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Was Ukraine betrayed by its elites? Oligarchs sowed division well before Putin invaded

Is the EU to blame? (Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)


March 15, 2022   7 mins

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is only the most recent and violent violation of its sovereignty. The deeper roots of the crisis lie in Ukrainian elites’ failure to represent their whole nation and to uphold its sovereignty, aided and abetted by irresponsible Western powers.

Like many post-Soviet states, upon becoming independent in 1991, Ukraine faced a serious challenge of nation-building. Ukraine is a multinational, multireligious and multilingual country with little historical experience of independent statehood. Its major ethno-linguistic groups include Ukrainians in the west and Russians in the east. Many speak both languages and their histories and cultural practices are deeply intertwined.

An atavistic nationalism that bases political authority on supposed ancient traditions of ethnic-Ukrainians alone is neither consistent with reality, nor capable of uniting the whole Ukrainian people. The challenge of post-Soviet nation-building was, therefore, to craft a civic nationalism, based around a shared commitment to democratic self-government.

Sadly, Ukrainian elites failed in this task. Indeed, as Yuliya Yurchenko documents in her compelling but depressing book, Ukraine and the Empire of Capital, they were too busy plundering the remnants of the Soviet economy, with officials and their criminal-business networks transforming themselves into powerful, predatory oligarchs while the rest of their society fell into penury.

From 1990 to 2000, Ukraine’s GDP fell from $81.4bn to just $31.2bn. Hyperinflation, peaking at 10,155% in 1993, destroyed people’s living standards, creating long-term unemployment, especially among the young. The oligarchs had little to offer citizens, relying increasingly on fraud, corruption and intimidation to stay in power.

In this context, reformers — who took power after the 2004 “orange revolution” — looked to EU and Nato membership as a way to transform their society. This attempt to move “from Brezhnev to Brussels” occurred widely in post-communist Eastern Europe. In Ukraine, reformers hoped that EU rules would discipline or destroy the oligarchs and root out corruption by imposing free-market reforms.

But this was a very dangerous strategy. As Yurchenko observes, the EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) signed in 2008 would, if fully implemented, devastate small businesses and workers by exposing them to continental competition. Meanwhile, many oligarchs have found ways to exploit the opening of markets and limit measures that would damage their interests.

Other oligarchs resisted liberalisation by rallying the people of eastern Ukraine into thinking that pro-Western elites were not heeding their interests. Donetsk, where many oligarchic businesses are based, has deeper economic, linguistic and cultural ties to Russia, and people there have often complained of being neglected and sneered at by the West, despite constituting a substantial share of Ukraine’s GDP and population.

The oligarchs began harnessing this resentment, fostering a growing east/west split in Ukrainian politics. The “East” — led by Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions — retook national power following the 2010 presidential election. Yanukovych’s subsequent persecution of his opponents drew the ire of Washington and Brussels, but this only reinforced his preference for stronger ties with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), reflecting the economic needs of his eastern base.

This growing internationalisation of Ukraine’s domestic struggles was perilous, given the geopolitical context. Russia had stridently opposed Nato’s eastward expansion since the Nineties. Gorbachev had asked Washington to disband Nato in exchange for the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, while Yeltsin had asked for a new, inclusive security architecture that incorporated Russia into Europe, only to be rebuffed. The latter later warned the West that a Cold War was giving way to a cold peace, with Nato expansion entailing “nothing but humiliation for Russia”.

When the West proceeded anyway, Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, made it clear that Moscow saw Nato expansion as directed at Russia. In April 2008, a Nato summit welcomed Georgia and Ukraine’s aspiration to join the alliance. Putin invaded Georgia a few months later, rather than see it join this anti-Russian bloc. Many analysts, from the Cold Warrior George Kennan to the realist professor John Mearsheimer, predicted disaster if Nato continued to expand towards Russia’s borders.

The same, to a lesser extent, applied to EU expansion. Putin described the DCFTA as a “big threat” to Russia, as it would allow EU exports to enter tariff-free, via Ukraine, and “choke” the Russian economy. EU officials insisted their cooperation with Ukraine was merely technical, refusing to recognise the geopolitical implications.

