From the 2004 Orange Revolution to the 2010 problematical election, Ukraine’s politics followed the beat of the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, who was committed to Ukraine’s earliest possible accession to NATO and the European Union. Yushchenko touted this rhythm as an alternative to closer ties with Russia, and in the most recent election, he asked voters to face up to this stark choice. They did: He got a little more than 5 percent of the vote in the first round of the election, while Viktor Yanukovych, a long-time rival who advocated closer ties with Russia, went on to win the Presidency in the subsequent runoff election.
The vote was by all accounts free and fair, and so comforting Western media descriptions of Yushchenko’s defeat as a “victory for democracy”, if not necessarily for U.S. foreign policy interests, are not entirely off the mark. But these views miss the essence of what actually happened: Yushchenko was the only major candidate to run on a pro-Western agenda that specifically tried to distance Ukraine from Russia, and he went down in flames. What the U.S. and West European governments need to learn from the election is that Ukrainians simply do not wish to join the West at the expense of a good relationship with Russia, and that such a posture is entirely consistent with both democratic politics and Ukrainian sovereignty.
To varying degrees, all the other presidential candidates ran against Yushchenko’s pro-Western platform, including members of the Orange Revolution hierarchy itself. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko spent most of 2009 trying to convince Ukrainian voters of her pro-Russia credentials, first by signing a ten-year gas contract with Vladimir Putin in January 2009 and then by distancing herself from President Yushchenko’s anti-Russia policies at every opportunity. In April 2009, she pointedly told the press that the era of Russia-Ukraine confrontation had “faded into the past.”
The second round of the election, between round-one winner Yanukovych and the second-place Tymoshenko, thus presented Ukrainian voters with a choice between two similar candidates. Both avidly proclaimed their desire to mend fences with Russia. Both said they would slow the rush to join NATO and review the value of joining a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Both supported extending the lease on Crimean basing rights for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Both opposed the excesses of forced Ukrainianization in public life (President Yushchenko took a number of steps to discourage the use of Russian, including a ruling in April 2004 that licenses be given only to television and radio channels that broadcast exclusively in Ukrainian, a 30 percent quota on foreign language films and video cassette sales and, most controversially, a decree in September 2009 forbidding school teachers from speaking any language other than Ukrainian at work. These were a constant source of irritation in eastern and southern Ukraine, where people often prefer to speak Russian.1) The only real point of comparison was which candidate would be more likely to follow through on these promises. On this point, Yanukovych emerged as the slightly more believable candidate.
What the election starkly reveals is just how much five years of promoting the West as a zero-sum alternative to Russia has eroded public support for pro-Western candidates in Ukraine. Yushchenko’s derision for Ukraine’s historical, cultural and religious ties with Russia undermined popular support for Western-style democracy just as thoroughly as Boris Yeltsin’s alleged kowtowing to the West did in Russia during the 1990s. The simple truth is that Ukraine is not a Western nation, at least not as the term is currently understood in Western Europe and the United States; its historical experience, culture and religious inclinations diverge too sharply.
Many Western observers explain the election “debacle” as a consequence of the intense political infighting that consumed the leadership of the Orange Revolution, but this is only part of the story. Debilitating infighting there certainly was, but that does not explain the steady rise of Yanukovych, who eventually outdistanced Yushchenko by more than 20 percent in public opinion polls. Indeed, a careful look at the polls yields a better explanation.
The sharpest drop in Yushchenko’s approval ratings, to less than 5 percent, occurred right after he defended Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili during the latter’s August 2008 conflict with Russia. Before this moment, the strong cultural sympathy Ukrainians feel for Russians had been politically latent, expressing itself mostly in efforts to preserve the use of the Russian language in local schools and media. This particular incident, however—an affair that involved the shipment of Ukrainian arms to Georgia as well as Ukrainian volunteers reportedly fighting on the Georgian side—thrust Russian-Ukrainian relations into the political spotlight. It highlighted the sharp differences among Ukrainian politicians, some of whom were not only pro-Western but also decidedly anti-Russian.
