The Ukrainian Lesson

21 september 2015

Russia Should Benefit from Defeat

Vladimir Tchernega is Advisor at the Council of Europe, Envoy Extraordinary, and Minister Plenipotentiary. He holds a Doctorate in Law.

Resume: The mistakes in Russia’s policy in Ukraine did not allow it to make use of its huge “historical advantage” over the West; namely, fraternal bonds with the majority of the Ukrainian population. A situation similar to that in Ukraine may occur in other post-Soviet countries with which Russia is now trying to build integration associations.

Russia has entered a zone of geopolitical and economic turbulence. The country’s main foreign policy objective – to create favorable external conditions for domestic development, particularly economic, and national security – has not been achieved, mainly because of Russia’s confrontation with the West over Ukraine. Properly speaking, Russia has suffered its greatest geopolitical defeat since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The incorporation of Crimea has somewhat softened, but not counterbalanced, this defeat. The incumbent Ukrainian authorities are not just fully dependent on the West, above all on the United States, but they view this factor as their main foreign policy accomplishment. The U.S. has achieved this at a minimum cost (the $5 billion allocated for “the development of Ukrainian democracy” and made public by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland is hardly a significant amount of money for this). Subsidizing the Ukrainian economy for years cost Russia much more, and for now those costs can be considered wasted.

Russia’s reaction to these events has been largely emotional. Numerous discussions, especially on television, are permeated with resentment towards the former “younger sister” and by the desire (sometimes hidden, sometimes explicit) that Ukraine should suffer more. Attempts at a self-critical analysis of what has happened are very rare. Meanwhile, it is perfectly clear that the aforementioned defeat to a great, if not decisive, extent was due to mistakes in Russian policy in Ukraine. These mistakes did not allow Russia to make use of its huge “historical advantage” over the West; namely, fraternal bonds with the majority of the Ukrainian population. A sober and unbiased analysis of these mistakes is needed not only because it is important to improve Russia’s positions as much as possible in Ukraine in the future. A situation similar to that in Ukraine may occur in other post-Soviet countries with which Russia is now trying to build integration associations.

Such an analysis would be more productive than the endless criticism of “the Kiev junta” or condemnation of the West’s “double standards” and the U.S. “hegemonic policy.” Of course, “double standards” and “hegemonic policy” do exist and deserve to be criticized, but there is nothing new or unusual about them. International relations have always been and remain an arena of increased cynicism, where actors generally behave in accordance with their capabilities and apply moral criteria and evaluation mainly to others. The U.S. behaves in this manner because it can still afford to do so. But the same factor necessitates that Russia, which has more modest capabilities, pursue a more farsighted policy to protect and promote its interests, especially near its borders.

“We worked with the wrong people”

Unfortunately, events in Ukraine have confirmed that Russian foreign policy suffers from a lack of strategic vision and proactive strategies. It is common in Russia to say: “We did not work with Ukraine.” But this is only partly true.

Russia focused its efforts on the Ukrainian elites, especially oligarchs, or rather those billionaires who showed interest in cooperation. This certainly needed to be done given the oligarchic system that existed in Ukraine. But Russia overlooked the fact that Ukrainian tycoons feared Russian dominance in their country. Their political preferences constantly changed, depending on the situation at a given moment, especially on the balance of power with other oligarchic clans. Russia obviously missed the moment when almost all of them united against the Victor Yanukovich clan that had risen too high.

Russia’s main mistake, however, is that its Ukraine policy overlooked Ukrainian society, including its historical specifics and evolution since 1991. In fact, as Russian experts rightly note, a unified nation has not yet formed in Ukraine. Even though there are obvious differences in culture and mindset in the eastern and western parts of the country, Ukraine has a “core” (primarily its central and southern regions) where, despite its general closeness with Russia, features can be identified that comprise a Ukrainian identity.

