Will the West ever understand Ukraine?
Anti-government protesters in 2014 in Kiev. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty   

Russia’s recent seizure of a couple of Ukrainian gunboats off Crimea was unexpected and probably illegal. While Ukrainian troops have been fighting Russian ‘volunteers’ in Eastern Ukraine for four years, this was the first direct military clash between the two states. Ukraine’s friends are wondering what they can do to stop things getting worse.

We rightly insist that Ukraine should be free to manage its domestic affairs without outside interference and to frame its foreign relationships and alliances as it sees fit. But to be effective, our policies need to be based on an understanding of the myths and realities of the brutal history which govern the tangled relationship of those two not so very distant European countries.

A thousand years ago, the Grand Duke of Kiev adopted Christianity. His descendants ran outlying bits of his Slav empire, including the upstart city of Moscow far to the north. But in 1240 Kiev was destroyed by the Mongols. The Ukrainian lands were bloodily disputed by Turks, Tartars, Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, Swedes, Cossacks and Germans. Catherine the Great took Crimea from the Turks and incorporated most of Ukraine into her empire. Her successors denied that the Ukrainians were a separate people, and banned their language.

Ukraine became briefly independent when the Russian empire fell apart in 1918. Two years later the Russians incorporated it into the Soviet Union. Ironically, it was they who gave it the national institutions – ministries, a parliament, a university, an Academy of Sciences – which would eventually provide a useful basis for the new Ukraine which emerged with the Soviet collapse in 1991.

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But millions of Ukrainians then died, first as a result of Stalin’s brutal policies, and later in the murderous fighting of the Second World War. Ukrainians fought against Germans, Russians, even Poles, in the hope of restoring their independence. Soviet brutality prevailed, of course: Ukraine remained in the Soviet Union. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev resumed a milder policy of Russification. He also made Ukraine a present of Crimea. That made geographical sense, but it did not please the Russians who lived there or their relatives back home.

Post-Soviet Ukraine had many advantages: an educated population, vibrant cities, good links with the outside world, a substantial industry and agriculture. Although it remained passionately divided over language, history and religion, a genuine multiethnic sense of Ukrainian nationhood seemed to be growing.

Alas, the Ukrainians were unlucky once again. Their new leaders were incompetent or worse. They failed to clean up the government or sort out the economy. Many Ukrainians looked to the West. Others wanted to retain links with their Russian neighbours. Those who believed that Ukraine should be on good terms with both were squeezed in the middle.

Rival Russian and Ukrainian historians spin the record in ways which outsiders find unconvincing. But all nations tell themselves oversimplified stories about who they are, where they come from, and where they hope to go. The historian Timothy Snyder calls such stories “metahistory” – not even wrong. But they are powerful motivators of people and politics. Leaders believe them too, even as they manipulate them for their own ends.

Even the most liberal-minded Russians believe what many Ukrainian nationalists dispute: that Russian history flowed in a direct line from medieval Kiev to the Russia of today. One commentator attacked the “ancient historical fiction” that Ukrainians “who are unknown to history” were a nationality separate from the Russians. He was not alone. Most Russians could not understand why such a non-country should be separated from the Russian heartland. Surely “Ukraine’s” so-called independence could not last?

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So relations between Russia and newly independent Ukraine were scratchy from the start. They argued about borders, the Russian naval base in Crimea, the dominance of the Russian language. They managed the disagreements adequately until 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea and sent his ‘volunteers’ to support Russian insurgents in East Ukraine. Most Russians supported him enthusiastically. The West wrongly assumed that was the product of government propaganda. It was not: it was the metahistory exercising its magic.

Many Russians believe that the West is out to get them. They genuinely believe that the Soviet Union was brought down by a combination of CIA intrigue, Gorbachev’s treachery, and Western-backed demonstrations in Moscow and Leningrad. They were deeply upset by American triumphalism at the end of the Cold War, by the humiliating condescension with which the West seemed to treat them in their weakness, by the enlargement of Nato to their very borders, by Nato’s bombing of their small Serbian ally.

They now believe that Western policy in Ukraine is deliberately intended to weaken their country: did not Zbigniew Brzezinski, the American scholar and statesman, once say: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” Many, perhaps most, of Putin’s voters are convinced that he has acted in Ukraine in pursuit of Russia’s national interest. We may think all this is paranoid fantasy. But these beliefs drive Russian actions, and they will not easily be dislodged.