The 2014 “Euromaidan” crisis saw the culmination of this toxic fracturing of the Ukrainian nation. In 2013, President Yanukovych rejected the DCFTA, opting for closer ties with the EEU. This prompted widespread protests, which were egged on by senior EU and American politicians, despite the growing involvement of far-Right nationalists. Eventually, amid escalating unrest and violence, Yanukovych fled to Russia. But while his opponents in western Ukraine celebrated, his eastern supporters perceived a “fascist” coup against their democratically-elected president. The Ukrainian state’s authority collapsed in the east, allowing opportunistic pro-Russian separatists to seize power in many areas, while Russia reacted by invading Crimea.

Instead of moving to reassure their fellow citizens and build an inclusive national project, Ukraine’s pro-Western faction instead doubled down. Under the new president, the oligarch Petro Poroshenko, the Government purged eastern politicians and officials from the state, sending many fleeing into exile, and banned Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, intensifying the crisis of representation in the east. It also launched military offensives against the separatists, triggering further Russian intervention, producing heavy casualties and a grinding stalemate.

Neither Poroshenko, nor his successor, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have implemented the Minsk accords agreed with Russia in 2014-15, which proposed to settle the conflict by granting autonomy to Donetsk and Luhansk. Instead, the new government loudly sought full membership of Nato and the EU — measures that could only undermine Ukraine’s national sovereignty. Yet the EU has not — and will not — actually admit Ukraine, as it is still reeling from the divisions induced by the last round of enlargement into post-communist Eastern Europe and does not want to take responsibility for a war-torn country. But it was happy to pretend otherwise, flattering Ukrainian elites while pushing neoliberal reforms on them.

The Poroshenko government enacted the EU DCFTA, rapidly introducing structural reforms to comply with EU rules. Facing rising debt amid economic decline, the Ukrainian state became economically dependent on the EU and IMF. Foreigners were brought in to run three ministries and IMF advisors were embedded with the central bank, entailing further losses of sovereignty. Austerity, neoliberalism and further privatisation benefited well-positioned oligarchs but did nothing to alleviate mounting poverty.

Far from reaching out to Ukraine’s ethnic Russians, Kyiv has actively promoted a narrowly Ukrainian, anti-Russian form of nationalism, reflected in language policy, “de-communisation”, and the secession of the Ukrainian Orthodox church from its Russian “mother” church. As Yurchenko observes, instead of reconsolidating Ukraine, these measures only “further divided the broken nation”.

This failure of Ukrainian politicians to represent the whole nation has led both sides to turn to foreigners to bolster their domestic position. The pro-Russian faction appears backwards and corrupt, offering little to inspire and unite the country, and ultimately relies on Russian intervention to prevent Ukraine slipping from its grasp. But nor can the pro-Western faction command the consent of the whole nation. It was prepared to overthrow a democratically-elected president to get its own way, and has persistently sought to lock in its preferences against internal opposition by sacrificing Ukrainian national sovereignty to supranational organisations.

Russia’s role in this disaster is obvious. It is hardly surprising that Ukrainian nationalism has taken a sharply anti-Russian turn given the annexation of Crimea, Russian support for separatist fighters, and Putin’s open contempt for Ukrainian independence and sovereignty — let alone the recent invasion.

But the West has also been reckless and irresponsible. Russia has made perfectly clear that it will not tolerate the expansion of the Western sphere of influence up to its borders. It wants at least a neutral buffer zone between itself and Nato, and ideally a friendly sphere of influence among its post-Soviet neighbours. We might wish this were not so, but it is a geopolitical fact. Russia’s willingness to use force to achieve its goals — at great reputational and economic cost — has been beyond doubt since 2008. To put this into perspective, we can imagine how the US might react if Canada sought to join a Russian-led military alliance — or merely recall Washington’s reaction when Cuba did so.

The West had two strategic options. Either it could acknowledge and accommodate Russian interests, or it could defy them, ushering Ukraine into Nato and deploying overwhelming military power to deter Russia from using force. Instead, it did neither. It allowed its Ukrainian allies falsely to believe that they could rely on the EU and Nato, yet did not nearly enough to deter Putin militarily. This has encouraged the Ukrainian government to prioritise integration with Russia’s enemies over rapprochement with its own citizens, while fanning Russian anxieties. Had Nato been clearer, Ukrainian elites might have come to their senses and pursued a less reckless course of action.