Of course, this complex and sensitive issue cannot be analyzed in just one article, so let me just note here that for centuries the “core” territories had been part of the Lithuanian state and, later, the Polish-Lithuanian state, a factor that preconditioned the mindset of the people. Other factors include the spirit of freedom that existed in the Zaporozhian Sich and the lack of state traditions in Ukraine.

One example of such specifics in Ukrainian history is that in 1654, when Bogdan Khmelnitsky brought part of the territory under Russia’s protectorate, most Ukrainian cities were under the Magdeburg law. That law stipulated that a city was self-governing, had its own law courts, had the right to own land, and was exempt from most feudal taxes.
This historical background underlies the love of freedom among Ukrainians, which borders on anarchy. The most illustrative example of this sentiment is the Nestor Makhno movement during the Civil War of 1918-1920, which was a popular crusade against any government.

In contrast to Russia, where society has always viewed the “power vertical” as a fact of life, the years of Ukrainian independence have shown that respect for state institutions and the authorities was and remains low. This is why all attempts to create a strong presidency in Ukraine have failed, although Yanukovich tried to do just that. Earlier, Leonid Kuchma did not dare use force during the Orange Revolution in 2004. Yanukovich did, but on a limited scale and too late. Both were afraid – and not without reason – that such actions would spawn protests in the capital and across the country.

At the same time, due to national specificities, there has formed a noisy and unstable, yet real parliamentary system in Ukraine. Parliamentarism has become a characteristic feature of Ukraine’s political system, along with genuine competition of political forces in elections at all levels.

In addition, despite a developed industry (mainly in the country’s southeast), Ukrainian society has retained its agrarian nature to a larger extent than Russian society. When Ukraine proclaimed its independence, more than half of the almost three million-strong population of Kiev retained close ties with villages. Sociologists have long noticed that such “intermediate” societies – no longer fully agrarian, but not fully urban either – are particularly sensitive to social inequality. At the same time, they are most vulnerable to demagoguery and populism. In particular, they tend to believe that difficult economic and social problems can be solved quickly if the country has the “right” government.

In Ukraine, this sentiment is coupled with a “European dream.” Many Ukrainians sincerely believe that integration with the European Union will not only help them to quickly stop the impoverishment of the majority of Ukrainians, which continued throughout the years of independence, but to achieve a level of well-being equal to that of developed European countries within a few years. The Ukrainian authorities, including Yanukovich in his later years in power, fanned this hope. In 2012 I attended a conference in Kiev, where the Minister of Labor and Social Policy announced that after the Association Agreement was signed, the average pension in the country, which did not exceed 100 euros at the time, would reach 1,000 euros within a few years.

The “European dream” became particularly widespread among young Ukrainians who hoped that the EU would open its borders for Ukrainian citizens to freely visit, study, and work in Europe. Geographically, the idea was especially popular in Western Ukraine. That region was never part of the Russian Empire or the Orthodox world (the majority of western Ukrainians belong to the Greek Catholic Church, which was severely persecuted during the Soviet era). Mentally and culturally, Western Ukraine has always been much closer to neighboring European countries. The pro-European orientation in the region has increased significantly over the last two decades under the influence of the successful social and economic development of Poland, largely aided by the EU. Many people from Western Ukraine have gone to Poland to work or study.

The hope cherished by many Ukrainians that their country would join the rich “European Club” from the very beginning was set against the idea of an integration movement towards Russia. One reason for this tendency was that, unlike the European model, Russia’s social, economic, and political model was not very appealing, especially to young people.

Specifics of nation building in Ukraine

The more general reason lies in the peculiarities of Ukraine’s development as an independent country. After 1991, Ukraine had to address three interrelated objectives: to legitimize its sudden independence; to build its own statehood; and to form its own national identity under the looming shadow of its “older sister,” while Russian culture was dominant in most parts of the country. Under these circumstances the development of anti-Russian tendencies was very likely if not inevitable. Indeed, a significant part of Ukrainian intellectuals and elites believed that the above objectives could be met through promoting “Ukrainianness” as opposed to anything Russian, and building a “European identity” for Ukraine, compared to “Euro-Asian” or simply “Asiatic Russia.”

