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[The Political Analysis of Postcommunism. Kyiv: Political Thought, 1995, pp. 333-347.]

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Ukrainian-Russian Relations and Western Policy

Section 6. Sherman W. GARNETT.

Future historians, looking back at the former Soviet Union in the late twentieth-century, may well conclude that the fate of Ukraine dominated the quest for stability in the region. They may even speak of the "Ukrainian question" as the organizing problem of the period. By this they could mean one of two things: either Ukraine succeeded in establishing its independence and helped to reorganize Eurasia on the basis of viable nation-states, not empire; or Ukraine will have become the sick young man of Europe, absorbing the attention and efforts of Russia and the other powers to the detriment of reform and regional stability.

For contemporary statesmen the meaning of the Ukrainian question is less clear. Those witnessing the beginning of the Ukrainian question cannot be faulted for not recognizing its significance and for not pursuing policies that make stability more likely. Let us consider both potential aspects of the Ukrainian question and its relationship to the future of Russia.

1. Power Combinations in The Former Soviet Union

The West is still unaccustomed to dealing with the territory of the former USSR as a region of international diplomacy. At least a partial reason for this reluctance lies in the West's reliance in a time of change on strategic continuities that would guide its policies, even as they delayed engagement with new realities. The two most important continu-/334/ ities are its continued support for reforms in Moscow and its focus on nuclear weapons, particularly the problem of a nuclear Ukraine.

It does not follow from this that these continuities were of little strategic importance or that Western policies reflected no understanding or change. Rather, one can assume only that the depth and breadth of the West's response to these two challenges had at least something to do with their familiarity. The West has been slower to see that this focus is unsustainable without addressing other potential sources of stability in the new "Eurasia." Chief among these sources is the appearance and viability of an independent Ukraine.

Ukrainian independence has two important and obvious geopolitical consequences. The first is as simple as the observation that strategically important territory and resources once under a single authority are now under two. This division of authority creates the possibility of new power combinations in the region. These power combinations might be more or less stable, but they do make less likely the reorganization of this region and its resources under an expansionist empire. In preventing the appearance of such an empire, Ukrainian independence is as important as Russian reform. The second observation is linked to the first: the contribution of Ukraine to the power of the Russian and Soviet empires means its independence affects not only the possibilities for organizing the region, but the possibilities for organizing Russia itself. Indeed, Ukraine could turn out to be the central external force shaping Russia.

2. The Problem of Empire

It is important at the outset to understand what the problem of empire is and what it is not. For most of the past eight hundred years, "Eurasia" had been shaped either by imperial expansion or imperial collapse. Periods of the latter, such as the division and disappearance of the Mongol Empire and its successors, the great "Time of Troubles" in the beginning of the seventeenth, or the collapse of the /335/ Russian Empire in our own, have given rise to new or even more totalitarian variations of the old. The only power at present capable over the next several decades of creating a Eurasian empire is Russia, and many in the West already see signs of an imperial strategy dominant in Moscow.

Three basic forces are at work in shaping Russian power in the region. The first is the intellectual horizon of Russia's leaders that is being drawn by the debate in Moscow over Russia's national interests. The second is Russia's actual involvement with the outside world, particularly with the new states on Russia's borders.

The debate in Moscow has steadily moved toward a more assertive definition of Russia's role in the world, particularly in its assertion of "special responsibility" for the territory of the former USSR. However, it is an error to see the debate in Moscow as already settled, with the imperial camp ascendant. The imperial habit of mind remains strong in Moscow, but the strongest foreign policy consensus in Moscow at present is that Russia should remain a great power. Not everyone believes such a power must be imperial, though this debate is being driven by domestic pressures toward a more assertive and imperial framework.