The only solution to this crisis, aside from war and devastation, is for Ukraine to become a neutral state, as Finland was during the Cold War. The sovereignty of the Ukrainian people — their capacity to work out their differences and collectively determine their life together in a peaceful and democratic manner — can only be enhanced if all sides renounce their external ties, and foreign powers cease meddling in Ukrainian politics.

To be truly sovereign, the Ukrainian state must be seen to represent the whole national population. The push towards Nato and EU membership — only intensified by Russia’s aggressive reaction — has fragmented the Ukrainian nation. It is hard to see how it can be reunited if this continues; bloody partition seems more likely.

Sovereignty does not imply total control over the state’s internal or external environment; it only entails self-rule, and this requires political realism. This was a source of some confusion in the Brexit debate. Many Thatcherite Eurosceptics foolishly believed that the UK could restore its sovereignty — its capacity to make laws and adopt policies inconsistent with EU rules — while retaining full access to the EU’s single market. The EU had no interest in agreeing such attractive terms; on the contrary, its interest lay in making Brexit as painful as possible.

Today, the Ukrainians clearly have no more “sovereign right” to join the EU or Nato than Brexit Britain had a “sovereign right” to full access to EU markets. Reflecting their own interests, these organisations will not admit Ukraine. This is the geopolitical reality that any truly sovereign Ukrainian government must reckon with.

Of course, Russia must withdraw from Ukraine. But the only way for the Ukrainian people to achieve national sovereignty is for all sides within Ukraine to cease internationalising their political conflict, and for foreign powers to cease their meddling. Neutrality offers the only context in which Ukraine can restore its territorial integrity and secure peace. It also provides the only context in which pro-Western forces will be forced to reckon with their pro-Russian counterparts, and find a more consensual way to exist.


Lee Jones is Professor of Political Economy and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London.

DrLeeJones

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Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
2 years ago

This is an excellent analysis.
If Rasmus Fogh is reading this, perhaps he might see that others writers on Unherd happen to share my views, and perhaps what I was saying is not quite so way out there on another planet as Rasmus seems to believe.
What is completely clear is that to resolve the current situation and avoid further devastation some application of realpolitik and understanding of the facts on the ground as they are and not as some might like them to be, might be advisable before we are all led by the armchair warmongers down a path to irreversible and a complete disaster.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Excellent analysis, yes. But then, unlike you he provides a lot of information and considerations that support his point and have been ignored in recent debate. Not sure his remedies can work, and he seems to have some of the same hidden biases as you, but his analysis is based on reality.

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

I replied to you yesterday along similar lines to this article as you seemed under informed about the history and politics, particularly around Euromaidan, but my reply still seems to be floating in and out of moderation for some reason.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

There are some very weird and unpredictable things happening with their moderation. Thanks for the reply, though, I shall keep looking for it.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

I can barely be bothered any more. Anything I write seems to have a 50/50 chance of disappearing.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

So I basically write in the comments section exactly the same thing as in this article, but according to you I live on a different planet and this article is based on reality. Do you not see the cognitive dissonance here? My own conclusion is that you’re not thinking critically about the situation, just as you weren’t about COVID, and that you fully accept, without questioning the “narrative” which in this case is largely driven by Ukrainian and western propaganda.

Last edited 2 years ago by Johann Strauss
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Comment deleted

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

The “facts on the ground” indicate Putin has a largely incompetent ground force. Given the present optempo, within a few weeks his army will have suffered more casualties than the Soviets did in the entire Afghan War. HIs only recourse now is terror bombing–a not very effective tactic vis a vis Britain in 1941, at least.
Sorry, “real politik” belongs to the days of pickelhaubes and cocked hats. The present involves a people’s war–against a dictator fighting for his very existence. Things are likely to get much worse before they get better.
In such a context, ideas about real politik are are not just unreal, but delusional.