This anti-Russian “emancipation” process was naturally driven by Western Ukraine, where ideas were promoted that there was nothing in common between Russians and Ukrainians and that Ukraine was “the last frontier of Europe” in the face of “the Russian threat.” Such ideas have been instilled in the public consciousness ever since the region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, later, in pre-World War II Poland. Western Ukraine was less industrialized and poorer and was always characterized by high levels of passion and political activity, which strengthened the positions of its elites in national politics.

The European Union and the West in general encouraged such sentiment. In 2004, European and other Western media portrayed the Orange Revolution not so much as mass protests of Ukrainians against a corrupt regime, as a struggle between “pro-European” and “pro-Russian” forces.

However, efforts to implant Ukrainian identity and statehood on an anti-Russian basis met with resistance from other parts of the country, especially among the middle-aged and older generations. Even people in central Ukraine, who had a distinct national identity but belonged to Orthodox culture, did not want to see Russia as an “alien,” let alone “hostile,” country. In southeastern regions, populated mostly by Russian-speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians, and with the economy largely targeted towards Russia, resistance to the policy of Ukrainization was the greatest.

These differences manifested themselves in the results of presidential and parliamentary elections, which always showed a fragile balance between these two tendencies. The country divided into two camps, alternately winning and losing these elections.

Over time, however, this balance began to erode as the anti-Russian tendency prevailed in the Ukrainian education system. Unfortunately, Russia ignored this situation for a long time.

Of all the tools used to undermine this closeness, the anti-Russian interpretation of the Holodomor (the famine which struck Ukraine in 1932-1933, killing an estimated 3.5-7 million people) must be singled out. In Russia, where this issue has never been widely discussed, people have little idea of just how deep a scar that tragedy has left in the collective memory of Ukrainians, especially since it took place in a region that has some of the most fertile land in the world and had never experienced famine before.

Attempts to portray the Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people committed by the Soviet authorities (that is, Soviet Russia) began in the 1930s in Western Ukraine, then part of Poland, and in the Ukrainian diaspora in the U.S. and Canada, which, incidentally, was dominated by immigrants from Western Ukraine.

At the initiative of President Victor Yushchenko, the Verkhovna Rada passed a law in 2006 officially declaring the Holodomor as a policy of genocide against the Ukrainian people. Ukraine asked the UN and the Council of Europe to recognize the genocide. I had the opportunity to watch debates on this issue at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in 2010, which ultimately declined to do so. After debating the issue, Council of Europe experts concluded that the famine of 1932-1933 had struck not only Ukraine, but also several regions in Russia and Kazakhstan, and even some areas of Belarus. In fact, Kazakhstan was hit the hardest in terms of the number of people who died in the famine.

After Victor Yanukovich came to power in 2010, he said that the Holodomor was not an act of genocide and that it should be regarded as a common tragedy of Soviet peoples. Ukraine stopped making demarches in international organizations. Now speculations about the Holodomor have resumed with renewed vigor. The most surprising thing in this situation is the passivity of Russia, whose authorities only said that this problem should not be politicized. Russia could and should have proposed holding joint events with Ukraine and, possibly, with Kazakhstan and Belarus to perpetuate the memory of the victims of this tragedy. Such an attitude would help to weaken significantly, if not remove altogether, the anti-Russian rhetoric regarding this very sensitive issue.

Perhaps the neglect of Ukrainian society’s peculiarities and evolution after 1991 would not have led to such serious consequences if the Russian leadership had correctly estimated the acuteness of the social and political situation in Ukraine. The growth of corrupt and clan/mafia practices under Yanukovich in the interests of his family angered the majority of the oligarchs and a significant portion of Ukrainian society. Discontent was especially strong among the middle class, who believed that the ruling clan’s policy would lead to their impoverishment.