Beyond the debate itself, Russia's current troubles have radically affected its capabilities. Whatever the intentions of the leadership, these troubles limit its opinions and hinder any immediate implementation of a full blown imperial strategy in all but smallest and weakest states on Russia's border. Russia needs time to concentrate on what Yeltsin described earlier this year as "the grave illness of Russian statehood."24 That illness is marked as Yeltsin himself describes by a serious pathologies crime, economic hardship, regional disintegration, and ethnic tensions. One of its chief pathologies is the crisis in the military, which is struggling to increase cohesion and raise morale in the face of severe materiel shortages, a lack of training and equipment, and large-scale draft dodging. Imperial strategies require imperial armed forces, which at present do not exist. These pathologies compel Russia to seek a period of internal concentration reminiscent of Russian Foreign Minister Gor-/336/chakov's policy of recueillement after defeat in the Crimean War. This need for a breathing space creates incentives for moderation and deepens Moscow's understanding of its true capabilities, which do not always correspond to its rhetoric. It is within this breathing space that Russia's statesman and their foreign interlocutors must fashion incentives for post imperial patterns of behavior.

The pattern of Russia's involvement with its nearest neighbors, such as Ukraine, appears to undercut the analogy to Gorchakov's policy; for Russia, there is no real status quo ante into which it can retreat. The continued effect of Soviet integration in economics and security policy, plus the rise of new but weak states on its borders, compel Russia's interest in its new borderlands, sometimes even its intervention. Russia's engagement in this region will also be shaped by its confidence not only in its relative strength vis-a-vis these new states but in its absolute strength as well. The test will be whether that strength can establish stability while respecting the independence of its neighbors. The test will be made more difficult if, as a result of the West's own period of internal concentration, spheres of interest, if not influence, are created which drive Russia away from Europe and condemn Russia's neighbors to Neville Chamberlain's category of "far away countries of which we know nothing."

3. Russian Policy Toward Ukraine

Even more than its relations with the West, Russian power is evolving through its encounter with these border states. It is here that the problem of empire arises, particularly where old legacies are strongest and stakes highest in


Russia's relationship with Ukraine is complicated by differing historical and psychological experiences on both sides. The most profound conflict between them is often at the level of conflicting national psychologies: Russians tend to view Ukrainians as part of an Orthodox Slavic civilization created in large measure by the union of the three East Slavic nations under Russian leadership; Ukrainians harbor a /337/ strong sense of themselves as a separate nation, with Russia playing only the role of the Other. At a time when Russia must define its national identity, Ukrainian independence is still a shock and, for some, a betrayal.

Russian nationalist opinion in particular is still stung by Ukrainian independence, though it is divided between those who advocate a policy of pressure designed to impose strategic and cultural affinity of Russia and "Orthodox Ukraine-Rus'" and those who seek the "return" of areas of concentrated Russian-speaking settlement in Ukraine.25 The latter approach amounts to a grudging acceptance of an independent Ukraine, though within borders determined by Moscow.

The approach of Moscow's foreign policy establishment is culturally no friendlier toward Ukrainian independence. However, this establishment advocates policies that would create a relaxation of tensions between Kyiv and Moscow. Not long ago Andranik Migranian, a member of the Presidential Council, summed up this view, which he ascribed to a segment of Russian politicians and analysts opposed to strong-arm tactics and the exertion of pressure on Ukraine over Crimea. This view rests on the assumption that "Ukraine is a fragile, artificial, heterogeneous ethnopolitical formation lacking any real chance of the formation of its own statehood..."26 However, Migranian describes the policy implications of this view largely in terms of Russia taking a "wait and see" approach with Kyiv on most questions, including nuclear weapons. Though such an approach sees its origins in the weakness of the Ukrainian state, it also reflects a candid assessment of Russia's own condition as well. For Kyiv, what is most important is that it receive a breathing space, not the sympathy and good will of Russian politicians and analysts.

Russia's Ukraine policy is a combination of conciliation and pressures "to keep the Ukrainian problem within certain limits and to prevent it from getting out of control."27 Yeltsin and senior Russian officials have conspired with their Ukrainian counterparts in a regular pattern of resolving a host of complicated issues in principle, while letting /338/ their technical resolution lag or fall apart altogether. There are important exceptions. Russia has not surrendered what it sees as its vital interests in retaining the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea and other questions involving Ukraine's security orientation. It has also fought hard over issues where real financial gain was a stake, attempting to limit Ukraine's ability to claim its share of Soviet assets. At times, it appeared that the most difficult aspects of the negotiations over nuclear disarmament were precisely questions of financial compensation and the distribution of US technical and financial assistance.