Andy E
Andy E
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

Unlike you, I follow “facts on the ground” from sources on both sides. And in fact it is quite far from incompetence if you look at the Russian forces progress. The so-called cauldron of Donbass is closing as well as Mariupol operation near end — and it is probably going to be the end of any organaized resistance.
It is going relatively slowly exactly because they are not using usual American tactics : level everything to the ground (or just napalm it) and then enter with forces. Yes there is a terrible civilian casulties count and both sides lie terribly about it (“rus forces delib. kill civilians” vs. “ukr forces use civilians as a shield”)

Skip Simonds
Skip Simonds
2 years ago

I’m probably going to draw fire for this, but here goes anyway. There is one niggling little fact that seems to escape this author: a sovereign nation has been invaded by a neighbor, its citizens are being killed, its infrastructure is being systematically destroyed, and the goal is the colonization of said sovereign nation. Period. Fact.
So much of this article seems to me to be very, very close to blaming the victim. Or at least using the victim’s weaknesses as a sort of explanation as to why this happened. Missing, it seems to me, is a far simpler explanation (Occam’s Razor) that a single man, in the position of absolute authority, would like to reconstitute the nation he wishes he were the premier of: USSR.
Yes, Ukraine may be corrupt, poorly governed, mired in poverty, divided, controlled by elite oligarchs, yada, yada, and yada. None of that, however true it may be, justifies the armed invasion of a sovereign nation with the clear intent of annexation.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Skip Simonds

War is always justifiable to both sides. The very act of going to war means that one side feels extremely justified in their actions. And the other side feels justified in defending themselves.

Last edited 2 years ago by Warren T
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

That doesn’t mean both sides are correct though

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

No, it means that both sides are incorrect.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 years ago


..and one of them invaded the other?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

This is true. Hitler thought his world view provided ample justification for his aggression. But we don’t have to meekly accept the explanations of tyrannical dictatorships.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Skip Simonds

My takeaway from this wasn’t that the author is in agreement with the invasion
 the man is clearly intelligent and understands that most in his audience cannot move beyond the emotion of war as it is obviously horrific. This article is explaining why this situation has developed and that it is complex and nuanced.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago

I am sorry but author is trying to be nuanced only in justifying Russian aggression.
Russians constitute only 17% of Ukraine population.
Why should minority decide destiny of huge majority?
Moving beyond emotion of war?
No idea where you live but maybe you need bombs falling on your house to decide that what Russia does is naked, genocidal aggression with no justification.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Skip Simonds

Great post.
The whole article is so full of lies and contradictions, that it is difficult to decide where to start.
So lets start with author claim that Russia wants “friendly sphere of influence” in neighbouring countries.
How friendly we know from centuries of Russian aggression, occupation and genocide.
His comments about Ukraine Church leaving “Mother Russia Church” are just disgusting.
It is not 12th century, when some despot in another country decides your religious destiny.
He then spouts usual rubbish about “no expansion of NATO”.
There is no agreement about it and rightly so.
However there was Budapest agreement about territorial integrity of Ukraine.
List of author lies and obfuscations is endless.
How someone like him is professor in uk University is beyond me.
We clearly see from his example that total cleanse of uk teaching “profession” is necessary if West is to survive.
No freedom to enemies of freedom..

Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
2 years ago
Reply to  Skip Simonds

There is a difference between explain and justify. Just as in a girl wearing a short skirt, revealing top, high heels and loads of make-up, and being out alone and late does not justify rape but goes a long way to explaining it.

Andy E
Andy E
2 years ago

great point. I do understand why there is a war, but can’t justify it. Most people can’t do either escaping to simlicity of “because he’s mad” or “because they are evil”

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Thank you for this essay. A realistic assessment of how Ukraine and Russia ended up in this situation. Sadly, the conclusion that probably the only solution now possible is partition of Ukraine after much loss of life sounds about right.
Russia-Ukraine negotiations continue. Let’s hope both sides have received enough of a beating to make compromise seem attractive.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

So essentially Russia gets to decide the domestic and foreign policy of its neighbours? What a strange kind of sovereignty that is!
I find this appeasement of tyrants tiresome. To essentially claim there’s no such thing as Ukraine due to the differing ethnic groups Ukrainians belong to is an insult to all those currently fighting off Putins conscripts trying to turn their country into a colony.
There’s a reason almost every ex Soviet republic has looked to the west for protection, and that’s because Putin send in the heavy artillery and shells maternity wards whenever they make a decision he doesn’t agree with

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Careful, or you’ll start Mr Strauss up again. Remember, realpolitik is the word, not ‘appeasement’.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
2 years ago