In this context Russia’s attempt to force Ukraine into the Customs Union against the will of many Ukrainians was the spark that caused the explosion. Ukrainian society viewed Russia’s political and financial support for Yanukovich, who quite reasonably but unexpectedly “suspended” the signing of an association agreement with the EU, as support for the corrupt regime and an attempt to rob Ukraine of its “European dream.” As might be expected, the reaction of young people to this turn of events was particularly strong. Militants from various nationalist organizations were the most active and organized force of the Maidan  Revolution, followed by high school and university students.

A long echo

After the coup d’état in Kiev, Russia, quite unexpectedly for itself, had to take certain steps to protect its interests by incorporating Crimea and supporting pro-Russian movements in Donbass. In this extraordinary situation, the Russian leadership failed to calculate the consequences of these steps. It obviously had not expected that the European Union would support the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the U.S., which, as French politician Jean-Pierre Chevenement wrote, “through a widely echoed ideological crusade […] is attempting both to isolate Russia and to tighten its control over the rest of Europe.” The EU’s common interests with the U.S., especially at a time of important negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement, the excessive ideologization of foreign policy, and the growing tendency in the West to “export democracy” outweighed the damage the anti-Russian sanctions were inflicting upon Europe.

Russia also neglected the factor of an ascending Germany, which is turning into the EU leader and has always had “historical interest” in Ukraine. Chevenement writes that there are now 1,500 German industrial enterprises in Ukraine, and just 80 French businesses.

The most alarming feature of the current confrontation is its lastingness. The protracted sanctions may have much deeper consequences than commonly believed. Since the vast majority of new technologies are still produced in the West, primarily in the U.S., in the long term this factor will increase the technological gap between Western countries and Russia, and ultimately affect Russia’s defense capabilities. Adding a military dimension to this confrontation in the worst-case scenario may result in a direct military conflict with the West. At best, despite Moscow’s assurances, we will have an arms race and a guns-instead-of-butter situation. In geopolitical terms, there is a real threat of Russia becoming dependent on China.

Russian positions in Ukrainian society have been undermined for a long time. According to various surveys, in 2013 about 88 percent of Ukrainians had a positive opinion of Russia; in 2015, that number dropped to 46-48 percent. The decrease in pro-Russian voters in Ukraine after the incorporation of Crimea and the actual separation of Donetsk, Lugansk, and some adjacent areas from Ukraine has upset the balance between pro- and anti-Russian sentiment among Ukrainians, and not in Russia’s favor.

In contrast, the U.S. has gained a lot politically from the Ukrainian crisis: a long-term wedge has been driven between Russia and Ukraine, and between Russia and Europe, which has long been a strategic objective of U.S. diplomacy in the region. The popularity of the U.S. in Ukraine has increased. This is all the more surprising because the U.S. must have had little idea of Ukraine as a country and of how fragile its statehood actually is. Yet it had for years promoted “Western values” in Ukrainian society, especially among young Ukrainians. During my business trips to Ukraine from Strasbourg, I often saw large groups of Ukrainian high school or university students leave for the U.S. or Canada for on-the-job training, accompanied by “guides” from Western NGOs. And, of course, the U.S., unlike Russia, had actively worked with the opposition. Therefore, during the Maidan Revolution the U.S. had no problem choosing protégés, who are now conducting a more anti-Russian policy than the West.

As noted above, a similar situation may develop in other post-Soviet countries with which Russia is building integration associations, in particular the Eurasian Economic Union. These are, above all, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. In all of these countries, Russia is making the same mistakes it made in Ukraine in that it maintains contact only with the ruling regimes and ignores the evolution of their societies and opposition. Meanwhile, with the exception of Belarus, hundreds of Western NGOs actively promote “Western values” and Western interests in these countries, paying particular attention to the youth (In the age of the Internet and open borders, however, these ideas reach into Belarus, as well). Western embassies patronize the opposition, and opposition leaders persecuted by the authorities are granted permanent residency in the West. It cannot be ruled out that in future some of them may come to power in their countries, with all the consequences for Russia’s interests.