Russia has attempted to exert economic pressure to shape Ukrainian policies, but it appears to have pursued this course half-heartedly. Russia has proposed to trade Ukrainian debt for controlling interest in important Ukrainian assets, such as the oil pipeline and refineries. It has regularly sought Ukrainian participation in various schemes that would bind it more closely to mechanisms of the Commonwealth of the Independent States. However, Russia has not made agreement to these mechanisms a genuine condition for economic cooperation or continued energy deliveries. In fact, Russia's approach to Ukraine's energy debt amounts to demands for Ukrainian acknowledgment of the debt and agreement to a repayment schedule yet a continuation of oil deliveries in the face of Ukraine's obvious inability to pay.

Russian strategy to date appears to be based on an understanding of Ukraine's weakness and Russia's inability to assume greater burdens than it already carries. The Russian government has focused instead on preserving its interests and influence over Ukraine, attempting to retain its political leverage while it addresses its own crisis. This current strategy does not mean that Russia has come to terms with Ukrainian independence or that it will surrender what it sees as its interests in Ukraine, only that Russia has not acted with regard to Ukraine in as reckless a manner as most outside observers have assumed. Russia's long range intentions will be clear only as Russia emerges from its crisis and regains its capabilities. It is crucial that in the next decade /339/ Russian, Ukrainian, and Western statesmen use the current breathing space to consolidate Russia's reforms, Ukraine's independence, and the elements within current environment that support a stable Russo-Ukrainian relationship.

4. Conflict or Cooperation

Though the pattern of relations described above seems an unlikely one to breed armed conflict, it is precisely the fear of Russo-Ukrainian war that has held the attention of the West. Evans and Novak provided one such scenario, in which Moscow inspires the Russian nationalist Crimean leadership to secession, thereby providing the pretext for Russian intervention and leaving the Ukrainian government the choice of capitulation or war. The columnists faulted the West for having no contingency plans for such an occurrence.28

For the next few years, however, the military crisis in Moscow precludes such an option. It is unlikely that despite having 1.5 million men under arms and more than hundred divisions worth of equipment, the Russian Army could field the multi-divisional force needed to attack or even pacify Ukraine. Even the most optimistic planner sees the rebuilding of the Russian armed forces as a task lasting well into the next decade. Ukrainian forces are in no better shape. This military situation radically reduces the risk of large scale Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

Western analysts would better spend their time in trying to understand and expand incentives for cooperation. On a host of issues, from cooperation in space (which the US should encourage) to conventional arms sales (which the US would dislike), Russia and Ukraine need each other. The glue of such cooperation is a basic stability in the Russo-Ukrainian relationship. This stability depends on Ukraine's confidence in its independence. It at present requires concerned effort from the US and the European Union to support Ukraine and create incentives for Russo-Ukrainian cooperation without a stable framework. Without such Western engagement, cooperation between a relatively /340/ strong Russia and an increasingly weak Ukraine will tend to erode Ukrainian stability and distort the relationship.

In providing support, the West distinguishes between steps that consolidate Ukrainian independence and those that encourage the geopolitical isolation of Moscow. The West must not create a cordon sanitaire between Russia and Europe. Such a policy would radically transform Russia's view of the emerging European security environment and its place in it. The West does not need another Versailles settlement, which founders as soon as a resentful power recovers enough strength to defy it.

Suspicions that the West is entertaining such a policy abound in Moscow, particularly in the nationalist camp. There is a strong tendency throughout the region to view the West's engagement as a zero-sum position, either supporting Moscow alone to the detriment of other states, or supporting those states to the detriment of Moscow. The political vocabulary of many Ukrainian politician suggests they see projects to create a "Eurasian Union" precisely in these stark terms, as a geopolitical state of nature in which presents a dilemma: either the West supports Russian domination or unites against it. Western statesmen must find a way of conducting a genuinely multipolar engagement in the former Soviet Union that links its recognition of Russian power in the region and support for its reform to abiding and steady support for the independence of Ukraine and other states of the region. The West must have a comprehensive well-balanced policy toward Russian, Ukrainian and nuclear


The West has important tools for pursuing such a policy, if only it will fashion it. The G7 should create a package of incentives to encourage Ukrainian economic reform. It should examine how its support program for Russia affects Russia's neighbors and begin to design programs that support region-wide stability and reform. It should sponsor mutually beneficial Russo-Ukrainian cooperation on specific projects, such as civilian space exploration and modernization of the energy sector, while discouraging the creation of broad multilateral economic and political mechanisms /341/ that work against the consolidation of national independence.