Exactly so regarding realpolitik, but unfortunately few people seem to be able to navigate through the fog, and even fewer people are aware of the history of the region. Further, when they are then informed of history they just shout Russian disinformation, Putin stooge.,
Billy, in this conflict there are no good guys and bad guys, there are only bad guys. Ukraine is not lily white and an oasis of democracy with the big bad bear to its East. Ukraine is one of the most corrupt nations on earth and has never been democratic in the Western (US/UK) sense of the word, something that took well over 500 years to become truly established (from the signing of the Magna Carta in 2013 to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, even though less than half the population and only one gender were able to vote at the time!). If the Ukrainians were not Europeans and looked like us, and if this conflict didn’t involve the Russian bogeyman, I would bet you would not be particularly exercised by the current conflict.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

This is a bad faith comparison. Ukraine is becoming less corrupt and more democratic; there are regular elections with a real choice. Russia is going in precisely the opposite direction and has been now for nearly 20 years, so that it is now a full on dictatorship. Does Zelensky have his political opponents or journalists murdered, including in foreign cities?

I find it somewhat bizarre that you end up making a ‘woke’ point. We live on the European – if you like Eurasian – continent and Russia considers itself at war with us! If that doesn’t make the situation more pertinent to Britain than the situation in Africa, I don’t know what would. It has actually killed a British citizen by recklessly using a deadly toxin in Salisbury. Any case there might have been for a ‘reasonable’ Russia under its current leadership has been completely exploded by this full scale Hitlerite invasion.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

What has Zelensky done to warrant being called a bad guy? Or why would you label the thousands of Ukrainians desperately fighting to repel a foreign invasion of their homeland as bad guys?

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The whole of Central America has to take into consideration how Washington will react when choosing their policies – access to grant aid, sanctions, gun-running, backing of rebel forces, and invasion are all tools that have been used by the US to ensure compliance with US foreign policy. Even the UK has to take into consideration the ire of the French when setting its fishing policies, or the need to protect the EU customs union when setting its border policies.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

The big difference is that Britain hasn’t invaded either Ireland or France and killed thousands of people as a result of their disputes you mentioned

Kevin Carroll
Kevin Carroll
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

According to the Irish prime minister. Micheal Martin Back in 2016 in speech in Ireland’s parliament. He said he wants nothing to do with the backward idea of Sovereignty. Which members of my family fought and died for. So are the Ukrainians fighting for the EU so they can decide their domestic and foreign policy. Or for real sovereignty and neutrality. Just like Ireland once was.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Carroll

The Ukrainians seem to think they would have more freedom and sovereignty as members of the EU than as ‘associates’ of Putins Russia. In this I believe they are correct.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Carroll

Whilst I’m no fan of the EU and voted to leave it, you can’t compare it to the situation in Ukraine.
In my view the EU interferes far too much in a countries domestic politics and dies remove an element of a nations sovereignty, however the key difference is that it’s a voluntary union that it’s members are free to leave as the UK has proven. It’s completely different to having your countries policy’s dictated by your neighbour at gunpoint as Russia is trying to do

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I have asked you this before with no reply
. What would you do as the situation stands and given what you know now – if you have been reading some of the recent fine essays depicting the complexity of the situation in Ukraine.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

Ultimately it’s not my decision. If the Ukrainians decide they want to fight to preserve their democracy and be able to dictate their own domestic and foreign policy rather than being a subordinate of Moscow then the west should carry on in the manner they are of supplying weapons and applying economic pressure on Putin. If they decide they’re happy to jettison Crimea and the eastern regions that have effectively been annexed by Putin then again that decision should be respected. However if Putin decides to bring them into the dirt and force his will onto the population against their wishes then Russia should remain out in the cold.
I wouldn’t put foreign boots on the ground but I don’t see why the west should let a tyrant like Putin do as he pleases with no consequences either

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Very well put

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Carroll

I don’t really understand your question. The Ukrainians are fighting to be able to make their own decisions as a sovereign nation. What they choose to do with that power, be it join NATO, the EU or even Russia is entirely up to them

R S Foster
R S Foster
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

…by the logic displayed in this article, having decided to leave the EU – and as by far the larger power – the UK would be entitled to interfere in Ireland to impose co-operation on them in respect of cross-border trade…presumably by invading them if necessary..!
Mad…

