In the most recent skirmish between a bullying Russia and a resentful but ultimately obedient Ukraine, none of the lines peddled by the Kremlin fit the facts. Ukraine is not an object in a dispute between Russia and “the West.” It is an independent actor in its own right. “The West” is a phantom enemy for the Kremlin, not an organized conspiracy. The EU has been compelled by both Putin and Yanukovich, in their different ways, to act with unusual resolution (by the its own low standards). But only a fantasist would insist on seeing the EU as an entity struggling to tear Ukraine from its natural home under Russian suzerainty. (Or perhaps that is unfair. Since Putin’s real aim is the political dominance of Ukraine, it is natural that he should attribute the same aim to others who, as he sees it, stand in his way.)
The idea that Ukraine would be a threat to Russia if it became a channel for EU goods to flood the country is also pretty bizarre. If Russia is so exposed to trade, why did Putin sign up to join the WTO? Would Russia’s economy really profit if Ukraine were forced into a protectionist Customs Union? Perhaps the Russian budget could afford the necessary subventions to Ukraine, but the result would be a marriage of problem sectors inherited from the Soviet past, not a newly thriving joint economy. The Russian economy is by far the larger and would be better off on its own. So would the Ukrainian economy if it were forced to begin to face up to its deep-seated problems. Creative destruction is better, in the end, than uncertain life support.
That is true for Russia too, of course, the difference being that in Russia’s case its variable life support is its natural resource sector. It is a commonplace that the future prosperity of Russia as well as Ukraine depends on moving on from a system based on understandings and personalized favors to one where clearly understood and independently adjudicated laws allow free enterprise to work its magic. Forcing Ukraine into the Russian embrace might serve the interests of those close to Yanukovich’s heart but it would hardly do anything to help combat corruption in either country—on the contrary. It would likely provoke a struggle for property in Ukraine as well.
Moscow already has problems with Belarus in its Customs Union, and Ukraine would be another difficult member, not a secure pawn in Russia’s effort to restore past glories. Its institutions are imperfect, to be sure, but at least it has some sort of governing mechanism, at least by comparison with those that have been emasculated in Russia. Moscow would have to build up personalized rule under Yanukovich to make Ukraine the partner that the Kremlin and many Russians imagine it ought to be, and which they suppose that in its heart it really is. If it worked, the process would further damage Russia’s own structures. If, as is more likely, it did not, the Kremlin might well find that it had imported a dangerous virus into its bloodstream.
The protesters in Kiev are therefore not fighting just for Ukraine, but for Russia too. If Ukrainians are not allowed to run their own affairs, and to hold their President to account, then chances are much lower that Russians will one day follow suit. Liberty is disruptive, and hard to achieve. But without it, no society can prosper. If the Kremlin can force Kiev into “friendship”, it will reinforce its current authoritarian mindset, but it will not serve Russia’s real national interests.