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Analysis & Opinion
09.07.08 The Ukrainian Dead End
Comment by Georgy Bovt

These days, the “Ukrainian issue” is a must at practically every conference, seminar or round-table that brings together Russian political analysts, experts and politicians who are involved in developing the country’s foreign policy course. And there are just a few topics that are raised in connection to Ukraine. Essentially, the whole relationship between Russia and its Slavic neighbor consists of the following topics:

Ukraine and NATO

The threat of Ukraine joining NATO was realized and elevated to the rank of perhaps one of the main Russian foreign policy threats not immediately after such aspirations were designated by some Kiev politicians, but only after Kiev, with unambiguous support from Washington, raised the question of being accepted into the Alliance at the NATO summit in Bucharest in the spring of 2008. Until then, it seemed like Russia’s political elite refused to believe in the possibility of such a development. Having realized that this possibility is real, it took on a clearly hostile attitude to it.

At least a few actions have already followed to prove Moscow’s uncompromising position. A statement has been made that if Ukraine joins NATO, Russia might aim its missiles at it and might also introduce a visa regime for Ukrainian citizens. Moscow is aiming to reduce cooperation with Ukraine in the field of military industry, recalling its orders from Ukrainian defense industry plants. The issue of Ukraine’s membership in NATO has become a subject of discussion with leaders of Western countries. As of today, the Russian side sees no other development for this situation than opposing it.


The political situation around Sevastopol was aggravated in connection to Ukraine’s plans of joining NATO, which would mean getting rid of Russia’s fleet in Sevastopol after the expiration of the lease agreement for the military marine base in 2017. Harsh statements regarding the “historical affiliation of Sevastopol with Russia,” expressed in their most striking form by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, received indirect emotional support from Russia’s official authorities, in particular, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In order to keep its fleet in Sevastopol, Moscow suggested that Kiev could raise the rent for the base, but it has already received an unambiguous refusal: for the current Ukrainian authorities this is not a matter of something it is willing to sell for money. A significant, and very close-knit, part of the Ukrainian elite has already made the strategic decision about the necessity of a closer relationship with the West, and, thus, of the fullest possible integration into Europe’s military and political structures. In view of this, cooperation with Russia in not seen as an acceptable alternative to this part of the Ukrainian elite.

So far, no peaceful prospects can be seen for the resolution of the problem of Sevastopol’s “belonging” to Russia, as well as for the affiliation of Crimea as a whole. In any case, Russia’s political elite issues from the absolute inadmissibility of leaving Sevastopol and letting Crimea fall into the area of Western influence.

The Russian Language and Wider Problems of Humanitarian Interaction

More and more often Russia is faced with manifestations of deliberate “de-Russification” in Ukraine. The number of Russian schools is decreasing; the field of application of the Russian language is narrowing. Against this background, the ruling elite of Ukraine is purposefully and deliberately creating an integral ideological substantiation of the Ukrainian state system particularly as independent from Russia. Special attention is paid to matters of history: everything that had distinguished Ukraine from Russia is being emphasized. Ukrainian diplomacy has put a lot of effort into making Europe recognize the Ukrainian Golodomor of 1932-1933; however, it has not been able to convince others that this was a genocide aimed only against the Ukrainian people. When it comes to revising its own historical tradition, the Ukrainian elite is accurately following the example of Soviet Baltic republics, which had started the fight for affirming their own sovereignty in the late 1980s by expressing a new view of their own history.

The saddest part of the modern Russian-Ukrainian relations is that the constructive component in them is gradually decreasing. These relations are increasingly reigned by mutual mistrust and suspicion that grows into hostility, rivalry, unwillingness to act together even in the fields where such cooperation could have yielded mutual benefits. As of today, neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian political elite is willing to forgo its principles in any area. And I’m not even mentioning the “gas problem” (this topic is discussed below).

At the same time, at the mass, public level, the “confrontational” news image is already starting to show its influence: during the various surveys, more and more Russians name Ukraine if not one of Russia’s enemies, then definitely one of the countries that poses problems.

While all the above-listed circumstances remain, it seems inevitable that the bilateral relations will only keep worsening. Even a direct coercive collision of the two countries appears clearly in the perspective.

In this case, there are no simple answers to the question “What do we do then?” Too much has been ruined already. However, on the whole, Russia could look for ways to improve the situation not on the level of exclusive “elite interaction” and negotiations of the “eye for an eye” type, but based on a more widespread, mass interaction and communication between the Russian and the Ukrainian populations.

Russia’s main problem inside the CIS is that it tries to oppose a certain “Western model” without developing its own attractive civilizational model and presenting it to its neighbors. Not so much in the form of some commercial or political deals as in the form of an attractive way of life.

Russia should also create a whole system of educational, cultural and other programs aimed at rearing new political elites in the neighboring countries that would be loyal to Russia. Russia could offer a whole range of joint humanities and other programs to the neighboring countries and their populations (why not, for example, offer the Ukrainians to conduct a joint study of Golodomor history?). Russia should open itself to the citizens of these countries and, primarily, to Ukraine: in this respect, we see it as a huge mistake that after Timoshenko’s government came to power Russia terminated the practice of free (as in without registration) stays for Ukrainian citizens in Russia for up to 90 days (in its time, this rule was introduced with the goal of providing political support for Victor Yanukovitch’s government).

By continuing the confrontation, even if this is often done in reply to Kiev’s confrontational actions, Moscow not only dooms itself to “lose Ukraine” (in the usual, Soviet understanding of this term, this has already happened), but also creates the conditions for a military conflict with Kiev in the foreseeable future. Both countries are simply cornering each other.

By changing the paradigm of the relations and stressing the wide, as widely and popularly spread as possible, constructive interaction between the Russian and the Ukrainian societies, we could create a chance that the current problems, which only cause mutual irritation for the politicians because of their seeming “insolubility,” can be relatively easily “removed” at a qualitatively different, more confidential and trusting level of the relationship between the two countries.
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