The US, Russia, and Ukraine have established a trilateral framework for addressing nuclear and other security questions. This framework provides the US the opportunity to resolve bilateral differences early, before they escalate to crisis. The US should use this framework to help mediate outstanding Russo-Ukrainian differences over the division and basing the Black Sea Fleet. It should exercise its influence to keep Crimea from becoming an international crisis, encouraging continued restraint from Moscow and continued negotiations between Kyiv and Simferopil. The European Union and its individual members also have interests and resources which can be brought to bear to ensure a more stable Ukraine.

5. The Sick Young Man of Europe

In the West, there is a pervasive sense of pessimism about Ukraine, even though it shares to a greater or lesser degree the same disintegrative forces common to all new states of the former USSR. Ukraine's economic troubles are serious. Its political divisions are real. But it is too early to sound to death knell for Ukraine. The explanation for western pessimism may be that, in the case of Ukraine, analysts tend to view these disintegrative forces and even the ordinary clash of interests common to all states through the lens of ethnicity. In this view, Ukraine is home to an intractable ethnic conflict, in which nearly 11,000,000 Russians in the East and the Ukrainian nationalists in the West are prepared to reenact Bosnia on an immense scale.

Ukraine is a divided nation, but the divisions are not simply ethnic nor are they reducible to two monolithic protagonists. Rather, the basic divisions are over power, as well as specific political and economic issues. At their core, they pit forces attracted to integrationist and state-dominated policies against national and reform-oriented forces. It is true that the first group is strongest in eastern Ukraine and among ethnic Russians. But it also includes multi-ethnic in-/342/dustrial, mining, and party interests that are maintained by socialist planning and subsidies. The second group's stronghold is in the West, the lands brought into the USSR only during the Second World War. Its main protagonists are ethnic Ukrainians but by no means is the independence of Ukraine an ethnic idea.

The actual patterns of interests and political forces in Ukraine are more complex. Between the East and West are the Center and South, regions that do not fall completely under either orientation, though their support of Leonid Kuchma in the July elections proved to be the difference.29 The forces for integration are divided as well. Communists and Socialists won the largest declared block of seats in the March elections. They share a preference for etatist economics and cooperation with Russia, but differ profoundly over the value of Ukrainian statehood. By and large the Socialists want to preserve it; many Communists are at best indifferent. Both parties share an uneasy working relationship with the political force of the factory managers. In subsequent rounds of parliamentary elections, Eastern Ukraine produced greater numbers of independents and supporters of economic reform. On the opposite side, the nationalists are split over whether the first priority is reform or measures to strengthen the Ukrainian state. A strong party of economic reform is still missing from the scene, though the new parliament contains a reform party with ties to Kuchma and his advisors.

In the center, the government attempts to rule by forging uneasy compromises and striking balances among Ukraine's diverse political forces. Kravchuk tried to lean toward the integrationists on economic issues and the nationalists on foreign and security policy, except in the nuclear area. With the parliamentary elections and the victory of Leonid Kuchma, this uneasy balance is shifting perceptibly toward the integrationist forces, particularly as economic conditions worsen. However, even a triumph of these forces would not relieve the new leadership of the obligation to maintain this balancing act. Such a government cannot govern Ukraine without the support of Western and Central /343/ Ukraine. And the economy simply does not permit more Kravchuk-style inaction.

The question is whether, in a time of political crisis, the political framework just described leads inevitably to collapse or whether analysts exaggerate the fragility of Ukrainian statehood. Though Ukraine faces serious challenges in the months ahead, there are also stabilizing factors at work, including apparently widespread popular support for the democratic process in Ukraine, the absence of a monolithic ethnic Russian political movement, and Russia's own lack of enthusiasm and capabilities for adventurism in Ukraine.

