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A Perspective on Relations Between Ukraine and Russia

A Perspective on Relations Between Ukraine and Russia

Paper delivered by Professor James Sherr in Warsaw, April 5, 2003 at the conference ‘Where is Ukraine Heading?’. Oxford, June 4, 2003 (Ó).

By James Sherr (*)

It is an honour for a British analyst to be asked to speak about this subject in Poland, because Poland is historically, emotionally and morally much closer to it than we are. In this part of Europe there is an intuitive and tangible understanding of this subject’s reality that Western Europeans simply lack. The few individuals in Western Europe who share Polish, Ukrainian or Russian sensibilities about developments in the former Soviet Union often find that they are working against the current of thinking and opinion. Because that is not true here, it is not only an honour to be speaking at this conference, it is also a pleasure.

I should preface this brief presentation in the way I preface all of them. Despite the fact that the Conflict Studies Research Centre is attached to the Ministry of Defence, we operate under a charter of academic independence. I therefore speak as what the Russians call a dissident v zakone (licensed dissident), and my views do not necessarily reflect those of the UK MOD or the British government.

  • I would like to confine myself to three basic points.

First, when it comes to the important issues of sentiment, human relations, economic relations, even political relations, Ukraine has no reason to choose between Russia and the West.

Even if Ukraine becomes part of the West and not simply close to it, its relations with Russia will and ought to remain special and unique. Ukraine’s geographical position, its history, its culture and the internal balance of the country require that it not be forced to choose between the Russia and the West.

This internal balance is complex, but very understandable, and stereotypes about the ‘east-west’ divide in Ukraine often miss the point. The fact is that the great majority of Ukrainians have an affinity with Russian culture but also have a culture of their own; they have a close affinity with Russian people, but do not consider themselves Russian. In no sense is this majority anti-Russian. Yet this same majority harbours an abiding distrust of rossiiyskoye gosudarstvo, the Russian state, and they have no wish to be part of it. For this reason, even most of those who want the Russian vector to become the primary vector of Ukraine’s policy don’t believe that it should become the only vector. Even the majority of key players in the movement ‘To Europe with Russia!’ become apprehensive whenever it appears that the West might lose interest in Ukraine. Even they believe that Ukraine’s interests require a Western presence and a Western counterpoise to Russia. Even they dread the prospect of Ukraine confronting Russian interests and Russian ambitions alone.

That is my first point, and I trust it is not controversial.

But my second point is that when it comes to integration, there is a choice.

This is because the political, economic, business, administrative and security cultures of the former Soviet Union and the West are still highly divergent and, to a certain degree, based upon divergent principles. If Ukraine does not escape from these institutional cultures of the post-Soviet world, it will not be able to integrate with Europe in any meaningful sense. It will not move past the stage of ‘integration by declaration’. Today the dominant interests and powers in this post-Soviet world are Russian.

For the sake of time, let us confine ourselves to business culture. The dominant business culture in Russia, and indeed Ukraine, is not based primarily upon markets but upon networks, svyazi. As in Soviet times, it is producer orientated rather than consumer orientated. It relies upon a convoluted and negotiable legal ‘order’, whose main practical effect is to stifle openness, transparency and competition – the staple constituents of Western business – and confine access and initiative to insiders with connections. Connections with security services, tax authorities and local officials are potent assets in this world, where success depends upon finansovaya-informatsionnaya bor’ba (financial-informational struggle) and where the norms of business are often little different from the norms of conspiracy. Like earlier modes of administration, modes of business remain inbred, collusive unaccountable and opaque. In sum, business in the former Soviet Union continues to reflect its totalitarian and undemocratic roots.

But post-Soviet business is not only opaque and unaccountable, it is also trans-national. Transnational (and Russian dominated) networks – in energy, banking, defence industry, security and intelligence – can give powerful reinforcement to local actors and undermine efforts to introduce transparent business practices, legal regulation and contract enforcement.

