their country’s problems lies not in Moscow but within their own borders.

Moreover, Ukraine is for Europe and the West the key to the Eurasian space, not simply in geopolitical terms but for civilizational development. If a democratic Ukraine rises again, it will act as the most powerful stimulus for its neighbors’ democratic hopes. Creating favorable external conditions for Ukraine’s return to a democratic path by offering a concrete sense of belonging and, down the road, membership will also serve as a powerful test for Europe’s ability to present itself once again as a normative power.

This makes Ukraine’s parliamentary elections this October even more important. Yanukovych, following the Kremlin model, wants to determine their outcome ahead of time; such a plan would please Putin and the Kremlin, too. The West must stress the consequences of such an effort. If the Ukrainian elite wants to guarantee their country’s independence and control of its assets, they need to return to the democratic path, and the Rada elections are the place to start. If Yanukovych tries to rig the elections, he may end up as the governor of another province under the Kremlin’s thumb, for the West will become shut off to him and his country. Let’s hope Ukrainian society recognizes what’s at stake.

Lilia Shevtsova, an AI editorial board member, is senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. David J. Kramer, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, is president of Freedom House in Washington, DC.