What if Russia destroys Ukraine


Kerstin S. Jobst

Prof. Dr. Kerstin Susanne Jobst researches and teaches, among other things, the history of East Central and Eastern Europe, the Black Sea region and the Caucasus region at the University of Vienna.

Relations between Russia and Ukraine are shaped by a historically evolved process of entanglement and disengagement. A look at Russian-Ukrainian relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union up to the beginning of the Euromaidan.

The relationship between Russia and Ukraine has not always been characterized by conflict. (& copy picture alliance / AP Photo)


March 2019 marked the fifth anniversary of the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by the Russian Federation. A large part of the international community considers the annexation to be contrary to international law and, apart from its high symbolic value, shows a mixed economic balance for both Moscow and the Crimean residents. [1] The ongoing struggle between regular and irregular Ukrainian units on the one hand and separatists on the other over the internationally unrecognized "People's Republics" Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine [2] has claimed around 13,000 deaths since the beginning of the so-called Euromaidan. The conflicts have triggered a large wave of migration within Ukraine and to Russia, which is largely ignored by the West - just like the Ukrainian-Russian crisis as a whole.

The events of the past few years may make it seem that the relationship between Ukrainians and Russians is one story of conflict. However, this impression is just as wrong as the assumption that Russians and Ukrainians are, strictly speaking, one and the same nationality - a view that is held again and again, especially on the Russian side. Rather, the Ukrainian-Russian relationship is a prime example of a historically evolved process of entanglement and disengagement. The Viennese historian Andreas Kappeler has aptly described this as a family in which "harmony and conflict" occur equally: In this imaginary family of nations, Russia traditionally takes on the role of big brother, whereby an asymmetrical relationship has not been established. 4] As long as the Soviet Union still existed and the Ukrainian Soviet Republic had become the second most important nationality after the Second World War - as "secunda inter pares" [5] - after the Russian, this only played a subordinate role. The dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and, as a result, the creation of an independent Ukrainian state should change this.

From the reactor disaster in Chernobyl to the dissolution of the Soviet Union

The various dissident groups that also existed in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic had, since the 1960s, mainly pleaded for reforming the Soviet Union, not for a change of system. The greatest turning points were marked by Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika and glasnost, which established new rules of communication within the Soviet Union, and the Chernobyl accident in April 1986. [6] A hitherto largely invisible mobilization of the Ukrainian population culminated in September 1989 with the founding of a citizens' movement unifying environmental activists, nationalists and system critics - "Ruch" (Ukrainian: movement; Narodnyj Ruch Ukraïny). She was a driving force behind the Ukrainian independence movement.

After the failed August coup in Moscow in 1991, the Supreme Soviet, the highest legislative body in Ukraine, declared Ukrainian independence on August 24 and released it on December 1 of that year with a referendum from the population with regionally different results, but with an average of 90 Percent confirm agreement (only 54 percent in Crimea). For the first time after the First World War, when there had been a series of short-lived Ukrainian states, there was an independent Ukraine. Boris Yeltsin, who was elected president of the Russian republic in the first Russian presidential elections in June of that year, had tried in vain to keep Ukraine on Russia's side. A compromise and at the same time an expression of Moscow's weakness at the time was the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) at the end of 1991 and the dissolution of the USSR.

After the end of the Soviet Union - the first crises

All former Union republics, including Russia and Ukraine, went through a difficult process of transformation: In addition to economic problems, which were also the result of the disentanglement of the hitherto strictly centralized economy, there were conflicts between parliaments and the respective presidents as well as between old and new elites. Almost everywhere the ideological vacuum that had arisen was replaced by national slogans; in the Russian case there was also something like post-imperial phantom pain, as many Russians had to struggle with the loss of world power. The Russian weakness was also a reason why Moscow had to accept some central areas of conflict with the newly formed Ukrainian state.

In addition to the incontrovertible truth for the majority of the Russian population that the three East Slavic nationalities (besides Russians and Ukrainians, the Belarusians) have basically belonged together since the times of the first concentration of East Slavic rule, the Kiever Rus', and therefore their separate statehoods were perceived as unnatural ( and will), there were other factors: In January 1992, the first elected Ukrainian President Leonid Kravčuk ordered all Soviet troops stationed on the territory of Ukraine and the Black Sea Fleet to be subordinate to the Ukrainian command. This marked the beginning of the dispute over the affiliation of the navy concentrated in Sevastopol in the Crimea in particular, as well as over the peninsula in general. In 1954, under Khrushchev, Crimea was added to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic for primarily pragmatic reasons (including because the Crimea, which had been badly damaged by World War II, could be better supplied from the Ukrainian mainland in order to bind Kiev more tightly to Moscow).