Many claim that President Putin understands that this business culture is an obstacle to Russia’s integration with Europe. There are signs that he does. But however critical Putin might be of this culture in Russia, he has relied upon it in his efforts to create ‘a good-neighbourly belt along the perimeter of Russia’s borders’. And this is a key point if we wish to understand how relations are evolving between Russia and Ukraine.

That leads to the third and major theme, Russian policy, and the third and major point.

Russia seeks to improve relations with Ukraine, but it does not seek to strengthen Ukraine’s samostoyatel’nost’ [Ukr: samostiynist’], its ‘ability to stand’. More precisely, it can be said that Russia seeks to improve relations with Ukraine by means of weakening its samostoyatel’nost’.

But before elaborating upon this point, let us put it into perspective. Russian policy is certainly not the only factor hampering Ukraine’s prospects of Euro-Atlantic integration. EU policy also hampers it. Even more, Ukraine hampers itself. I have no disagreement with the view expressed by Oleksandr Goncharenko that ‘the greatest security threat to Ukraine is Ukraine itself’. Therefore Russia should not be made the scapegoat for Ukraine’s shortcomings and failings. There are many reasons why Ukraine’s aspirations have not been realised, and Russian policy is only one of these. But it is one of these, and it is this that you have asked me to speak about. And even when we consider other factors, the Russian factor is unique, because, unlike the EU, Russia seeks to weaken Ukraine’s ‘ability to stand’ independently of Russia.

We also need to underscore the point that, today, there is a Russian policy. Yet outside the former Soviet Union and Central Europe, this is not well understood. One reason for this is that there is still a great deal of mnogogolosiye (multi-voicedness) in Russia. In the second term of Yeltsin’s presidency, mnogogolosiye reached such a level that it was not clear at all whether, in operational terms, the Russian Federation was truly a state or whether it had simply become an arena upon which powerful interests competed for wealth and power. The defining theme of Putin’s rise to power and his exercise of it has been the re-establishment of the state and its control over the instruments and levers of power. Paradoxically, he has had more success in accomplishing these aims in relation to the Russian Federation’s neighbours – Moldova and Georgia as well as Ukraine – than within the Russian Federation itself.

A second reason Russian policy is misunderstood is that this policy and President Putin’s cast of mind in general is explicitly and intensely ‘pragmatic’. The term ‘pragmatic’ has very favourable overtones in the West, where it connotes ‘reasonableness’. In Russia, the term connotes hard-headedness: an unsentimental, ‘cool’ and ‘tough’ attempt to reconcile ends and means. In Putin’s Russia, ‘pragmatism’ does not connote the gracious acceptance of the post-Soviet status quo, but the ‘firm promotion of national interests’. As Sergey Ivanov (then Secretary of the Russian National Security Council, now Minister of Defence) summarised Russia’s ‘Concepts of Foreign Policy’, its aim was to ensure that policy ‘better conforms with the general capabilities and resources of this country’. This formula, too, has favourable overtones in the West, because by comparison with the West, Russia’s ‘general capabilities’ are weak. But by comparison with most of its neighbours, they are strong. For this reason, the creation of a ‘belt of firm, good neighbourliness’ becomes a highly feasible pursuit. Two years before the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union and almost three years before the decision to establish a CIS Single Economic Zone (Edinoye ekonomicheskoye prostrantsvo), a leading Ukrainian expert expressed the worry that ‘firm good neighbourliness’ would be secured by:

making use of weakness in positions of the CIS countries to get their consent for further formalisation of the CIS structures and strengthening of the coercive component within that system.

A third reason Russian policy is misunderstood is that Russians do not want us to understand it. Either official and semi-official representatives claim that under President Putin, Russia has changed its policy from a ‘big brother, little brother’ approach to one that is more equal; or, more frequently, they do not mention the subject at all. After all, most Russians genuinely believe that Russia’s policy towards Ukraine and other CIS countries is Russia’s business, not Europe’s business, and they see no reason to discuss it in the West.

