Ukraine’s Place in Russia’s World

This article was originally posted on Banitza.

For Ukraine, its relationship with Russia in recent months has seemed much like a Thomas Hardy novel where, no matter how hard you try, you cannot escape your roots. As Putin said in 2013, before Ukraine decided not to sign the EU Association Agreement, wherever Ukraine goes “we’ll still meet sometime and somewhere” because “we are one people”. Hence, as is argued in one Chatham House report in 2012, Russia wants to maintain influence over Ukraine, not just because it is a ‘foreign policy priority’, but also because it is an ‘existential imperative’.

Certainly, Ukraine has the largest number of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers outside of the Russian Federation, and this makes them vulnerable to Russia’s policy towards this group. However, the issue with Ukraine goes further. Putin claimed at last year’s Valdai conference both a strong cultural and political connection between Russia and Ukraine, professing not just a ‘love’ for the Ukrainian nation but also a strong sense of belonging, that it was part of ‘our greater Russian, or Russian-Ukrainian, world’.

Russia’s origin story is rooted in the idea that its ‘statehood has roots in the Dnieper’, meaning that Russia and Ukraine are inextricably linked, whether Ukraine consents to this connection or not. Medvedev also stressed such a primordial connection between Russia and Ukraine, writing in his 2009 letter to Victor Yushchenko that ‘since the dawn of time’, Russians and Ukrainians ‘have been and remain not only neighbours, but a brotherly people’.

Despite the claims by Putin in 2013 that Ukraine could not escape its connection with Russia, he did not indicate at that time a willingness to undermine Ukrainian statehood. At the Valdai Meeting, Putin repeatedseveral times that Ukraine is “an independent state, and we respect that”. He explained that Ukraine “must and can” be a “bridge between Russia and Europe”. What seems clear now is that Russia sees Ukraine as a bridge between Europe and itself only on its own terms, where Ukraine acts a proxy for Russia’s own interests, and that they respect Ukraine as an independent state only when it is governed by authorities deemed legitimate by Russia.

Ukraine too was the keystone in the Eurasian Union project. Back in 2013 Gleb Pavlovsky, a Russian political technologist, remarked that Russia needs Ukraine to be part of the Eurasian project because without it Putin would lose interest in creating the Union, rendering his project ‘impossible’. Putin needed Ukraine to play along in participating within the Eurasian Union to Europeanise the project. Without Ukraine, Russia’s plan would look much more like an “Asian project”.

Russia under Putin and Medvedev, have therefore shown an uneasiness towards Ukraine leaving the ‘Russian world’ (Russkiy Mir) and has sought to make this as difficult as possible. The pinnacle of this was Putin’s recent claim that Ukraine leaving USSR was “not quite legal”. If further evidence was needed, beyond the annexation of Crimea, that Putin does not respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, then questioning the basis on which that sovereignty was established is a pretty good insight. For Ukraine, who thought they had put these issues to bed back in 1997, Russia has shown Ukraine – try as they might, cannot escape Russia’s grasp.

Attention has now shifted to other parts of Russia’s near abroad where it might try to increase its leverage, in particular in Transnistria. However, Russia’s claim to the very roots of Ukraine, that they are part of the same ‘world’, is unique in the post-Soviet space. Certainly Russia’s actions in Crimea, have created a new precedent which Transnistria is trying to capitalise on. But Russia has made few threats concerning the basis on which Moldova departed from the Soviet Union and few claims that Moldova is, regardless of consent, part of the ‘Russian world’.  Russia might try to increase its leverage in Transnistria but more in a way that would indirectly affect Moldova, rather in terms of direct intervention in Moldova outside of Transnistria.

What is more concerning is how Russia might continue to behave towards Ukraine. In Crimea, Putin argued that Russia’s pre-emptive move allowed them to avoid conflict, but with rising unrest and violence in Donetsk and Kharkiv, there is a big question mark regarding how far Russia is willing to go and, in the meantime, how far Ukraine is able to govern these regions.