Ukraine: A Contrarian Approach

The current war in Ukraine has provided an outlet for the aspirations of Russian nationalists. President Vladimir Putin has deftly exploited it to strengthen his position in Eurasia and divert the growing dissatisfaction with his administration. However, this nationalism isn’t the exclusive domain of the Kremlin and could be an instrument for Western stakeholders if they take a contrarian approach to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

The U.S. and West European attempts to model Ukraine into a liberal European country have been a failure. The continuation of past policies will fail too. A contrarian and simpler strategy would be to foster an ethnic Russian civil society in Ukraine to serve as an alternative model for the broader “Russkiy Mir” (Russian World). Such a Russian society could draw on historical legitimacy in the ancient land of the Rus’ and challenge the Kremlin’s prerogative to represent the Russian people.

There is an important historical fact that helps illuminate the above mentioned approach. Since 1721 Russians have lacked their own ethnic state.  That year, Peter the Great copied the European “Enlightened Despots” and replaced the ethnic Russian Kingdom (Russkoye Tsartsvo) with the multi-ethnic Rossiyskaya (a geographic term) Empire, along with abolishing the Russian Patriarchy. 200 years later, Josef Stalin, as the Bolshevik’s Commissars of Nationalities, referred to the ethnic Russians as the “inconvenient nationality” and diluted them among the various minority nations throughout the emerging USSR. This included the creation of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic that was overwhelmingly Russian. Ethnic Ukrainians did not make a sizeable minority until 1939 with the annexation of the Galich regions from Poland. Even now the constitution of the Russian (Rossiyskaya) Federation formalizes the nation as a multi-ethnic jurisdiction.  The regional autonomy and minority preferences have created a sense of repression, which has led Russians to often refer to the current socio-political arrangement as the modern version of the Medieval “Mongol-Tatar Yoke.”

Why should the West abandon the efforts at westernizing Ukraine? The answer lies in the fact that since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian society has been unable to free itself from communist mentality. Three generations of Soviet rule have infused nepotism, patronage, and antipathy to human values into their collective psyches. Ukraine lacked a contingent who remembered the pre-Soviet times and who had the ability to transition their society to liberalism, as occurred in many East European and Baltic nations.

Ukraine is such a dysfunctional society that it could be regarded as the Middle East of Europe. Since the implosion of the USSR, Ukraine has chronically stood at the precipice of dissolution. The ‘Euromaidan’ overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych has provided the context for the recent loss of Crimea and de facto departure of the Donbas region. Various international bodies, NGOs, and even the EU have consistently ranked Ukraine at the bottom of societal and political cohesion norms, making it a poor candidate for development and integration. To put things in perspective one only has to note that the OECD rated numerous impoverished African states with higher social cohesion than Ukraine.

After 1991 the Ukrainian leaders made the profound mistake of imposing Ukrainian ethnicity and language upon ethnic Russians. This was in stark contrast to Belarus and Kazakhstan, where the government made Russian the second official language so as to assuage their large Russian populations and please official Moscow. In the Baltic countries the ethnic Russians tolerated their second class status in return for living in near First World societies. Ukraine provided neither ethnic self-expression nor prosperity, creating a grievance for the Kremlin to exploit, something it has done since the 90s.

However, President Putin did not complete the fait accompli. One of the motivating reasons for Putin’s aversion to annexing large parts of Ukraine was the enormous financial cost that went along with it. The recent $40 billion IMF aid package to Ukraine spared Russia that burden, which would have seriously undermined the Russian economy and Putin’s popularity. Instead of Russia sustaining the Ukrainian oligarchs and rebuilding the Donbas, the U.S. and the West will pick up the tab. With the conclusion of the February 12th, 2015 Minsk-II Peace Accord, Putin regained and enhanced his international position, especially against the United States, and was granted by France and Germany an implied endorsement to influence Ukraine’s internal affairs. In other words Paris and Berlin agree to Russian claims that Ukraine lies within Moscow’s sphere of influence.