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago

Frankly, some sort of partition where the big majority ethnic Russian parts unite with Russia and the rest remains as a stable, united, Western-aligned Ukraine seems far more sustainable.
If you leave any of these areas in the Ukraine, Putin or whoever comes next will exploit them to destabilise Ukraine (following AH’s late 1930s playbook).
I’d go further and get the Russians in “Transdnistria” (another fake and totally corrupt Russian “state”) resettled within Russia or on the Russian border. And ideally do something about the Kaliningrad exclave (effectively stolen by Russia in 1945).
Population movements like these are a last resort. But this was done on a huge scale after WWII (Poland and Ukraine both shifted a long way west, the Benes Decrees expelled Germans from Czechoslovakia, East Prussia disappeared).
There is no way Ukraine will accept being neutral now. Dream on.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

Great post.
If Russia proposed some discussion about referendums in Russian majority areas before invading and it was rejected out of hand I would had some, albeit small, sympathy with Russia view.
Problem with resettlement is that Russia doesn’t want it and probably most of Russians in other countries do not want either.
I spoke to few Russians in London.
They turned out to be citizens of Baltic States with freedom of movement and work in EU.
Do you imagine them wanting to be part of vodka fuelled frozen wastelands of Russia.
It doesn’t mean Putin will not try to use them to destabilize Baltic States.
Russia is huge and depopulating.
So lets test Putin and offer all the poor downtrodden Russian resettlement grants.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew F
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

Very enlightening, and refreshingly clear analysis of what has happened. Not sure his proposals for alternative scenarios hold water though. Ukraine should have made a new nation that united all Ukrainians, regardless of language or allegiance to Russia? They should, of course, But realistically, how were they to build a Ukrainian nation without pushing the Ukrainian language or a Ukrainian version of history, and while maintaining soviet monuments and submitting their church to the Moscow Patriarchate? All in the face of a large minority whose primary allegiance was to Russia, and a strong and meddlesome neighbour who wanted to control them and did not think they had a right to exist in the first place? How realistic is it that Russia – well helped by pro-Russian Ukrainians – would ever have stopped meddling, or indeed have accepted less than full control? Finland was very much under the USSR thumb – and they were not seen as ‘really Russians’ or a crucial part of Russia’s imperial mythology. Nor did they have a Russian-speaking minority.

If he is right, maybe we should see this as yet another post-imperial inter-population scuffle, like the Habsburgs or Ottomans. There have been many, when peoples once united under a despotic empire had to form new nation states, and national feeling could not be made to match the geographical and political borders. If so, maybe partition and population exchange really is unavoidable.

It is notable that the author is very exercised about the pro-western Ukrainians “lock[ing] in its preferences against internal opposition by sacrificing Ukrainian national sovereignty to supranational organisations“, but does not even mention that renouncing ties with the EU and building them with Russia would equally (and much more strongly) lock in the preferences of the pro-Russian faction and sacrifice Ukrainian national sovereignity to Moscow. The final question remains: How much subjugation to Moscow does the author think that Ukraine must accept, in the name of great-power politics. And what does he propose if the Ukrainians are unwilling to accept it?

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Read some of the pre-2013 history. Ukrainian politics has a strong influence of oligarchs and money men both overtly and behind the scenes – control of gas, pipelines, metallurgy industry where personal interests and local fiefdoms take priorities ahead of what we might see as western-style politics of principles. Yanukovych’s choice of Russia over EU was at least in part because Russia was offering more money (€610m from the EU versus $15bn from the Russians). Personal interests also spilled over into Ukrainian business interests in Washington, as well as Russia. Rich and powerful people who were used to buying the politics, politicians and justice that they wanted.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

I do not doubt that you are right – you know more than I do anyway. But is it not still the case that “renouncing ties with the EU and building them with Russia would […] lock in the preferences of the pro-Russian faction and sacrifice Ukrainian national sovereignty to Moscow“?

Last edited 2 years ago by Rasmus Fogh
Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

It’s a poor question, unless you can also believe the converse – that Euromaidan “locked in the preferences of the pro-US faction and sacrificed Ukrainian national sovereignty to Washington” – same equivalence (and before you say the US wouldn’t take advantage like that, remember VP Biden threatening post-Maidan Ukraine to make them change their chief prosecutor).
If Ukraine had gone through with the Russian deal it would probably have been sovereign like other CIS states, but in the Russian sphere of influence, rather than sovereign but in the US sphere. Given the history it would also probably have drifted towards dictatorship and liable to strongman politics like Belarus or Kazakhstan, but still sovereign.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

I can believe the converse. From the Ukrainian point of view I would say the two choices were fairly symmetrical – you choose a side. It is the article that only mentions the loss of sovereignty on one side.