Another potential problem could be solved: that of the nuclear weapons stationed in Ukraine. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine unexpectedly became the third largest nuclear power in the world. However, without complications, the government agreed to the destruction of the 176 ICBMs stationed on Ukrainian territory. In return, Russia, the USA and Great Britain undertook in the Budapest Memorandum of December 1994 to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and borders. In connection with the Crimean crisis of 2014, this agreement was repeatedly referred to, as Moscow had thereby recognized the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

In 1997, following the conclusion of various bilateral agreements, including on economic cooperation, an agreement on the division of the Black Sea Fleet, which was valid until 2017 but was terminated in 2014, was concluded between the Russian Federation and Ukraine. This awarded Moscow the lion's share of the - mostly scrap-ripe - remnants of the former Red Fleet. In return, the Kremlin once again recognized the Ukrainian borders and promised not to support the pro-Russian Crimean separatists any longer. [7] There had been massive anti-Ukrainian actions in Crimea since 1991. Kiev was only able to pacify this with difficulty - and, as it turned out, not permanently - through a status of autonomy enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution. [8]

Kiev, Moscow and the West

The consensus within Russia that the Ukrainians are part of the great East Slavic family of nations and that a separate statehood is ultimately unnecessary, burdened the Ukrainian-Russian relationship just as much as the naval and Crimean issues. There were also relations with the West, in particular with NATO and the European Union. From around 1994, both states - Russia under Yeltsin and Ukraine under the new President Leonid Kuchma - had intensified their cooperation with the West (including Ukraine joining the Council of Europe in 1995, Russia joining the Council of Europe in 1996, 2002 NATO-Russia Council and NATO Ukraine Action Plan). The Ukrainian President Kuchma, who ruled authoritarian since 1994, pursued a multivectoral foreign policy strategy that maintained balanced relations ("equidistance") with the West and Moscow and Russia. [9] The latter was forced to take the defensive, not least because of economic problems and the two Chechnya wars.

The Putin Era and the Orange Revolution

With the election of Vladimir Putin as President of the Russian Federation in 2000 and the stabilization of raw material prices, a political and economic upswing and a significantly increased self-confidence of Russia went hand in hand. The rapprochement of former Warsaw Pact states to NATO (1999 Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary; 2004 Bulgaria, the Baltic states, Romania and Slovakia) and the European Union (EU eastward expansion in 2004) met with resistance in the Kremlin. These included three former Soviet republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - at least the accession of other former Union republics such as Georgia or Ukraine had to be prevented from the Russian perspective.

Kuchma, whose re-election was no longer possible in 2004 for constitutional reasons, had shown himself to be much more pro-Russian in his second term from 1999 to 2004 than after his first election in 1994. The reason for this was domestic political pressure (among other things, he was won for the murder of the political investigative journalist Heorhij Gongadze blamed in 2000) and the country's ongoing economic crisis, which Kuchma wanted to end by selling part of the Ukrainian gas pipelines to Russia. [10] For the 2004 presidential election, Kuchma built the incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who comes from the traditionally pro-Russian east of the country and also had excellent contacts with the local oligarchs, as his successor. Ultimately, in November 2004 there was a runoff between Yanukovych and the opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who had previously been critically injured by dioxin poisoning. According to official figures, Yanukovych was able to prevail with 49.46 percent of the vote. This started the Orange Revolution. The non-violent protest movement was directed against the targeted falsifications in this election and against the corrupt system as such and finally helped Yushchenko to his victory in the second vote in December 2004. [11] Eastern Ukraine and Crimea had voted differently in the presidential election. On the Crimean peninsula, Yushchenko had only 15.41 percent of the vote for the runoff election in December (7.96 percent in Sevastopol), while Yanukovych won 81.46 percent. [12] With the western-oriented Viktor Yushchenko as the new president, Ukrainian-Russian relations entered a new phase.

