Staunton, November 25 – Many Ukrainians comfort themselves with the observation that Vladimir Putin can’t live forever and that after him relations between Russia and Ukraine will improve, Iosif Zisels says; but in fact, the leaders who will emerge after Putin leaves the scene may treat Russia even worse than he does.
The former Soviet dissident and current head of the Association of Jewish Public Organizations and Communities of Ukraine tells Yekaterina Shumilo of the Apostrophe that this reflects the imperial nature of Russian identity ().
Ukrainians do not fully recognize that, Zisels says, and along with a past in which Ukrainians views Russians as “’elder brothers’” but have now broken with them, it explains why Ukrainians still have significantly more positive attitudes about Russians than Russians do about Ukrainians.
“It isn’t Putin who is waging war against us; rather it is the Russians who are,” Zisels says. And it is critically important that Ukrainians and others understand that. Putin didn’t “make this Russia;” in a real sense, this Russia made someone like him the kind of leader it would turn to.
Moreover, the Jewish activist says, Putin “isn’t the very worst variant. After Putin could come someone still worse; and thus one should not dream about his departure, although he has inflicted many misfortunes on us. For Russia, we Ukrainians are not a nation or a country, but something other and undefined. We were part of them and suddenly we decided to break out.”
Because of that, their attitudes toward us are worse than ours are to them, Zisels says. “To raise one’s hand and kill an elder brother is impossible: there are psychological barriers which because of family training are very high. But when the war in the Donbass began, they were overcome.”
The situation now is one in which “the younger brother is becoming stronger and does not want to much up any more with injustice on the part of the elder brother.” The latter is still strong enough to resist, but he “cannot win” in the end – and he perhaps feels this although he cannot acknowledge that fact.
Among those in Putin’s entourage who are “much worse than Putin,” Zisels says, are Rogizn and Ivanov. “I am a dissident,” and that is how he looks on things in Moscow. That is why, he says, he won’t offer an optimistic scenario, but rather a pessimistic one and then help means of minimizing its consequences and maximizing Ukraine’s chances.
Asked whether Russians “always want to have an emperor like Putin,” the Jewish leader says: “Never say ‘never,’ and never say ‘always. Russia in its current border cannot be a different country and cannot have a different identity. Only a force, an external force can stop it without engaging in a military conflict.”
That is what happened in the 1980s, when the West without military conflict was able to “defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War. And now the same thing is possible. We cannot impose our identity on them: their identity will resist … We must leave them in peace and allow evolution to work.”
According to Zisels, “practically everything can be changed in an evolutionary manner. Artificially we cannot replace the psychology of Russians: there are 150 million of them, a majority of which have a different identity” than others do.
“Many dream about the disintegration of Russia, but I look on that prospect with dread,” he continues. “I understand that Crimea may be returned when Russia begins to fall apart and that the Donbass perhaps can be returned even earlier.” But Ukrainians should reflect as to what a group of states on its eastern border, many with nuclear weapons, might mean.
“What could we do with such a situation? Fight with all of them? Are we ready for this?” A smaller state can arm itself and become more powerful than its larger neighbors: Israel is a good example of that. But are Ukrainians prepared to make the kind of sacrifices that will require? The answer is far from clear.
Asked in conclusion about how long empires can exist in the present-day world, Zisels says that there are two competing trends, one toward amalgamation and the other towards decentralization. In some places, the one will dominate and in others, the other. “For me, balance is importance. Neither tendency must win.”
If the first were to win out, we would have a world empire; if the second, “a chaotic world.” At present, there are some 200 countries. A few of them are fighting one another; but most have found a way to live in peace and even cooperate, Zisels concludes.