What can we therefore say about the aims of Russian policy? Is the aim ‘integration’? This is a problematic term within the circles that support Putin’s policy, because integration implies burdens as well as advantages for Russia. President Lukashenka, for example, is quite convinced that Putin’s aim is not integration. The aim is better defined by the term subordination. This surely comes closer to the official formula set out in the Concepts of Foreign Policy that there should be ‘conformity of…cooperation with CIS states to national security tasks of the country’. These are said to include:

‘joint efforts towards settling conflicts in CIS member states…particularly in combating international terrorism and extremism’;

‘serious emphasis on the development of economic cooperation, including…joint rational use of natural resources’;

to ‘uphold in every possible way the rights and interests of Russian citizens and fellow countrymen abroad’, to ‘popularise the Russian language’ and to ensure ‘preservation and augmentation of the joint cultural heritage in the CIS’.

By implication at least, the latter two aims assign a unique importance to Ukraine: first, as the principal transit corridor for Russian energy to Europe and as a formidable energy complex in its own right; second because of Ukraine’s unique position in Russia’s ‘cultural heritage’, not to say Russia’s identity. The question of identity – ‘St. Petersburg is the brain, Moscow the heart and Kyiv the mother of Russia’ – has always distinguished Russian attitudes to Ukraine from its attitudes to other neighbours. It has also given point to Vernadsky’s maxim that ‘Russian democracy ends where the question of Ukraine begins’.

What then can be said about the means of Russian policy? Today there are three: to exploit economic levers for political and geopolitical gain, to strengthen internal allies and to exploit splits between Ukraine and its Western partners.

The shift from an inconsistent and problematic policy to a coherent and focused one was sensed by Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council as early as December 1999, when Russia cut the supply of oil to Ukraine for the fifth time. Those given responsibility for resolving the dispute sensed immediately that the rules had changed, that they were no longer dealing with a problem, but a power. In early 2000, Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov (who became Prime Minister in June 2000) linked the dispute to geopolitical issues as well as economic ones. Despite Ukraine’s efforts, no progress was made until April 2000, when Putin stated his terms and Kuchma took the first steps to meet them. These terms included a readjustment in the respective weight of the eastern and western ‘vectors’ of Ukraine’s policy (dramatised in September 2000 by the dismissal of Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk and several other ‘unconstructive’ officials) and agreement on a substantially new framework governing energy, payments and the privatisation of Ukrainian enterprises (codified in the Moscow and Dnipropetrovsk accords of December 2000 and February 2001 respectively).

Where Russia’s Ukrainian allies are concerned, there is a blatant paradox. Putin is widely associated with efforts to break up monopolies, liberalise prices, strengthen contract enforcement, make the Russian economy more competitive, and, by these means, keep Russian capital inside Russia and attract Western capital. Yet by various means he has sought to strengthen those in Ukraine who are committed to very different objectives. He and his Ukrainian allies have also sought to block projects (e.g., the Odessa-Brody pipeline) that would enable Ukraine to diversify its partners and strengthen its energy independence. Characteristically, whilst 14 documents were signed in Dnipropetrovsk concerning energy privatisation, common industrial policy, shipbuilding and the aerospace complex, these have not been published, and even Yushchenko’s government was only allowed to see many of them in excerpted form. How do the proponents of an open economy, accountable government and European integration benefit from this policy? They don’t, and they are not meant to. As Oleksandr Sushko noted at the time, it merely maintains the linkage between Ukraine’s dependency on Russia, its isolation from Europe and the ‘dominance of authoritarian tendencies in the system of [Ukrainian] political power’.

