Staunton, June 15 – Ukrainians like to believe that they can continue their course toward European integration regardless of what Moscow does, while Russians tend to accept Vladimir Putin’s argument that Moscow has sufficient leverage of various kinds to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence.
That is what makes the argument of Russian nationalist commentator Sergey Belov on the Stoletie portal so interesting and potentially important. He argues that Kyiv is “condemned to European integration” and that “not one Russian politician could have changed the course of Ukraine” (stoletie.ru/vzglyad/obrechonnyje_na_jevrointegraciju_478.htm).
If such a view is spreading in the Russian capital, especially among nationalists, that could have a significant impact on Russian policy both under Putin and even more likely under his successor, helping Russians to overcome Putin’s notion that Ukrainians are not a separate nation but only one branch of “a Great Russian people.”
Many Russians, Belov says, even now believe that Ukraine’s European choice is the result of a misconception either arising among the Ukrainians or imposed on them by the West. And they assume that “Russia should respond with propaganda of its own and in a banal fashion buy off whomever Moscow needs in Kyiv.”
But “in my view,” the commentator says, “Ukraine was condemned to ‘European integration’ from the first instant of independence and not a single of even the cleverest Russian politicians could have changed this course.” The reasons for that are obvious if one reflects carefully.
“Many Russians considered the collapse of the USSR as a national catastrophe,” one that cost them “part of their lands,” which destroyed their economic system, and which “significantly weakened the international influence of the state.” In short, “a tragedy!”
But Ukrainians in contrast didn’t view 1991 as a tragedy at all. “In essence, they in general did not lose anything but rather acquired” something that they could exploit on their own without Moscow’s interference but while continuing to enjoy many of the benefits of the Soviet past.
And because many of them had served in the Soviet army in distant parts of the RSFSR, Ukrainians believed that Russia was poor and Ukraine potentially rich. That view was not without foundation, Belov says. “It arose on the basis of the Soviet policy of the privileged development of the national borderlands” where life was better than in Russia proper.
At the same time, Ukrainians who served in the Soviet army in Germany “knew how the Europeans lived,” far wealthier than they and far, far wealthier than the Russians. Consequently, they chose Europe based on a dream “about a bright, almost communist European future whose roots extended back into the Soviet past.”
The cleverest Russian propagandist couldn’t do anything to challenge such attitudes, Belov says because “however paradoxical it sounds, this was a myth based on personal impressions. It could be dispelled only by reality – Ukrainian, European and Russian” and that requires time.
Events in the 1990s even encouraged Ukrainians in their convictions. Europe seemed open to them, and Russia seemed to be getting worse. Consequently, they accepted the idea that “Ukrainians are a European nation” and that they wanted to get away from the Russia they had known in Soviet times or saw on Russian television even after 1991.
Ukrainians were not interested in consulting the opinion of ethnic Russians on their own territory, Belov says, even though such people could have told them that their image of Russia was increasingly out of date, that Ukraine itself was deteriorating, and that Europe was less than enthusiastic about taking it in.
But even if by some miracle Ukraine had joined the Customs Union, imagine what would have been the reaction of Ukrainians to their status: they would have blamed Russia for the decline. Now, it is at least possible that some of them will blame Europe, not because of Russian actions but because of their own experiences, the Russian commentator says.
“If one evaluates the Kremlin’s policy in the Ukrainian direction,” Belov says, one involuntarily recalls “the aphorism of the Russian German Field Marshal Minich” who famously observed that “the Russian state has this advantage compared to others: it is run directly by the Lord God Himself. Otherwise it would be impossible to explain how it exists.”
But even if Russian officials had done everything right, they wouldn’t have been able to change anything in Ukraine. “The Ukrainians were condemned to follow the path of the denial of their Russianness and to become ‘Europeans.’” They will only change when they see what that means, and that is very much a question for the future.
Only after the Ukrainians recognize that can Russians hope for “an honest conversation,” Belov says. Russian statements and actions won’t hasten that day; but, the Russian commentator suggests, those of Europeans very well may.