After the Orange Revolution - gas crisis (s) and confrontations

The political situation in Ukraine remained unstable, also because the global economic crisis hit the country with full force from 2007 onwards. Since the political upheaval in 2004, an all-winter "gas war" with the Russian Federation wore down the Ukrainian population. At the beginning of 2005, Russia canceled the tariff for Ukraine, which had been below the world market price, and increased the price for gas drastically. In January 2006, Russia stopped Ukrainian gas supplies on the grounds that Ukraine had diverted gas that was actually intended for states in the EU. In any case, Russia endeavored to reduce the importance of Ukraine as an important raw material transit country, for example through projects such as the North Stream Pipeline running through the Baltic Sea, which was built from 2005 and inaugurated in 2011. In terms of domestic politics, Yushchenko fell short of the people's expectations in areas such as the fight against corruption or the economy. He tried to make up for this by creating an integrative Ukrainian view of history: measures such as the financial equality of the surviving members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (UPA) with those of the Red Army veterans in the western Ukrainian areas or the stylization of those who collaborate with the National Socialists Stepan Bandera became a national hero, alienated that part of the Ukrainian population who had positive connections to the Soviet era. The great famine of 1932/33, the Holodomor, was used particularly intensively as a political memory resource, and responsibility was assigned to "the" Russians in a simplified manner, while the Ukrainian perpetrators played no role.

The majority of Ukrainians could not follow the integration into the West, including joining NATO and the EU, which the presidential camp wanted, as many (especially in the east and in Crimea) preferred closer ties to Russia and greater importance of the Russian language. Moscow, in turn, created a special category that determines foreign policy for the Russian-speaking population abroad who sympathize with Russia - the so-called Near Abroad (bližnee zarubež'e). The "Military Doctrine 2020" adopted in 2010 under the Russian interim president Dmitrij A. Medvedev expanded the deployment options of the Russian armed forces abroad, among other things to "protect" the citizens of Russia who lived in one of the former Soviet republics. The military doctrine was the Kremlin's attempt to justify the action in Georgia and ultimately also in Crimea after the fact. [13]

As a result of domestic and foreign policy developments, Yushchenko did not even make it to the runoff election in the 2010 presidential election. Here the two-time Prime Minister Julija Tymoshenko from the Fatherland Party and Viktor Yanukovych competed against each other - Yanukovych won with 48.59 percent of the vote.

As a result of Yanukovych's decidedly pro-Russian stance, relations with Moscow improved. After his inauguration, he extended the contract with Russia to use the war port and naval facilities of Sevastopol 'with the Kharkiv Agreement until 2042. In return, Russian President Dimitri Medvedev promised Ukraine more favorable conditions for gas deliveries and further financial compensation payments. [14] After the election, Yanukovych's political opponent Tymoshenko was brought to trial for allegedly exceeding her competence as Prime Minister in the renegotiation of gas contracts with the Russian Federation in 2009. She was sentenced and was imprisoned from August 2011 until the end of Yanukovych's reign. The process was condemned nationally and internationally as politically intended and damaged the reputation of Ukraine and Yanukovych.

Since the Georgia crisis in 2008, the Kremlin had made it clear that Russia was once again viewing the post-Soviet space as its sphere of influence. The notion of a “Russian world” (russkij mir) not only in the civic or ethnic but also in the cultural sense also encompassed people outside the Russian Federation. Over eleven million (22.1 percent of the Ukrainian population) live on them in Ukraine. The multivectoral foreign policy of the Yanukovych administration, in particular the preparations for the signing of an association agreement with the European Union, was viewed critically in Moscow. As in the run-up to the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war, Moscow had put pressure on Ukraine, among other things by hindering the importation of Ukrainian goods and threatening to raise prices for natural gas or introduce visas for Ukrainian citizens. In view of the 300,000 to 400,000 Ukrainian workers in Russia and the numerous cross-border family and human contacts, the latter in particular appeared to be unsustainable. In response, Ukraine suspended the Association Agreement shortly before it was due to be signed in November 2013.

The suspension of the agreement with Brussels had consequences: on the same day there were demonstrations against the government in Kiev. Especially in the center of the country and in the west, which is strongly Ukrainian-national, citizens spoke out in favor of signing the agreement. They combined the hope of an improvement in the economic situation and the democratic standards that had fallen sharply under Yanukovych and his kleptocratic regime. The Euromaidan had begun, the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the beginning of the Moscow-fueled civil war in eastern Ukraine were imminent.

More content on the topic