You seem to be saying that choosing the Russian side would have led Ukraine to become like Belarus – run by a dictator in hock to the Kremlin, and playing host to the Russian army as required. I would call that a puppet state, even if it is technically sovereign (like East Germany was). I would also argue that choosing the US/EU side would give rather more real freedom of movement, i.e. sovereignty, as well as the chance of a nicer political system. More to the point, the Ukrainian majority seem to think so.

So, are you saying that the choice for Ukraine was between becoming like Belarus and being invaded? And that the west should have promoted the Belarus option, because nothing better was available? Or did you see another choice for Ukraine?

Last edited 2 years ago by Rasmus Fogh
Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

The “So, are you are saying…?” ploy.
How Ukraine would have turned out had the pro-Russia deal survived is an empty hypothetical. Putin wouldn’t have invaded Crimea, and so the West would still believe they could work with him. If you read articles from before and after Feb 2014 you can see how vilified Putin became post-Crimea, compared to earlier pragmatism – western analysts didn’t believe he would invade until it happened. So no Euromaidan, no Crimea and complete different view of, and relationship with, Russia and states within the Russia orbit.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

No ploy intended, I was just trying to nail down where we disagreed.

How Ukraine would have turned out may be hypothetical, but it is not empty. If we are arguing that we ought to have accommodated Russia’s security interests earlier, and that includes having Ukraine make its deal with Russia, surely it is only fair to consider what would likely have happened in that case. After a minimum of required reading (Wikipedia), I’ll admit that the Maidan seems both murkier and more violent than it showed on Netflix. I am not normally in favour of revolutionary street demonstrations. But for all that I am sure both the US, Russia, and various oligarchs did what pushing they could, surely we must admit that this was an Ukrainian decision. Also that it took a remarkable support from civil society to achieve that result. Even as legitimate president with the army, police, and a large fraction of the country behind him, Yanukovich was not able to carry the country with him to make that deal with Russia, in the face of a (mainly?) unarmed protest.

As for Putin, the west believed they could work with him because they thought he was willing to stay within the normal collaborative rules. Once he proved that he would go to war to gain territory, that was gone. But I see no reason to believe that he would not have shown his true colours at some point even if he had been accommodated at the beginning.

Last edited 2 years ago by Rasmus Fogh
Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

You’re only just reading about this stuff on Wikipedia, and yet you believe you know what Putin’s ‘true colours’ and motivations are…

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

We are none of us foreign ministers here. I claim no particular expertise, so judge me on my words. I would say that judging from Russias actions in Chechenya, Belarus, Crimea, Luhansk, and Ukraine, not to mention what Putin is actually saying himself, it seems highly probable that he would demand very close control over his neighbours ni any case, and would use violence if necessary to achieve it. But if you have a different or more precise idea, I am happy to learn from you (I already have, a bit). In fact, I keep asking what people think would be a realistic alternative to the current mess – without hearing much in the way of precise answers so far.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

Russia offered cut price gas.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Yes, because Russia has nothing else to offer to civilized people.
Apart from other exports like violence, dictatorship, misery and poverty.

Andy E
Andy E
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew F

You probably still think there are bears on the streets, and everybody is playing balalayka and drinking vodka. Stay with that delusion! Only problem is that you pay for it every time you’re on a gas station (1.95 in Beglum vs 0.39 in Moscow).

Zoë Colvin
Zoë Colvin
2 years ago

A war unleashed without provocation, in which civilian populations are targeted, is not due to betrayal by anyone other than the tyrant who gave the orders to attack. Trying to rationalise such savagery legitimises Putin’s illegitimate, monstrous acts.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

Well, I support the West and would infinitely prefer to live in it rather than the alternative autocracies and totalitarians. I tend to side with people seeking free societies, rather than our adversaries. The writer seems to swallow Russian propaganda hook line and sinker. Putin does not accept Ukraine’s right to exist, that is the fundamental issue here. He has stated this clearly in terms, a rather crucial point that the writer (deliberately?) overlooks.