Many outside analysts have long presumed a direct linkage between the two tendencies, as if, even after the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, being pro-Western necessarily presumes anti-Russian feelings. The presumption of direct linkage became conventional wisdom within the U.S. foreign policy establishment by the mid-1990s. It was epitomized by former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s March/April 1994 Foreign Affairs essay “The Premature Partnership”, which asserted that U.S. policy success in the region hinges on detaching Ukraine from Russia: “It cannot be stressed strongly enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” Since then Brzezinski has repeated his mantra upon the eruption of each new Ukrainian crisis, and many have formed a supportive chorus. But few have bothered to ask whether the West’s dealing with Ukraine primarily on the basis of whether or not it is a key factor in reconstituting the “Russian empire” might be the very reason Ukraine’s domestic politics has become so intractable.
Indeed, looking at Ukraine through this very narrow lens has rendered it little more than an extension of U.S. policy toward Russia. Ukrainian politicians have learned to take uncompromising political stances on the assumption that, if the United States is committed to the preservation of Ukrainian statehood, then it will respond generously to appeals for support, especially if couched as opposition to Russian ambitions. Almost all prominent American politicians have echoed Brzezinski’s call for “American political assurances for Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity”, a fact that has only ratified this sentiment as a foundation of Ukrainian foreign policy thinking.
By defining Russian foreign policy as a type of recidivist imperialism, U.S. policymakers have left themselves only one way to respond to it: total opposition. As a result, they have found themselves trapped into responding to the genuinely popular aspirations among both Russians and Ukrainians for closer ties with incomprehension at best, hostility at worst.
Time to Change Course
In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse, preventing the USSR’s territorial reconstitution in the same or some other form seemed a justifiable and obvious U.S. foreign policy goal. Twenty years later, however, the balance sheet is mixed. The costs of this policy impulse as it has actually played out are threefold.
First, NATO’s eastward expansion has increased political turmoil in post-Soviet European space. Polls show that this insecurity is nearly as strong in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova as it is in Russia.2 It has also led to conflict among NATO members about the purposes of the alliance, and to the emergence of a potential NATO counterweight—the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO.
Second, much of the former Soviet space has experienced weak economic growth as countries that were once part of a unitary economic system have been forced to create not just separate but often duplicate industries. Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia have tried to revitalize their economic ties through a customs union to derive some competitive advantage from further integration, but U.S. policy has opposed these efforts, again because of the fear that they presage the reconstitution of the “Russian empire.”
Third, there has been a broad erosion of support for minority rights and other liberal values in the new democracies of the region. Political debate that degenerates into rhetorical accusations of being “pro-Western” or “pro-Russian”, as it has in Ukraine, calls into question the loyalty of millions of Russian-speaking citizens, resulting in restrictions on minority cultural rights in the East that are commonly recognized in Western Europe.
Locked into the paradoxical policy of supporting Ukrainian democracy only so long as it does not bring about closer relations with Russia, U.S. policy in the region has now run out of ideas, a situation that Steven Pifer, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, calls “Ukraine fatigue.”3 What policymakers and analysts often fail to see is that our exhaustion derives from the pursuit of the impossible: a popular and stable Ukrainian government that is simultaneously pro-Western and anti-Russian. This fantasy has seriously undermined Ukrainian democracy by coupling it with a form of nationalism that has alienated the more Russified eastern and southern parts of the country and exacerbated tensions in the less Russified western part.
It is time to change course. U.S. policy should promote closer ties between Russia and its neighbors and simultaneously encourage those neighbors to join European institutions. We should stop worrying that Russia will drag Ukraine eastward away from Europe and start expecting that, if we deploy our diplomatic assets wisely, Ukraine will help pull Russia westward toward Europe.
Both history and common sense recommend this policy. It was always wishful thinking to believe that Ukraine—where almost any poll taken in the past decade shows a 90 percent favorable view of Russians, and nearly one in five still holds out hope of the two countries becoming one state—would be so easily torn away from Russia.4 Faced with the fact that only 40 percent of Ukrainians say the country should move closer to the West (and far fewer support either EU or NATO membership), it must at some point dawn on political analysts and policymakers that linking Ukrainian democracy to anti-Russian postures is the quickest way to harm it.
It is not too late to reverse the damage. Instead of wasting precious political capital trying to undo centuries of popular culture, U.S. diplomacy can help build support for Ukraine’s democratically elected government by portraying democratic changes in ways that make them sound comfortingly familiar to the populace. To gain broad popular support, democratic reforms must make sense within the local cultural tradition—in this case, the common eastern Slavic cultural, religious and linguistic heritage that binds Ukraine and Russia.
