What exactly is going on in Russian – Ukrainian politics? Nobody can give a precise answer nor can they explain what really provoked the strongly-worded statement of Russian president Dmitry Medvedev on August 11th, in which he denounced the Ukrainian president for his anti-Russian policy and announced that the new Russian envoy to Ukraine would remain in Moscow for the time being.
There is only one other country within the whole post-Soviet space, where Russia does not currently have an envoy, Georgia. The two countries broke the diplomatic relations after the five-day war last year.
Ukraine and Russia do still have diplomatic relations, but these are in their worst state since collapse of the USSR. If asked if war could possibly break out between Russia and Ukraine in the foreseeable future, I would not rule it out. I would claim that the two countries are much closer to the war today than they ever have been during the post-Soviet period; they are certainly a long way from a peaceful coexistence based on mutual respect and political equality.
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In his message to his Ukrainian counterpart, President Medvedev accused the leader of imposing NATO membership upon a reluctant Ukrainian population. Other issues irritating both parties are their contradictory attitudes towards their common Imperial and Soviet past, notably the Stalinist period and the 1930s famine in Ukraine; Kiev officially positions the latter as genocide specifically targeted at Ukrainians. Friction is also caused by “the repression of the use of the Russian language” and attempts by Ukrainian leaders to eliminate its widespread use in the country (more than 1,400 schools in Ukraine teach in Russian or teach the Russian language and literature; conversely there is no Ukrainian school in Russia, despite the presence of more than 12 million ethnic Ukrainians in the Russian Federation).
There was also an uneasy atmosphere surrounding the recent visit of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Cyril to Ukraine. However, the Russian Patriarch interpreted this very differently to Mr Medvedev. His letter of respect and gratitude to Mr Yuschenko was posted on the Ukrainian president‘s website on the same day that Medvedev gave his strongly-worded address.
However, Viktor Yuschenko, the Ukrainian president took a stand and did not respond immediately to his Russian counterpart. Instead, the head of his secretariat Vera Ul’yanchenko drew the Ukrainian peoples’ attention to the Russian president’s “aggressive tone” and called for solidarity in defending the country’s national interests, critiscing Russia’s “neo-imperial tone” in its dealings with Ukraine.
Yuschenko’s ally hinted at multiple refusals by the Russian president to hold direct official negotiations with his Ukrainian counterpart, negotiations which sought to resolve at least some of the unsettling issues facing the two countries. The postponement of the new envoy’s arrival in Kiev for an indefinite period appeared to be just another example of Moscow’s inability to maintain dialogue, according to the head of Yuschenko’s secretariat.
Surprisingly (and perhaps unwittingly), Medvedev’s statement provided some political assistance to the Ukrainian president; whose recent very low popularity would appear to have deprived him of any hope of reelection next January. He may have gained some ground, with some people switching to support the head of the state against an “aggressive neighbour”.
Most European and Ukrainian observers were puzzled by Medvedev’s statement. Why was it publicised now, with no imminent major occasion or other pretext? What exactly was the reason for such a statement, other than the probable concealed one? Was it an attempt to play on the frictions within the Ukrainian politics in order to indirectly support Yulia Timoshenko, Yuschenko’s main rival in the forthcoming elections and considered by the most of the population as more likely to achieve effective dialogue with Russia, especially with the prime-minister Vladimir Putin?
Such calculations could well have been behind the Medvedev’s statement. But Russia’s overall understanding of relations with Ukraine are much more complex. And potentially dangerous.
For the Russian ruling elite Ukraine is, in many ways, “the last bastion”, which Moscow just can not allow itself to surrender. This means that Moscow would probably do “whatever it takes” to prevent its neighbour from falling into the sphere of Western influence. Even though Russian politicians recognise the territorial integrity of Ukraine and its integration of the Crimea peninsula, deep in their hearts they have not accepted the idea. Neither has the vast majority of the Russian population. For the Russian ruling elite, it is impossible to imagine the sight of NATO troops on the Dnepr River. They do not consider this possibility in terms of clear strategic analysis nor political balances, rather they react to it emotionally in terms of what they perceive to be the survival of the Russian state.
I do not believe that any of the current Ukrainian politicians, if they became the next president of this country, would resolve this existential problem for Moscow; because none of them would voluntarily give up Ukrainian sovereignty. Almost all of them would insist – in one form or another – on supporting and strengthening this sovereignty first of all, despite all efforts by the former imperial “mother country”. Secondly, they would seek a coherent relationship with the EU and other European institutions.
There is no solution to this serious problem (for Russia) in the context of bilateral Russian–Ukrainian relations, or even multilateral Russia-Ukrainian-European relations. This problem could only be resolved within the context of internal Russian politics, presumably on the basis of changing its whole current paradigm.
Is there any other option for resolution? Maybe, just one – war between Russia and Ukraine. In my opinion, it could happen in the very near future, and certainly no later than 2017, when the Russian Black Sea Fleet is set to leave Sebastopol, as the lease agreement with Ukraine to use this “city of Russian military glory” expires.