To regain the initiative from the Kremlin, Western stakeholders should encourage Kiev to establish a confederation, ideally, or at a minimum a federation. Ukraine is a relatively young nation, formed in 1918. Ukrainians would benefit from living in a federated or confederated state. For starters it would allow civil society to emerge at a regional level and have the strength to build up at a national level; a bottom up instead of top down approach. The more politically successful and dynamic countries of Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Britain, Canada, and the United States each had their periods of political confederation which gave birth to their strong sense of national identity and cohesion.

A confederation would protect the ethnic Ukrainians and Rusyns in the western region from their legitimate fears of cultural extinction, whether it is from historic imposition or cultural and economic inertia. In the south and east portions of Ukraine (also known as Novorossiya) the arragement could provide a home base for Russian ethnic self-expression, which is currently stifled and monopolized by the Kremlin.

After the 2012 re-election of Vladimir Putin, Russian nationalists were quite vocal and hostile towards the in-coming president and his rule. They were distressed by a moribund Russian economy and demographic atrophy. The largest street protests against Putin were not from liberals or communists, but nationalists. This is something Western cheerleaders of the Russian opposition often willingly miss. For example, Alexei Navalny tapped into Russian nationalism to build his following. The young and professional classes despaired and voted with their feet emigrating at levels even higher than the period of economic collapse in the early 1990s.

Putin deftly diverted this growing passionarity to the Novorossiya project in Lugansk and Donetsk. His greatest critics from the National Bolsheviks to the Orthodox faithful had focused their energies on aiding their compatriots in the Donbas and deferred to Putin’s leadership. Instead of marching on the streets against Kremlin linked oligarchs, the nationalists are filling the ranks of the Donbas separatist militia, and organizing humanitarian aid convoys. Their social media criticism shifted from the Kremlin to the decadent West and their “Ukro-Facist” proxies in Kiev. However, if the Minsk-II Accord is manifested, Russian nationalists will have cause to turn on Putin, since he failed to protect the ethnic Russians outside of rebel control.

The U.S. and Europe, as a condition of the IMF package and integration with Europe, should require Kiev to respect ethnic rights in Ukraine. Based off Ukrainian elections and language usage, the regions of Odessa, Nikolaev, Dnepropetrovsk, Kherson, Zaporozhe, Kharkov, Donetsk, and Lugansk -- the historical Novorossiya -- would be solidly Russian. The central region, the historic Malaya Rus (Little Russia) would have to decide whether to continue to promote the Ukrainian language or claim the mantle as the historic heart of the Russians.

Linguistic Regions of Ukraine (Source: Kiev National Linguistic University, 2009)

Assuming that Kiev will continue to wallow in corruption and indecision, the West should seek out nationalist leaders in the south and east and mentor a cadre of political, cultural, and business leaders. Unlike the Russian Federation, Ukraine is a permissive environment for Western organizations, both government and non-government, to operate. After several years of successful economic and social development, this cadre can legitimately claim to better serve the interests of the Russian populace within Ukraine than the Kremlin.

Although many Ukrainians desire to join the EU and Western stakeholders would like to wrest Ukraine from Eurasia and bring it into the West, it would not be in the best interests of either party. This is particularly true now more than ever because of the predicament the EU faces. Greece, with only 8 million citizens, ought to serve as a warning to Europe of the consequences of pushing an incompatible economy into integration with states that maintain a stricter fiscal policy and lack widespread corruption. Ukraine, with 35 million people, is poorer and would bring more problems to Europe at a time when the latter simply cannot afford it nor cope with it politically.

The Ukrainians themselves would suffer. Their businesses cannot compete in the European economy. If they were able to quickly adapt Western governance and business practices, they would be anchored to a European economy sinking under the weight of bloated bureaucracies and dwindling demographics. Ukraine would be better suited to orient itself on the emerging markets of Eurasia, and guided to be a commercial, political, and cultural center on the Eurasian space. Its natural state is to serve as a bridge between East and West. The current instability in Ukraine offers an opportunity for the West to usher a new political paradigm in Eurasia. This can begin in Kiev.

Peter Debbins is fluent in Russian has worked extensively in Ukraine, Russia, and US.