Could anyone believe that a free sovereign nation should not be permitted to join a supranational trading body, such as the EU in any conceivable ‘rules-based order’? Or perhaps prohibited from leaving the Russian sponsored autocratic alternative, the EEU? It would be similar to the US being able to veto Brexit; most US administrations would much rather have Britain in it than outside.

And of course it goes well beyond that: Russia has launched attacks on Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and now a full scale invasion. NATO attacks on Russia – precisely zero. I have yet to hear any explanation as to why this in any meaningful sense differs from Hitler’s expansionism 80 years ago. He, as we may recall, also had a bucketful of paranoid justifications, decided all German speakers should be, whether they liked it or not, united with the Reich, and that Germany had an absolute right to expand at the cost of its neighbours, whatever treaties it had previously signed up to.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Yes, I asked the same question on this and other forums and no answer.
Why are we surprised?
There is no difference between what Putin wants and what Hitler wanted in Czechoslovakia.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago

What is completely missed by most observers is that Maidan was largely a product of events inside Russia in 2012.
Putin’s re-election after Medvedev meant that the former was never going to step down. It was obvious to everyone that Russia was ceasing to be a democratic state. Indeed it is now essentially a totalitarian state where even the slightest opposition is ruthlessly suppressed. That is no accident, nor the fault of the West. It is the logical result in any authoritarian regime when it encounters opposition.
“Cloud-castle” ideas about “real politik” simply miss the point that emperors and kings no longer run Europe. Certainly, larger nations can influence their smaller neighbors.
But taking them over is another matter–as the relationship between the US and Cuba illustrates very eloquently.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

Could anyone believe that a free sovereign nation should not be permitted to join a supranational trading body, such as the EU? Or perhaps to be prohibited from leaving the Russian sponsored autocratic alternative, the EEU? It would be similar to the US being able to veto Brexit, as most US administrations would much rather have Britain in it than outside.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

If I’m not mistaken the US tried that with Brexit. Recall when Obama said, I believe on a trip to the UK just before the actual Brexit vote, that the UK would be placed at the back of the queue in terms of negotiating any trade agreement with the US. If that does not represent the US not trying to influence the internal politics of a sovereign state with strong arm tactics, what is?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

I remember that well.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Come off it. ‘Influence’, yes, but ‘strong arm tactics’??

Russias reaction to the EU-Ukraine association agreement was a devastating trade blockade (the kind of thing that Johan Strauss might call ‘economic carpet bombing’?), which caused Yanukovich to refuse the EU deal and go for a Russia deal instead. When Euromaidan forced him to give up on that and rebuffed the Russia deal, Russia reacted by conquering first the Crimea, then the Donbas, and now launching a full-scale war.

This may be a difference of degree, but I see a world of difference between dragging your feet on a new trade deal and launching a full-scale military invasion. What happened to the Johan Strauss who believed in realpoitik and wanted us to respect Russias ‘security interests’ at the expense of Ukraine?

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Oh, it is you again with your pro Russia lies.
Yes, Obama expressed an opinion, which was wrong.
However, USA did not invade to enforce that opinion.
If you don’t see difference between that and Russia invasion of Ukraine you are Russian stooge.
But we know that already, do not we?

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
2 years ago

This is one of those ‘sensible’ articles that looks like serious analysis, yet fails to grasp what is driving Russian actions and the palpable shift in internal Ukrainian politics post-2014 (i.e. the collapse of the “pro-Russian” vote). I cannot take any analysis seriously that acts as if Maidan was driven by EU/US external meddling rather than the death of so many protestors & the imprisonment of opposition figures.
Most of the Ukrainian nationalists I know are actually Russian speakers, and anyone portraying this as Ukrainian speakers oppressing Russian speakers needs to explain why solidly Russian speaking Kharkiv greeted Russian troops not by throwing flowers at them but with NLAW ambushes.

George Kushner
George Kushner
2 years ago

Outstanding analysis. And unfortunately, yes, the only way out is to concede to the major Putin’s demands as to neutrality and territorial losses in order to keep Ukraine’s sovereignty. Can they trust Putin’s guarantees? No, but what’s the alternative?

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
2 years ago

I will wait for Zelenskyy to declare Finnish an official language of Ukraine.

Brooke Walford
Brooke Walford
2 years ago

This sounds right. Post Soviet detente wrecked by Western hubris, seasoned with oligarchic greed and ethnic diversity leveraged by geopolitical realpolitik.