Transforming the “burden of the past” into an ally of change has already had a visible impact in countries as diverse as Poland, Spain and Iraq.5 By linking Polish history into the broader Catholic context of Europe, Polish anticommunists helped prepare public consciousness for revolution. In Spain an elite once obsessed with Spain’s distinctiveness from Europe came to view itself as an integral part of Europe by accepting the country’s own regional diversity after Franco’s death. And in Iraq, a national history of cross-ethnic cooperation and associational behavior has been used to help revive civil discourse. There is no reason to think this strategy will not succeed in the former Soviet Union. The ultimate goal should be to bring Russia and Ukraine closer to Europe simultaneously, rewarding them both with the promise of European integration if not full EU membership, while avoiding the destructive political dissonance that arises from pitting one country against the other.
There is little to fear from such a policy, too. While Ukrainians and Russians oppose a complete separation that implies lasting enmity between them, neither side seeks the reconstitution of an empire. They seek something else entirely: relations that respect the cultural ties forged during centuries of common history. Whether this takes the form of a customs union, easier border crossing, joint security arrangements or something more permanent should be less important to the West than recognizing the profound desire of a large segment of the population for such a relationship.
The best way to understand this aspiration may be by analogy. Over time, American and British leaders have developed what they call a “special relationship.” While the meaning of this phrase has changed over time, it has survived because of a common cultural, linguistic, political and religious heritage that would be foolish to deny. It is no less foolish to deny the common heritage that binds Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and even (but to a lesser extent) the other peoples of the former Soviet Union.
In light of how the vast majority of Ukrainians think and feel about such matters (in often sharp distinction from how second- and third-generation Ukrainian residents of North America tend to think and feel about them, by the way), it is not surprising that since taking office in February Yanukovych has moved swiftly to heal the his country’s rift with Russia. He has appointed Ukraine’s former Ambassador to Russia as his Foreign Minister; re-established a “strategic” dialogue with the West’s longstanding pariah, Belarus; replaced a Ukrainian Navy commander known for his opposition to the presence of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol; and moved to give individual regions the right to use Russian as an official language. He has also distanced himself from his predecessor’s controversial embrace of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate, over the more popular Orthodox churches loyal to Moscow, for its anti-Moscow stance; reversed Yushchenko’s policy of casting the Holodomor, the 1930s famine induced by Stalin, as a distinctively Ukrainian tragedy, as well as his honoring of Ukrainian World War II independence fighters widely viewed in Russia and elsewhere as Nazi collaborators.
The coup de grâce of this whirlwind diplomacy was the signing and near-instant ratification in April of a landmark agreement extending the lease of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in exchange for a 30 percent discount on the price of Russian gas. In addition, the Black Sea Fleet, which already provides 15–20 percent of local revenues for its home port of Sevastopol, will increasingly shift to using Ukrainian providers for essential goods and services, thus making Russian taxpayers the long-term guarantors of the region’s economic prosperity. All in all, Russia expects to provide some $40 billion worth of economic support to Ukraine over the course of the next decade, in exchange for which it expects to deepen its relations with the country culturally, economically and militarily.
To those who see this new level of dependence on Russia as a potential danger for Ukraine, Yanukovych has responded with a new vision of European security, one in which the Russian Black Sea Fleet is seen as an essential guarantor of peace and stability in the region. Indeed, his Deputy National Security Advisor, Dmitry Vydrin, describes the Russian fleet’s presence in Crimea as “improving the security of Ukraine itself.”6 The old assumption that NATO suffices to guarantee European security is being replaced, at least in one part of Europe, by a new paradigm that accepts Russia’s central role in that task, as well.
