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Ukraine: Key to Restoring a Greater Russia

Ukraine is caught between European integration and Russian re-unification aims.

January 16, 2014

Credit: artjazz -

Much has been written and said about the deficiencies of the current Ukrainian President, during the last weeks.

The debacle with the non-signing of the EU-Ukraine Association at the end of last year was just the latest episode. Viktor Yanukovych’s authoritarian domestic and erratic foreign policies had already been criticized in hundreds of reports, papers, op-eds and columns.

Repeating over years that he fully supports Ukraine’s European integration, Yanukovych misled the EU and the Ukrainian people. He even deceived his own governmental apparatus, ruling Party of Regions, as well as diplomatic service about what would happen at the Eastern Partnership summit at Vilnius, in November 2013.

Having confirmed, in both mass media and closed meetings, on a weekly basis its intention to sign the already initialed Association Agreement with the EU, the current Ukrainian leadership, at the last moment, withdrew from its commitment.

With his unpredictable behavior, Ukraine’s President left everybody flabbergasted and made an embarrassing figure at the Vilnius summit.

Ukrainian underperformance

Today, both Ukraine’s citizenry and the West are unclear about what the current state of Ukraine’s European integration is. The same is true for what the immediate future of the relations between Brussels and Kiev will bring.

Yanukovych seems to have entered a semi-secret arrangement with the Russian leadership and for now abandoned signing the Association Agreement. He thereby violates the spirit of the Ukrainian law on European integration.

With the return of powerful mass protests reminiscent of the Orange Revolution of 2004, his regime has become shaky and may end before his current presidential term expires in 2015. His chances for re-election and his general political future look dim.

Yanukovych will, sooner or later, have to pay a price – perhaps, a hefty one – for his numerous aberrations and transgressions.

Nevertheless, in spite of Yanukovych’s poor record as a ruler at home and representative of Ukraine abroad, the widespread contempt for his latest underperformance is partly misguided. When such critique comes from politicians of the EU and its member states, it even appears as inappropriate, if not hypocritical.

Western introversion

The dismissive attitude towards Kiev of many Western politicians, diplomats and journalists is a result of widespread naïveté concerning the domestic conditions and foreign strictures within which many post-Soviet leaders operate. It may look from the West, as if Yanukovych & Co. are just irresponsible crooks – which by itself is probably true.

Yet, the political realities of the internal affairs and international relations of today Eastern Europe are more complicated.

Most countries in the West enjoy the luxury to be more or less economically independent, politically sovereign, administratively consolidated, institutionally embedded and militarily secure. In contrast, the crucial circumstance of the Ukrainian state’s current existence is that it is located in one of the northern hemisphere’s most fragile post- or neo-imperial realms.

The post-Soviet space remains crisis-ridden and contains a number of failed or unacknowledged states and separatist regions. It has experienced several civil wars, often with Russian direct and indirect involvement, over the last quarter of a century.

Much of the territory of Ukraine once belonged to the Tsarist and later Soviet empires and went through centuries of despotism, devastating military conflicts, as well as mass-murderous state terror.

Domestic determinants of Putin’s Eurasia project

The current leadership of the Kremlin believes that Ukraine’s and the other post-Soviet countries’ Tsarist/Soviet past implies that they should be also subordinate to Moscow, now and in the future, because of their common history.

To be sure, one can make an argument that the shared tragic experience of foreign invasions by, for instance, Napoleon’s France and Hitler’s Germany, or the collective suffering of all Soviet nations during Stalinism creates a joint history and lasting bond.

Yet, this popular reading is purposefully ignorant of many other, more problematic aspects of Russian imperial history. It ignores that the non-Russian nations and cultures, not the least the Ukrainian one, had a different, less preferred status under both the Tsars and Communists than the Russian people and their language.

Within the strange logic of not only Putin, but many ordinary Russians too, the Romanovs’ and Bolsheviks’ centuries of harsh suppression of Ukrainian language and culture should motivate Ukraine today to re-unite with Russia in a so-called “Customs Union.”

Not really a customs union at all

Such an offer from the Kremlin rings a bell in Kiev. In the same way that the Soviet Union was neither Soviet (i.e. council-democratic) nor a union (i.e. an alliance of equals), the Customs Union too is neither about customs nor a proper union.

Instead, it is one of the Kremlin’s various instruments to secure Putin’s authoritarian regime via the re-building of a new empire that covers a specifically “Eurasian” civilization – a unique pan-national culture between Asia and Europe. The Customs Union is to be followed, in 2015, by the even more integrated Eurasian Union.

The Customs Union effort is now the core of the Kremlin-promoted national dream about rebirthing Greater Russia as a self-sustaining pole in international politics. That project is designed to function as an effectual distraction of the Russian population from the many domestic failings of Putin’s regime.

There have been few sustainable successes in the reform of Russia’s corrupt public administration, imbalanced social system and stagnating economy. The implementation of an ambitious geopolitical project is to provide the legitimacy for a continuation of Putin’s otherwise unremarkable rule.

The Ukrainian trophy

It speaks volumes on the political dimension that the Customs Union, purportedly an economic bloc, is currently negotiating the accession of Assad’s Syria. Still, it is Ukraine’s inclusion into the Customs/Eurasian Union that would constitute the most important trophy for Russia’s collective escapism.

Ukraine’s accession to Putin’s project would transform the Russian president into a new assembler of lands. He would secure his place as a noteworthy historical figure who restored Russia-Eurasia as a world power on par with the United States, European Union and China.

Implementing this project is in full swing already via a multitude of linkages between Moscow and Kiev. These include political, economic, academic and cultural linkages through which the Kremlin can and does exert influence on Ukraine’s internal and external affairs.

This peculiar background — and less so Ukraine’s corrupt leadership, semi-authoritarianism or rapacious oligarchs — is the deep source of Kiev’s current domestic and international confrontations. The European public continues to misunderstand this basic fact when judging Yanukovych.

Continue to part II.


Yanukovych misled the EU and the Ukrainian people. He even deceived his own governmental apparatus.

Yanukovych seems to have entered a semi-secret arrangement with the Russian leadership.

Yanukovych will, sooner or later, have to pay a price for his numerous aberrations and transgressions. #Ukraine

The post-Soviet space is crisis-ridden, with unacknowledged states and several civil wars, often involving Russia.

The Soviet Union was neither Soviet (i.e. council-democratic) nor a union (i.e. an alliance of equals).

The Russian-led Customs Union, purportedly an economic bloc, is negotiating the accession of Assad’s Syria.

The Customs Union is the core of the Kremlin-promoted dream of rebirthing Greater Russia.

Ukraine yielding to Putin would transform the Russian president into a noted, historic “assembler of lands.”