Vladimir Putin’s decision to send Russian troops to Ukraine is an attempt to demonstrate that the Ukrainian crisis cannot be solved without Russia. Following the popular coup in Kiev that (once again) brought to power an openly Western-oriented government in Ukraine, Putin has ruthlessly shown that the control of government buildings in the capital does not translate into the control of the country as a whole.
The prolonged unfinished transition that has repeatedly turned into acute crises in Ukraine has become a battleground for Russia and the West. On both sides, the events are universally seen through the lens of propaganda. While Russian state-run media portrays activists in Kiev as radicals and neo-Nazis, the Western press has presented them as freedom fighters. Both views are wrong.
Ukraine is a country of deep cultural and historical divisions, and only peace, stability and the prosperity that will ensue, can help overcome this. In turn, this can only be achieved if Ukraine reaches a compromise with both Russia, with which it has a deep cultural bond, and the West, which many Ukrainians associate with their hopes and aspirations.
Being a hostage of the Cold War mentality, the Western public sees almost all of its actions as being on the right side of history: the truth is that history has changed dramatically since 1991 and today it is not clear whether everything the West does is right. Still, many people in the US and in European capitals believe that the Western-oriented government in Kiev is good, while the Russia-leaning one is bad, which is equal to saying that Western Ukraine is good, while the Eastern part of the country is bad. A similar ideological attitude determines Russian perceptions, which sees Western Ukraine as a nest of violent nationalism.
Ukraine’s statehood remains incomplete, and like in most other nation-building processes there is a temptation to create common goals by fighting a common enemy. The difficulty is that these two variables (the domestic goals and the external enemy) are different in the Eastern and Western parts of the country. Therefore, Russia and the West should not focus on how to exploit these divisions, but on how to ensure the country’s unity.
Ukraine is essentially destitute today. The head of the interim government, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, declared that the state coffers are depleted. We often hear praise about how democratic Ukraine is superior to backward autocratic Russia. The truth is, however, that two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Ukraine and Russia had almost equal levels of income, Russians are now on average three times richer than Ukrainians.
The situation in Ukraine reminds us that politics largely reflect the forces of history and culture. Politicians can sometimes capture these forces but they can never alter them. What has been developing in Ukraine for centuries cannot be overrun with a few months of street protests.
From this perspective, Ukraine fits well with a group of other recent failures of violent democratization attempts in Egypt, Libya and Syria. The 2004 Rose revolution in Georgia, where the initial zeal quickly became prey to centrifugal forces of local historical and cultural inertia, is a good example too. After initial triumph, revolutions fail as leaders are unable to switch from the passions of street protests to the everyday business of running complex social systems and fulfilling high popular expectations.
After hosting the Olympic Games, Vladimir Putin seems to have concluded that his “marketing” efforts were futile and nothing will change Russia’s image in the West. It is clear today that it actually does not matter what Putin does, the interpretation in the world will be the same. Putin’s claim that Ukraine’s military bases are blocked by self-proclaimed heavily armed volunteers is false; yet, he is probably correct in believing that improving his image abroad is “mission impossible”. Thus, playing nice with the West is no longer a valuable asset, which creates a powerful incentive to do what he thinks is in his crude self-interest.
Certain key passages of the Ukrainian crisis confirm this view. According to several sources in Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Western leaders asked Putin to push now-ousted President Viktor Yanukovich to reach a compromise with the opposition. As a result, Yanukovich signed an agreement with opposition leaders on February 21, effectively giving up his power. Nevertheless, following the atrocious shooting of more than 90 people by unknown forces, according to Estonia’s Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, Yanukovich was ousted. For Putin this was in breach of agreements with his “European partners” and justified – at least in terms of Realpolitik – his own breach of international law.
It should probably come as no surprise that Putin sees human rights and the spread of Western-style democracy as simply a blanket that covers the ruthless interests of Western countries around the world.
At the same time, Putin’s great mistake may be that he does not attribute enough value to the aspirations of young people in Ukraine, who almost universally want transparency and the opportunity to develop closer ties with Europe. He does not see that Russia’s hardball actions push these people away from Russia and make it look repulsive.
If Ukraine wants to build a stable and successful state within its present borders, it will have to find a formula that will take into account the interests of both Russia and the West. Moreover, for Ukraine to become viable and prosperous, Russia and the West will have to find a common ground. The West must stop lambasting Russia, while Russia must drop its hostile nationalist rhetoric of a besieged fortress.
Ukraine is essentially a hostage of the relationship between Russia and the West. Yet, Kiev was historically not only “a mother of Russian cities,” but also the place where East and West met. It can only flourish if it becomes a symbol of a renewed ability to reach an ambitious geopolitical compromise.