Staunton, January 3 – Perhaps the most important development in the post-Soviet space in 2015 is that most Russians and nearly all Ukrainians view Ukraine as a separate country that will never return to Moscow in the fashion of some sort of “prodigal son,” according to Moscow commentator Leonid Radzikhovsky.
In 2015, he writes today, Ukraine separated itself from Russia not only economically but more important psychologically. “It turned out,” he says, that “one has to live poorly without Russia but one can do so.” And that attitude affects the entire political spectrum, including parties that represent ethnic Russians (nv.ua/opinion/radzihovsky/ostyvshij-sup-donbassa-i-plany-putina-na-vostok-ukrainy-89102.html).
Voters in Ukraine regardless of ethnicity may “hate Poroshenko, Yatsenyuk and even the Americans but there is no talk about ‘the return of a prodigal son’” among any of them. This reflects a most important development: “Internally, Ukraine has broken from Russia – less than the Baltic countries but nonetheless in a completely fundamental way.”
At the same time, Russians “if not all … then a significant part of them as well as a significant part of the Russian political elites have recognized this fact” as well, Radzikhovsky says, a dramatic change from a year earlier when “Russians quite sincerely believed that no Eastern Ukraine exists and that this is only part of Russia” which has been temporarily lost.
The situation with regard to Crimea was and remains different and is viewed differently both by the residents of the peninsula and of Russia. That is something other Ukrainians are going to have to take into account even though as Radzikhovsky says, the annexation of Crimea was “a horrific political error” that involved “the crudest violation” of Rusisa’s obligations.
But, he says, “that train has left the station,” and Ukrainians must come to terms with it just as Russians are coming to terms with the departure of the rest of Ukraine from Moscow’s sphere of influence.
This leaves Vladimir Putin in a most awkward position. On the one hand, he doesn’t need the Donbas but can’t take more without ensuring that there will be even more crippling Western sanctions. And on the other, he can’t fulfill the Minsk accords because to do so, even with the new Russian attitudes about Ukraine, would be and look like a complete personal defeat.
The Kremlin leader could pull out of Syria, Radzikhovsky says, “because no one understands what we are doing in Syria,” without many problems. But pulling out of the Donbas unless Ukraine were federalized, something Minsk doesn’t call for, would be a step Russian public opinion would not forgive for “it would mean that Putin had failed.”
In this situation, Putin has little choice but to pursue a frozen conflict strategy in the region and hope that something will turn up to prompt the West to end sanctions or at the very least not impose harsher ones. Indeed, Radzikhovsky says, Putin’s policies seem increasingly to be based on such hopes. But so far, things are going against him.
For that strategy to have a chance, Putin has to avoid a wider war in Ukraine because no one not even Belarus would support such a conflict and “more than that, “next year most likely will be the year of the collapse of the Eurasian Economic Union,” an institution that came into existence only so other members could get money from Moscow, something it doesn’t now have.
And so in the short run at least, the Russian commentator says, “Russia cannot do anything” with regard to Ukraine and “will not do anything.” And that will give some advantages to Kyiv because it will provide him with justification not to carry out the reforms many are pressing him to make.
But, of course, as Radzikhovsky points out, all governments use conflicts to justify not doing what they do not want to do. The difference in the present case is that someone really “attacked Ukraine, but no one has attacked Russia and no one is threatening to do so.”