Russia-Ukraine: Fraternity Test

KIEV, Ukraine -- On November 28, in a ceremony at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, Sergei Glaziev, a policy adviser to Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, was declared man of 2013 by the Russian Biographical Institute.

Sergei Glaziev

Mr Glaziev had “helped return Ukraine to a common economic area with Russia,” said the institute.

The Ukrainian-born and Russian-educated economist and politician was one of the main reasons why EU leaders were so crestfallen when they gathered in Vilnius on the same day.

They had intended to crown their summit by signing an agreement for Ukraine’s association with the EU.

But Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s president, aborted the deal just a week before.

It was Mr Glaziev who, in weeks of talks in Moscow, Kiev and Sochi, helped convince Mr Yanukovich’s government to shun the EU’s overtures.

The award to Mr Putin’s fixer shows just how important Ukraine is seen to be in Moscow.

“To them, Ukraine is a trophy in a fight that is somehow about everything – geopolitics, economic influence, patriotism, national identity, religion, and moral values,” says a European diplomat in Moscow.

In the run-up to the Vilnius summit, the Russian government argued that it would be forced to close its markets to Ukraine if Kiev struck a deal with Brussels because Ukrainian companies would be unable to compete in EU markets and would flood Russia with inferior products instead.

But Mr Putin has made it very clear that Ukraine means much more than that to Russia – and himself.

Asked during his annual marathon press conference on Thursday why Russia bailed Ukraine out and how much he was ready to pay to keep its southwestern neighbour out of the EU’s embrace for good, Mr Putin said the decision had been taken for political, economic and pragmatic reasons.

“Let me tell you absolutely seriously and without any irony that we often use the phrases ‘fraternal country’ or ‘fraternal nation’” for Ukraine, Mr Putin said, swinging in his royal blue swivel chair.

“If we really say that it is a fraternal nation and a fraternal country, then we should act the way close family members do and support the Ukrainian people in this difficult situation.”

Those words are much more than remnants of Soviet rhetoric.

According to surveys over the past decade by the Levada Centre, Russia’s most respected independent pollster, about 60 per cent of Russians do not consider Ukraine “abroad”.

Far more Russians consider territories in the Northern Caucasus, which Russia occupied in the 19th century, as foreign.

Such perceptions are rooted in history: in the minds of many Russians, Ukraine is not first and foremost a former fellow Soviet republic but the cradle of the Russian nation.

It was in Kiev that the first Russian state was established in the late ninth century and its rulers made Orthodox Christianity the defining cultural base for an empire that was fluid, fragmented and multi-ethnic from the beginning.

For centuries, control of Ukraine shaped Russia’s relations with Europe as it fought with Poland, Lithuania and later the Austro-Hungarian empire over parts of the territory.

Now, this history is gaining new weight as Russia struggles to define its national identity and defend its status as a global, or even regional, power.

Many Russian nationalists argue that Russia’s Slavs are a nation without a state.

Unlike many ethnic minorities such as the Muslim Tatars or the Buryats in Siberia, they say, the Slav majority does not have its own republic within the Russian Federation.

“In a sense, we have more in common with many people in Ukraine than with some people in Russia,” says Vladimir Tor, a nationalist politician.

Such sentiment towards Ukraine “shows again our own problem, that we have no sense of shared nationhood,” says Masha Lipman, a political expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, an arm of the US think-tank.

This domestic confusion mixes with a sense of external weakness.

Even though it stretches from the Baltic sea to the Pacific, Russia feels threatened and encircled.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, its military and economic clout has been waning in relation to the US, which continues to assert its superpower role.

NATO has expanded right up to its borders and a rapidly growing China is making inroads in Central Asia, once Moscow’s unrivalled sphere of influence.

Part of Mr Putin’s strategy to stem this decline is a customs union with other former Soviet republics which he envisions will eventually create a common economic sphere stretching from Europe to the Pacific.

However, so far only Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus are members.

Kyrgyzstan has said it will join, along with Armenia.

But without Ukraine, the concept is likely to remain weak.

“For Russia, having Ukraine as a customs union member would be very difficult – I’m not sure the Russian government would actually want them in there,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy expert in Moscow.

He argues that Ukraine, with its struggling economy and volatile politics, would threaten Russia’s control of the body because it was unlikely to be as obedient a member as Belarus and Kazakhstan.

“But if Russia can’t even manage to bring Ukraine on its side, who will believe that the customs union can eventually grow into the Eurasian economic space Putin aims for?”

In this sense, the EU’s efforts to draw Ukraine into its orbit have become a direct challenge to what Mr Putin understands as one of the pillars of Russia’s future and his own power.

The fact that Ukraine’s association deal was to be completed under a Lithuanian EU presidency, and that politicians from eastern bloc countries such as Poland and Lithuania were the driving forces behind it has made him more determined that they have to be stopped.

The moves by western politicians to declare solidarity with the Ukrainian protest movement did not help.

The Russian government was furious when politicians including Victoria Nuland, the US assisatnt secretary of state, and Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, made calls from Independence Square in Kiev to both Mr Yanukovich and Mr Putin to allow an EU deal.

To Mr Putin, such interference is a threat because some of the solid support he continues to enjoy at home is founded on the perception that he is doing a good job in defending Russia’s interests abroad.

In spite of growing discontent in the population about economic issues, his foreign policy is rarely criticised by ordinary people.

Ukraine has therefore driven Mr Putin to step up his campaign to position Russia as a bulwark of civilisation against a decadent west.

As part of this campaign, Moscow has passed anti-gay legislation that has strained relations with several western countries in recent months.

Although the Russian government is keen to defuse this stand-off ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Mr Putin made a point twice over the past 10 days, just as he was closing the deal that confirmed Ukraine was turning away from the EU.

Russia’s foreign policy, the president made clear, would be led by a will to defend its own conservative values.

“Today, many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures. Society is now required not only to recognise everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil,” he said.

The values he sought to preserve were some Russia had once shared with other Soviet republics, he said.

“A certain ideology dominated in the Soviet Union, and regardless of our feelings about it, it was based on some clear, in fact, quasi-religious, values.”

Despite this language and the overall sense of threat that has been driving Mr Putin in his handling of Ukraine issue, many observers believe that he lacks a strategy.

“He is a very impulsive decision maker, and I believe that in this case, the main directive was just to stop the EU deal,” says an academic and former government adviser.

“There is no consensus in Russia over what would be the best strategy to deal with Ukraine, and there will be lots more trouble in the years ahead because of their economic and financial problems.”

Independent observers have warned that Russia’s suggestions that it wants to stand together with Ukraine against Europe is risky because they have nothing to do with reality in Ukraine.

“[Russia] needs to confound the old – and false – dictum that it can only be great if Ukraine is safely embedded within it. In the 21st century world, this is particularly not true,” says Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

“The Russian Federation does not lack land, resources or even people. The issue is upgrading the quality of governance and the quality of the people, starting with the elites. Ukraine – take it or leave it – will not help.”

Source: ft