Toward an Integral Europe
The idea that Russia, whether communist or not, imperial or not, necessarily threatens the West and the United States has a prodigious capacity to linger beyond all logic and common sense. Some in the West advocate impeding any serious Russia-Ukraine rapprochement by increasing economic and political pressure on Kiev. As The Economist wrote rather chillingly, the Orange Revolution “turned sour because its leader was not ruthless enough.”7 The clear intimation is that the West now need be ruthless in his stead. This course would most likely result in political paralysis in Ukraine, the collapse of the economy and possibly widespread violence. But the Ukrainian elite does not want to become part of Russia, either, just because Ukrainians see post-communist Russia as neither alien nor an enemy. So, as former U.S. diplomat E. Wayne Merry has commented, “For ten years, Ukraine has been a disappointment to the West; now it is Russia’s turn.”8
Happily, as already suggested, there is a third option: Embrace both Ukraine and Russia. A concerted Western strategy is capable of turning Ukraine into Europe’s indispensable partner for bringing Russia toward, and possibly even into, the European Union. Rather than placing the two countries on different tracks, we should reward them both for moving along the same path. We should replace the misguided and ultimately futile strategy that seeks to weaken Russian influence among its neighbors and in Europe with one that makes Russia the long-term focal point of European integration.
This third way has always had its proponents in Western Europe, where senior statesmen have long warned against the domestic political and foreign policy dangers of isolating Russia. But it has met with little comprehension in America, where Russia policy remains rooted in atavistic forms of containment.
Ultimately, as Spanish Ambassador to Russia Juan Antonio March has argued, these differences reflect different historical and cultural relations with Russia.9 For the United States, says March, relations with Russia are almost purely strategic. Since no common border engages America with Europe, America’s primary concern lies not in fostering pragmatic good-neighborly relations but in preventing the rise of a global military and economic competitor. This objective, with deep roots in the thinking of America’s earliest explicit grand strategists, has not changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it explains the continued appeal of containment among American foreign policy thinkers. For Europeans, however, relations with Russia became more local than strategic after the Cold War. Driven by the opportunities and dangers shaped by geographic proximity, the key issue became the pace at which the mutual interpenetration of civil, legal and economic spaces should proceed. The ultimate aim of European policy is to reach what March calls “a great civic expanse called integral Europe.”
By rejecting the choice between Russia and the West as a false one, President Yanukovych has shown that he embraces this integral concept of Europe. To reach fruition, however, an integral Europe must embrace its Slavic heritage in its entirety, including the part represented by the largest Slavic country, Russia. Both objectives can only be accomplished if Ukraine becomes Europe’s key partner for bringing Russia into the European Union. If the new Ukrainian government embraces such a collaborative vision of Ukraine’s future in Europe, it will find a significant domestic constituency eager to support it, as well as allies in Russia and Belarus eager to assist in its realization. The combination just might be enough to overcome the malaise that has afflicted post-Soviet Europe for the past two decades and place the task of pan-European integration on solid footing. This is an outcome U.S. policy should support, not obstruct.
2“Over 40 percent of Ukrainians Prefer CSTO, 12.5 Percent Favor NATO”, Interfax-AVN, November 26, 2009.
3Pifer, “Curing ‘Ukraine Fatigue’”, New York Times, February 9, 2010.
4Svetlana Gamova, “Fraternal Peoples Do Not Want to Be ‘Choked with Gas’”, Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 21, 2009; “Less Than 3 Percent of Ukrainians Support Yushchenko”, Interfax, January 12, 2009; Stanislav Pritchin, “Kiev to Become Pragmatic”, Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 28, 2009; “Polls Show Ukrainians See Russia as Friendly State”, Interfax-Ukraine, February 18, 2010; “Nearly Half of Ukrainians Want Country to Follow Own Development Path”, Interfax, May 11, 2007; “Most Ukrainians Positive About Russia, But Russia Has Fewer Ukraine Fans”, Interfax, May 12, 2008; “Nearly Two-thirds of Ukrainians Still Against Accession to NATO”, Interfax-AVN, September 24, 2008; “Most Ukrainians Want Closer Rapprochement with Russia”, Interfax, October 27, 2008.
5My book, Crafting Democracy (Cornell University Press, 2005) describes several examples and case studies by various authors. More recently Eric M. Davis has done the same for Iraq and the Middle East in “History Matters: Past as Prologue in Building Democracy in Iraq”, Orbis (Spring 2005).
6Pavel Dulman, “Nikto ne khochet pobezhdat”, Rossiiskaya gazeta, April 23, 2010.7Economist, February 11, 2010.
8Merry, “Ukraine’s Election: No Change We Can Entirely Believe In”, American Foreign Policy Council, February 16, 2010.
9Eva Peruga, “Juan Antonio March: ‘Rusia es de la familia de Europa’”, El Periodico, June 21, 2009.