Despite economic hardship, this year's elections revealed a strong orientation toward the ballot box. Polls rather consistently showed throughout this period widespread disillusionment with Ukrainian leaders and their policies, but the Ukrainian electorate chose to address their disillusionment by voting, not through civil war. The Ukrainian political structure is stronger than many have realized. There is, of course, no comparison with Moscow, where many of the administrators, -diplomats, and politicians simply changed allegiance from the USSR to the Russian Federation. Ukraine's progress must be measured from near absolute zero. It had no real experience of statehood, and thus no administrative cadre to support the basic activities of a state. The Ukrainian SSR was dominated by Moscow and supported by a local nomenklatura of dubious quality. The real shock should not be Ukraine's failures to date in state-building, but that it has gotten so far and been so successful on such a shaky foundation.

The elections also brought home the fact that ethnic Russians in Ukraine are not a fifth column. The Russians in Ukraine are a large minority; however, only in Crimea are they a majority of the population, and nowhere do they present a solid political bloc.30 The high turnout in the Donbas for the March parliamentary elections demonstrated the region's strong orientation toward Kyiv.31 Only in Crimea did we see enthusiasm for local institutions and separatist politics at the expense of the center. Elections and polls have /344/ shown that ethnic Russians in Ukraine want Russian as a second state language. They want close ties with Russia and reject attempts to define Ukrainian statehood over and against Russia. But they also do not want to be just another impoverished province of Russia. Since the election of Kuchma whom the Crimean population overwhelmingly supported there has been a palpable relaxation of tensions between Simferopil and Kyiv, followed by increased tensions between the Crimean executive and legislative branches. The long term danger is that cleavages in economic interests overlap with ethnic Russian concentrations, particularly in Donbas, and that conflicting economic and political interests will over time bring an ethnic dimension to the current internal crisis.

Though at present the integrationist orientations could dominate the government in Kyiv, there are inherent limits to the ability of the integrationists (even more the secessionists) to deliver on their promises. There is in fact a coming crisis of the left as it confronts the responsibility of governing. Russia itself is in no condition to take on new economic challenges of the size and magnitude anticipated by Ukraine's integrationist politicians. The Donbas leadership knows perfectly well what the Crimean leadership is also discovering: they can do better playing the regional card in Kyiv than by joining the long line for subsidies in Moscow. Integrationist schemes to restore the old prosperity through the restoration of old economic ties must confront the fact that Russia's industries are themselves engaged in furious competition for scarce resources. The current debate over the size of the Russian defense budget illustrates that, even if the Defense Ministry obtains what it considers the minimum it needs to sustain the military, there will be little to spread around to Ukrainian industries not absolutely vital to Russian interests. The rosy notion that integrationist policies can reverse basic trends in eastern Ukraine is likely to founder on reality.

Those most pessimistic about Ukraine's chances point to Ukraine's dismal economy, as if nothing more need to be said. Analysts must, however, reflect on the great disparity /345/ between the monthly statistics which chronicle Ukraine's ruinous conditions and the rather normal appearance of everyday life in Ukraine itself. This economic free-fall has gone on longer than can be explained by hidden stockpiles. Our economic and political models do not appear to capture all the forces at work that continue to keep Ukraine afloat. These forces are of mixed origins. Some are part of the old system (subsidies, housing benefits and access to special goods). Some reflect old ways of dealing with hardship (barter, black market). And some reflect commercial activity (legal and quasi-legal) that we have been unable to capture. These observations do not suggest that Ukrainian economic policy is anything but in ruins; only that we do not fully understand the dynamics of postcommunist societies.

The foregoing is not meant to predict smooth sailing ahead for Ukraine in the next year. Ukraine is likely to be battered by conditions that will further limit the government's freedom of action. This crisis deepens at precisely a time when the Ukrainian regime is in need of a second founding, oriented toward creating the fundamental legal, political, and economic structures that will sustain independence. However, these conditions should not be seen as inevitably bringing about the disappearance of the Ukrainian state. There may be in Ukraine's diversity and the government's tolerant approach to citizenship and minority rights a source of strength as well, particularly at a time when extreme nationalists throughout Europe proclaim the unnaturalness of multi-ethnic states and the liberal institutions that support them.

