Staunton, February 21 – Vladimir Putin has displayed a certain virtuosity in his geopolitical approach to neighboring countries, Vladimir Pastukhov says, but his approach in Ukraine is opening “a Pandora’s box” for Russia because there is no guarantee that what he has been doing there won’t be turned against him and his country in the future.
That is the conclusion of Vladimir Pastukhov, a Russian scholar based at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, in a larger article in which he examines why Russia sparked a civil war in Ukraine, what it has achieved by doing so and what may happen next as a result of Russian actions (colta.ru/articles/society/2139).
Pastukhov begins by noting that the Maidan of today is not the Maidan of 2004. “The very nature of these two maidans is very different.” A decade ago, this was an entirely natural process of popular mobilization. Now it is “an artificial one” and there is nothing elevated about it.
More than 10 years ago, the role of outside actors was far smaller, but both then and now, the divisions within Ukrainian society have been on view and have played the key role. That is because, Pastukhov says, “Ukrainian statehood is extremely specific if not in fact unique.”
It is important to recognize that the divisions within Ukraine are not between Ukrainians and ethnic Russians as such. Instead, they are between “two fractions of the Ukrainian people,” fractions whose cultural and political orientations not only do not correspond but are in complete contradiction.
Throughout their history, some Ukrainins have been drawn to Russia while others have been pulled in the direction of Lithuania and Poland, in the direction that is now called “’the European choice.’” Given this pattern, neutrality is a necessary condition for the preservation of stability. Going too far in either direction will lead to collapse.
In the broadest sense, Pastukhov continues, “neutrality is the cultural condicio sine qua non of the existence of Ukraine as a single and independent sovereign state.” It creates a space in which the various parts of Ukraine can work together in a cooperative fashion rather than take steps that threaten to overturn the applecart.
But this is not always easy, he says. “The country has been condemned to maintain itself in a very narrow corridor in the conduct of its foreign policy. A step to the right or a step to the left from the line of neutrality not only threatens to unleash a crisis but instantly” calls into question the existence of the stat.
One could even say, Pastukhov remarks that “Ukraine ‘has been sentenced always to be an east European Switzerland, always equally distant from all points of attraction..
Some blame the current crisis on those in Ukraine who want to join Europe, but that is not the case. Ukrainians have been talking about joining Europe ever since they regained their independence. At the same time, however, everyone knew that Ukraine was not going to be a full member of the EU anytime soon.
“But in the last year, everything suddenly changed,” Pastukhov argues. Russia without any obvious serious basis made an issue of Ukraine’s foreign policy orientation. Indeed, it made Ukraine’s place in the world the central question of Russian foreign policy and showed it as willing to deploy all its resources to ensure that Kyiv would return to Moscow’s orbit.
According to the St. Antony’s scholar, “the sharpening of this issue was completely artificial and was not conditions by any objective causes.” It could have occurred at any time during the past 10 years. But for some reason, the Kremlin decided to bring Ukraine to heel and do so now.
This Russian policy shift put Kyiv in a position where “it could not any longer conduct a neutral political course” in which it could reach out in several directions. And as that became obvious, it triggered the conflict that has grown over into a kind of civil war that threatens the future existence of the country.
“By destroying Ukrainian political neutrality, Russia is destroying Ukraine,” Pastukhov writes. Moscow has not let Ukraine, its leaders or its peoples any choice.
The Russian analyst says that one need only add that “inthis there is nothing personal about Ukraine, this is only business ... Russia is pursuing its own, most of all false and paranoid global political goals” and it does not want to see the establishment of a pro-Western belt of states around its borders.
To that end, Moscow is prepared to create what it sees as manageable conflicts there so that it can “more comfortably oppose the West.” That is what happened in Georgia in 2008. Now it is Ukraine’s turn. “Those who are burning tires on the Maidan do not understand that Ukraine is being converted into one enormous tire” whose burning will keep the West away.
That Moscow tactic may work for a time, but it carries real risks. On the one hand, conflicts that at first appear to be manageable often turn out to be anything but. And on the other hand, two can play this game because if there are in some sense two Ukraines, there area dozen or more Russias even more divided among themselves than are the Ukrainians.