The West had hoped to shore up Ukraine’s economy and its democracy by associating it with the European Union. Ukraine signed a modest cooperation agreement with the EU, and looked forward to full membership in a matter of years. But some EU member states already felt that the EU had already bitten off as much as it could chew with the addition of 10 new members in May 2004.

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So negotiations began for an “Association Agreement” short of membership, but bringing Ukraine closer to European standards policies, standards and political norms. A provision for Ukraine to move towards the EU on matters of security and defence stirred the Russians’ worst suspicions: they could perhaps live with Ukrainian membership of the EU; but Ukrainian involvement in the West’s defence arrangements was something else.

Egged on by the Americans, Ukraine was already involved in Nato’s schemes to groom countries for membership. But other Nato countries, notably France and Germany, even Britain, worried whether Ukrainian membership would be timely, feasible, or prudent.

They had a point. Great powers regularly betray smaller powers when circumstances change. Britain and France betrayed Czechoslovakia and Poland on the eve of the Second World War. At that war’s end, the British and Americans declined to use force to expel the Red Army from Eastern Europe. How much reason was there to believe that even the Americans would have the will or the resources to fight Russia over Ukraine in the 21st century? Was Nato’s ambiguous talk of membership not simply setting the Ukrainians up for betrayal?

The Russians were already working to keep Ukraine where they thought it belonged. In 2004, they intrigued to get their man Yanukovich elected to the Ukrainian presidency. He won, but demonstrators on the streets of Kiev, during the Orange Revolution, forced him to concede to his pro-European rival. By 2013, he had nevertheless had become president in a dubious poll. Demonstrators on Kiev’s central square, the Maidan, demanded that he sign the EU Association Agreement. Instead, he decamped for Russia. Moscow feared that all this was a trial run for renewed Western interference in Russian affairs. It was the magic of metahistory once again: not necessarily true, but a very powerful motivator.

When the Russians moved against Ukraine in 2014, the West imposed economic sanctions and deployed troops to Nato’s Eastern members, Poland and the Baltic States, who were potentially exposed to Russian pressure. The Russians and their supporters claimed that was provocative. But if Putin’s advisers didn’t warn him that this would be an inevitable reaction to his assault against Ukraine, they weren’t doing their job.

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The Americans and Europeans tried negotiation. The talks stalled. The Russians continued their military pressure on Ukraine. Their efforts were counterproductive: most Ukrainians had been happy that their country should join Europe, but less keen on joining Nato, preferring to avoid any military alignment. Now three quarters of them tell the pollsters that they would probably vote to join Nato.

On our side, some claimed that our actions were equally counterproductive. They accused the West of hypocrisy: don’t we too overthrow foreigners’ governments, interfere in their elections, bomb their civilians, and occasionally assassinate their citizens?

That is irrelevant. We have to deal with a Russia determined to reassert its position in the world, with hyperactive intelligence agencies and an arsenal of nuclear weapons to match the Americans. If the Russians threaten our friends, mess with our democracy, or kill people on our streets, we are bound to respond.

So we should continue to do the obvious things: refurbish Nato, and deploy troops to support our Eastern allies. We should go on giving financial and political support, military training and equipment to the Ukrainians; though we should insist that their government pull itself together, and use our assistance wisely.

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The Russians do have the geography and the military clout to influence Ukrainian decisions. But we have some cards too. Putin’s ratings are lower than before his Ukraine adventure began: as their real incomes decline, his public are losing their appetite for foreign adventure.

Our sanctions may not force him to shift. But they apply useful pressure on an economy that is underperforming; lifting them would send the wrong signal. But we need to talk to the Russians as well – quietly. Noisy denunciation may be emotionally satisfying: it doesn’t carry the business forward. The Russians need to know that we shall not abandon our support for the Ukrainians. Time is not necessarily on their side and we expect them to look for compromise. They should start by freeing the Ukrainian sailors they have captured and restoring peaceful navigation for Ukrainian vessels going about their legitimate business.

It is not a heroic policy. It will be difficult to maintain Western unity behind it for the necessary long haul. But the alternatives – unconvincing bluster or supine acquiescence – are worse.