6. Appanage, not Anschluss

Still, we must take the threat of Ukrainian disintegration seriously. This threat focuses the mind on the importance of a stable Ukraine. There are those in Moscow and in the West who believe that Ukraine's unraveling is both inevitable and cost free. One analyst has characterized this approach in the following terms: "All Russia has to do is to open its arms and in no time Ukraine can be integrated into /346/ Russia again."32 This "Anschluss scenario" avoids thinking through what is truly destabilizing about the disintegration of the central government in Kyiv.

More sober voices in Russia and elsewhere point to the costs and problems of managing Ukraine's collapse. An Anschluss would require a massive military operation to keep or restore order, something beyond the capabilities of the Russian military today. Even an operation focused on nuclear and other crucial sites would require a force beyond Russia's current capacity. Such a scenario also presupposes the support or at least the passivity of the local population, something that could not be counted on throughout Ukraine. For Russia, the main problem is that intervention in Ukraine under any scenario would require the assumption of economic responsibility for a nation the size of France, with an economy in collapse. Russia's own economic and political reforms could not bear up under such a burden. All this leads to the conclusion that "the disintegration of Ukraine does not bring any benefits at all to Russia."33 By the same token, this would also be highly undesirable for Western and East Central Europe from the standpoints both of geopolitics and that of political and economics stability.

No better illustration of the value of Ukrainian independence exists than thinking through its unraveling. However, the resolution of the Ukrainian question in favor of Kyiv's independence does not end history. It merely helps to consolidate the anti-imperialist organization of the former Soviet Union and Russia's own reform efforts. It creates a geopolitical theater of nation-states, with Russia remaining preeminent but no longer a state that Henry Kissinger described as "either too weak or too strong for the peace of Europe."34 These nation-states will be weak for some time to come, susceptible to disintegrative pressures within and conflicts without. This configuration of the region brings problems of its own with which the West must deal. To do so, the West must first understand them.

Statesmen at present must attempt to understand the new situation and to act on this imperfect understanding so as to make stability more likely. The main factor of this sta-/347/bility will be the consolidation of Russia and Ukraine as democratic states and the creation of stable relations between them.

Ultimately, western policy must exploit those elements within the current situation that support the overall objective of regional stability. The relative lack of violence in the aftermath of the collapse or the USSR testifies to those elements and to good fortune. This fortune may not endure. That is the nature of breathing space.

24. Ostankino Television, February 24, 1994.

25. Cf. Natalya Narochnitskaya, "Russia Neither East nor West," Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn', 1993, No. 9, pp. 44-45; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has championed the idea of a unified "Rus'," including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Kazakhstan. He has also proposed that, in the event of a separation, "only the local population [should] determine the fate of a particular locality" [Rebuilding Russia (New York, 1991), pp. 8-9, 18]. See also his exchange of letters on this topic with Vladimir Lukin (Literaturnaya gazeta, April 1, 1992).

26. Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 18, 1994.

27. See the report written by Sergey Karaganov on Russo-Ukrainian relations, leaked to Vechirniy Kyiv, June 18, 1992, p. 2.

28. See the column by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak in The Washington Post, June 9, 1994.

29. See Dominique Arel and Andrew Wilson, "The Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections," RFE-RL Research Report, 111:26, July 1, 1994, pp. 6-17 and "Ukraine under Kuchma: Back to 'Eurasia'," RFL-RL Research Report, III:32, August 19, 1994, pp. 1-12.

30. On Russians in Ukraine and the potential challenges they pose to Kyiv, see Ian Bremmer, "The Politics of Ethnicity: Russians in the New Ukraine," Europe-Asia Studies, 1994, No. 2 (46), pp. 261-283; and Roman Solchanyk, "The Politics of State Building in Post-Soviet Ukraine," /357/ Europe-Asia Studies, 1994, No. 1 (46), pp. 47-68.

31. Roman Szporluk, "Reflections on Ukraine After 1991: The Dilemmas of Nationhood," The Harriman Review, 7 (7-9) March-May 1994, pp. 1-10, especially 1-2.

32. Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 19, 1994.

33. Arkady Moshes, Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 19, 1994.

34. Henry Kissinger, "Russian and American Interests After the Cold War," in Rethinking Russia's National Interest, ed. Stephen Shestanovich, (Washington, 1994), p. 3.

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