Finally, the first serious fissure between President Kuchma and the West, the so-called Honhadze affair, enabled Putin to shift the primary means of influencing Ukraine from pressure to support. Between January-February 1994 (the months in which, respectively, the Ukraine-US-Russia Trilateral agreement was signed and Ukraine joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace) and May 1997 (the month in which the Russia-Ukraine ‘Big Treaty’ and Black Sea Fleet accords were concluded), NATO and the United States in particular were regarded in Kyiv as de facto guarantors of Ukraine’s sovereignty. From November 2000, the tape scandal (which has led not only to Western recriminations, but moves to expel Ukraine from the Council of Europe) enabled Russia to assume this role – a role which most Ukrainians and Westerners would have found implausible, if not unimaginable even a short time ago. So artful, adroit and gramotno has this shift been that the Russian newspaper Izvestiya implied – to be sure, with delicacy – that the principal beneficiary of the scandal, the Russian Federation, is likely to have been its author.

What conclusions should we draw about Russian policy towards Ukraine? The policy is well summarised by the proverbial Russian question: protiv kogo viy druzhite? – ‘against whom are you waging friendship’? Whilst many Russians ‘love’ Ukraine, they do not love its independence. Under Putin, love has given way to a hard and objective calculus of interests and a ‘pragmatic’ and opportunistic calculus of the means required to advance them. In Putin’s Russia as well as Yeltsin’s, friendship continues to be associated with ‘drawing closer’, not with the strengthening of Ukraine’s ‘ability to stand’.

  • What conclusions should be drawn by the West?

Today there is a serious imbalance between Russian and Western policy towards Ukraine, indeed several. Worrying as this is, it also stands to reason. Ukraine represents a vital interest for Russia, but with the possible exception of Poland, it is not a vital interest for most Western countries, though its future is vastly more important for the future of Europe than many of them realise. Still, Western policy is open to question in more ways than one. Russia has identified its friends in Ukraine, and it supports them politically, economically and by other less conventional means. The West supports its friends politically and rhetorically. American pressure played a definite role in President Kuchma’s decision to appoint Viktor Yushchenko Prime Minister in December 1999. But what did the West do to support Yushchenko in power? Beyond rhetoric, nothing of significance. The policies and ‘conditionalities’ of the EU and IMF stayed in place (which was certainly not the case when key players in the IMF decided it was essential for Yeltsin to be re-elected President of Russia in 1996)! In fact, several observers have noted that whereas the West was relatively forgiving when Valeriy Pustovoytenko was Prime Minister, once Yushchenko embarked upon real reforms, the West increased its demands. Hence, by the time Kuchma came under compelling internal (and Russian) pressure to dismiss Yushchenko, he had no compelling incentive to resist it. Far from being cynical, the West’s approach to Yushchenko merely revealed its underlying naivete about the nature of ‘reform’ in post-Soviet conditions. Nearly all Western entities have treated reform as a set of technical and administrative challenges rather than a political undertaking that can only advance by challenging relations of power. Those who accept this challenge risk nothing less than their careers, their livelihoods and in some cases their own safety. Very few will entertain such risks without the conviction that their efforts are valued, supported and joined by more powerful partners.

  • Finally, what conclusions need to be drawn by Ukraine?

Ukrainians who know better do not help themselves or their country by privately complaining about Russian pressure whilst publicly reciting the mantra that relations are improving. How is the West to understand the facts of the matter when Ukraine officially denies them? Georgia, with a fraction of the institutional resources and strengths of Ukraine, has been very outspoken when it has come under pressure for Russia. The result has been heightened Western vigilance and on occasion a sharp Western response. If Ukrainians seek a different Western response from the one they encounter at the moment, they will need to ponder Kipling’s question: ‘If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?’

(*) James Sherr is a Fellow of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, Camberley, which is part of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. He is also Lecturer in International Relations at Lincoln College, Oxford, a consultant to NATO on Ukraine, and a former Specialist Adviser to the House of Commons Defence Committee. He is the author of approximately 100 articles on Russia, Ukraine and European security. Within the past seven years, Mr. Sherr has made roughly 60 visits to Ukraine, both as a participant in defence diplomacy as well as in connection with exchanges and projects with Ukrainian NGO’s. He also travels regularly to the Russian Federation, has published in Izvestiya and Nezavisimaya Gazeta and has delivered papers at the first and second official NATO-Russia workshops in Moscow.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).