Since gaining its independence in 1991, Ukraine has been stuck between the allure of the West and a Russia eager to maintain its sphere of influence in the former Soviet space, writes RFE/RL analyst Robert Coase:
Not only is authoritarian Russia unlikely to welcome an example of an overthrown kleptocracy in the post-Soviet space, Moscow also sees vital economic and security interests in Ukraine. Its Black Sea Fleet is based at Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea; much of its natural-gas flows to Europe still pass through Ukrainian pipelines; and Russia’s oligarchs have extensive and lucrative interests in the country, especially its eastern reaches.
“Russia, understanding that without Ukraine it would not be able to take its place in the wider arena of Europe and create a new, powerful structure that could counterbalance the United States and others (and this is Russia’s goal), made the strategic decision to keep Ukraine in its embrace,” Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first post-Soviet president, tells RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Kyiv Steven Pifer speaks in similar terms: “The Russian have very strong motivations. I think this is a big deal for Vladimir Putin. He wants to build a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. A big part of that would be the customs union. If Ukraine is moving towards the European Union, there’s a big hole in that sphere. And I think it’s also important for Vladimir Putin, for his domestic political constituency. Pulling Ukraine back is popular at home. Losing Ukraine would not be popular.”
Ukraine’s importance for Russia is more than merely one of Putin’s popularity ratings, says Andrew Wilson, a European Council on Foreign Relations analyst and author of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. “A real democracy in Ukraine is an existential threat to the entire system that Vladimir Putin has built since 2000,” he contends.
Putin has a coherent and strategic foreign policy, notes Jeffrey Gedmin, a senior fellow at Georgetown University and the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue:
Moscow failed in the 1990s to block NATO and EU accession for most of what once constituted Communist Europe (although Ukraine is still in play and leaning sharply eastward at the moment). Putin will settle now for the Finlandization of Eastern Europe. That’s Cold War-speak for how a large, powerful nation carefully erodes the sovereignty and independence of smaller states.
Part of the strategy, of course, is to use energy as a weapon. Russian energy giant Gazprom serves Kremlin foreign policy goals and can punish, or please, at any given moment. Putin employs trade, including import restrictions, to show pique and apply pressure, recently blocking milk from Lithuania and brandy and wine from Moldova. The Kremlin also knows how to work internal divisions. In Georgia, for example, this means aggravating relations between Abkhazia, Ossetia, and the central Georgian government. As a former KGB hand, Putin must adore every trick of the trade.
Estonia is a case in point of the vulnerability of Russia’s neighbors, Gedmin writes for the Weekly Standard:
Some might have thought that NATO and EU membership settles everything. Courtesy WikiLeaks, we know that at least some U.S. officials have considered Estonia paranoid about Russia. It seems instead that recent events in Ukraine and Russian policy toward this small Baltic nation well might concentrate our minds on Kremlin strategy toward Eastern Europe—and on the sad fact that we don’t seem to have one.
Western observers have long interpreted such moves as the outflow of a Russian grand strategy to reestablish a neo-Soviet empire. Those closer to the Kremlin have sought to debunk such imperial talk as nonsense, but they have been largely ignored. It was much more convenient to nurture old Cold War stereotypes than to see through the Kremlin’s scheme. In reality, Putin’s strong-arming of weak neighbors was and is symptomatic of a desperate fight for the survival of a rotten and hollowed-out political system.
Putin’s great strength lies in his tactical skill and ruthlessness. The West has long mistaken that for strategic depth and statesmanship. But Putin’s real power, as German journalist Clemens Wergin has noted, is relative: it depends on how much counterpower the West is willing to apply. With its economy, society, and military in decay, Russia’s strength does not have much of an original source of its own.
“The EU’s half-baked neighborhood policy contained enough ideas firepower to inspire Ukrainians to call Russia’s bluff. They put the West to shame,” Techau argues.
“No matter how much Europeans love the narcissistic tale of their own decline, liberal democracy remains an enduring attraction and a formidable foreign policy tool. Much that happens in Ukraine will now depend on the West’s ability to learn that all-important lesson from this astonishing episode.”
Is Putin at risk of recoming a Kerensky? analyst Paul Goble asks.
In the 10 years since, despite the ebb and flow of Ukraine’s political development, the difference between Russia and Ukraine has become only more pronounced, says analyst Masha Gessen.
“Even under Yanukovych, Ukraine was a country with a transitional form of government—not yet a solid democracy by any means, but already half a generation away from an authoritarian state,” she writes for Vanity Fair:
Russia’s authoritarian system, on the other hand, has become entrenched during the past decade. And now, in trying to ensure that he does not fall like Yanukovych, Putin will move his country closer still to a totalitarian state. This is terrible news for Russians who were projecting their hopes onto the Ukrainian opposition: not only does a victory in Ukraine not guarantee a victory for democracy in Russia, it actually promises a crackdown.
Why were Russian liberals so deluded? Many of them wouldn’t want to admit it, but in the quarter century since the breakup of the Soviet Union, they have not learned to think of Ukraine as a separate country. Kiev, is an ancient Russian city. It is an overnight train ride from Moscow—closer than 90 percent of Russia is to the Russian capital. Russian citizens haven’t needed visas or even foreign-travel passports to go to Ukraine—the way U.S. citizens can enter Canada with only a driver’s license. Every store clerk, waiter, and taxi driver in Kiev speaks Russian.
“In reality, though, Ukraine is not just a different country. It is a former colony yearning to be free of Moscow’s yoke,” she contends. “It is precisely this desire that united disparate political forces in opposition to Yanukovych, who incited protest by unilaterally and summarily caving in to the Kremlin.”