Russia’s main problem in interacting with the societies of these countries is that the Russian social, economic, and political model is not as attractive as the Western, especially European, one. Moreover, this problem is aggravated by some specifics of Russian domestic policy. For example, in trying to restrict (often quite reasonably) the activities of foreign NGOs conducted in the interests of Western countries, the Russian authorities are doing it in such a way that actually blocks the development of Russian NGOs, thus denying Russia a very effective instrument of soft power (In developed countries, NGOs are an important factor of domestic life. In France, for example, the volume of social services provided by NGOs to the population is estimated at 5-7 percent of GDP).

Russia is not doing enough to attract young people from the Commonwealth of Independent States to come to Russia to study, conduct on-the-job training, or spend holidays. The millions of guest workers in Russia are viewed either from an economic standpoint or as a threat to public order, whereas they can and should be a factor in spreading Russian cultural influence. But to this end the government must change its attitude towards migrant workers and show, above all, respect for migrants and their rights. Russia should earmark more resources for educational and cultural programs and projects to support the Russian language in these countries. Such efforts should essentially become a priority task of Russia’s foreign policy.

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In general the entire policy of promoting Russia’s positions in the societies of these countries requires serious revision with a view to strengthening and coordinating efforts. But this efforts are unlikely to produce results unless they rely on a well-conceived strategy. And this brings us back to the problem identified at the beginning of this paper – Russia’s lack of strategic vision. Of course, eliminating this deficiency requires, first of all, improving the work of government agencies in this field. But that alone is not enough. An inherent objective tendency exists within the bureaucratic machine to address issues only when they arise, which means focusing on current problems. The machine simply has neither the time nor the resources left to forecast situations that may arise in the future as a result of unnoticed, yet deep, processes in the global economy, politics, and in the societies of various countries. This tendency is particularly strong in countries where the bureaucracy is the dominant force.

Developing interaction between government agencies and scientific institutions can weaken that trend. Naturally, establishing effective cooperation between foreign policy practice and science is a difficult task; not least because of the differences between scientists and practitioners in the way they work and even express their thoughts. I know this firsthand from my work at a scientific institution and as a diplomat. Speaking of the experience of other countries, an indicative example is the French Foreign Ministry, whose department in charge of science-based foreign policy forecasting was repeatedly reorganized due to its low effectiveness, although it was headed by scholars. Nevertheless, France has recognized the vital importance of cooperation between practice and science, especially in terms of developing a long-term foreign policy strategy. This approach is incompatible with a belittled role of science, as is the case in Russia now, not to mention the rejection by the authorities of alternative viewpoints, which is natural for the scientific community, but does not fit into the present foreign policy “mainstream.”

Returning to Russian policy towards Ukraine, I would like to emphasize that despite Russia’s defeat, it can still restore, at least partially, its positions in that country. Without cooperation with Russia, Ukraine will not be able to overcome its economic crisis. On the societal level, the cultural/historical factor still works in Russia’s favor. Despite fierce anti-Russian propaganda, more than half of the people in eastern Ukraine think positively of Russia. But in order to use those advantages, Russia needs to develop new approaches that take into account Ukrainian reality, including the expectations and illusions of Ukrainian society and the way society and the elites view Ukraine’s national interests.

The bloodshed in southeastern Ukraine must be stopped as soon as possible. Russia seems to believe that the incumbent Ukrainian government will lose power as a result of its inability to manage the disastrous social and economic situation, and that a new government will be more pragmatic. This may happen, but the Russian leadership should understand that the more Ukrainians have to endure the crucible of the so-called ATO (anti-terrorist operation), the fewer supporters Russia will have in Ukrainian society and the fewer chances to promote its influence in Ukraine.

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