The People’s Choice, or how Ukrainians are Learning to Stop Worrying and Love Eurasia

I enjoyed the egg-throwing scenes from Ukraine’s Rada on the ratification of the gas-for-fleet deal with Russia as much as anyone. It also reflected the polarized commentary on the interwebs. The Ukrainian patriot-bloggers get their knickers in a sweaty twist. The academic beigeocrat Alexander Motyl (he of “Why Russia is Really Weak” fame some four years back) now warns of the “End of Ukraine”. Ukraine’s (self-styled) intelligentsia writes open letters condemning the Kharkov deal and Yanukovych’s sellout of the national interest. 2000 protesters stage a demonstration against his pursuit of closer ties with Russia in Kiev, a city of three millions. Alexander Golts, liberal Russian military analyst, argues that the asymmetric nature of the exchange – “with the lower gas prices to take effect immediately, Ukraine can now save roughly $4 billion annually, whereas the lease extension will only take effect only after the current agreement expires in 2017” – means that Russia was duped. In my view, these screeds are ideologized, or approach the issue from a set of false or incomplete assumptions.

Let’s start from the “banderovtsy” who despise the “sovok” Yanukovych for selling out Ukrainka to the Moskali Horde. (Yes, I’ve grossly caricatured three complex groupings in that sentence). Their problem is that they believe the “Ukrainian people” share their own rigid conception of Ukraine as a rigid nation-state, rejecting opposing views that stress its civilizational commonalities with the Orthodox, Slavic, or Eurasian spheres. This manifests itself in a particularly antagonistic attitude to Russia and Russianness, which are perceived, not inaccurately, as the greatest enemies of Ukrainian nationhood yesterday, today and tomorrow. Their biggest problem and frustration – indeed, their predicament – is that by and large, the Ukrainian people simply do not buy into their efforts to imagine into being a narrow, militantly Ukrainian vision of Ukraine*.

I’m not saying this as a Russian chauvinist**, but as someone who actually bothers to find out what Ukrainians themselves believe, as mediated through opinion polls. And the Ukrainian nationalists would not like the lyrics Ukrainka is singing. As of April 2010, some 63% of Ukrainians supported Ukraine joining the Union of Russia and Belarus, while only 27% spoke out against. This is not the whole picture, of course: 53% would also like to join the EU, although 63% speak out against NATO membership. But it does destroy the Orange myth-making that seeks to portray Yanukovych’s policies of deepening relations with Russia as some kind of treasonous, nefarious plot against the Ukrainian people.

How can they be, when 56% of Ukrainians themselves support keeping the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol? In direct opposition to the opposition’s narrative, only 28% of Ukrainians support their accusations that Yanukovuch betrayed the interests of Ukrainians, while a much larger majority of 63% disagree. Still denying what Ukrainians are saying for all to hear? Then explain why if elections were held today, the Party of Regions and its allies would take 42% of the vote, while the combined opposition forces would net just 32%. Or try to rationalize Yanukovych’s 12% point jump in approval ratings during the first four months of his (pro-Russian) Presidency.

[Source: Approval ratings of Ukrainian politicians – Yanukovych; Timoshenko; Tihipko; Yatsenyuk; Simonenko from 2007 to 2010. Note Yanukovych’s sharp jump from December 2009 to April 2010].

Second, what about the analysts like Golts who claim that Russia has been duped? On the surface, it does have a great deal of credence. Neither Russia nor Ukraine has a history of keeping their promises to each other. As Craig Pirrong pointed out:

So, my view is that this is just an interlude in the ongoing battle of bilateral opportunism between two fundamentally corrupt and unprincipled states. Remember the old Soviet joke: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”? Well, I’d characterize this deal as “We pretend to give them a price break, and they pretend to extend our lease.” All this deal does is create more promises to be broken. And broken they will be.

And too bad for Russia its 4bn $ in effective annual gas subsidies kick in immediately, whereas Ukraine’s obligations to not kick out the Russian fleet in 2017 can be annulled by the next administration, should an Orange coalition come back to power.

However, this all rather misses a vital point. The process of Eurasian reintegration is, in my view, a self-sustaining process. Once it passes a critical point, it cannot go into reverse, even should politicians like Tymoshenko or Tihipko “win back” the country.

Take the example of the Baltics. Despite their substantial Russian minorities, the indigenous populations were strongly pro-Western and this was reflected in their foreign policies. They joined Western institutions like the EU and NATO, their economies were integrated with Europe, and their financial systems taken over by Swedish and German banks. As a result, they successfully “anchored” themselves into the Euro-Atlantic world and Russia can do nothing about it, short of a military intervention whose consequences cannot be foreseen. Much the same can be said of Ukraine, but in reverse. It’s cultural, economic, and political ties to Russia didn’t snap even during the Russia’s period of collapse and relative weakness. Now Russia is resurgent, while the Atlantic world order faces fiscal ruin and imperial overstretch. The conditions are in place for a rollback of Western influence across the post-Soviet space. It is already proceding at an accelerating pace. Ukraine lies at the center of this rollback – and the majority of Ukrainians are either supportive or apathetic about it.

Say what you will of them, but Putin and Medvedev are not idiots. They would not agree to a deal so ostensibly unfavorable to Russia, unless their thought processes were governed by calculations outside the mainstream purview. My instinct is that they do not view negotiations with Ukraine in terms of a set of rational exchanges between two sovereign nation-states. Instead, they view it as a soon-to-be assimilated territory. Not direct political control in the style of a “neo-Soviet Union”, mind (though the possibility cannot be 100% excluded). But what we are looking at is Ukraine becoming a certain type of client state, similar to Belarus, that will enlarge the scope of the Eurasian economic-industrial system back to Soviet levels and provide a lengthy buffer against Western encroachment by anchoring Russia’s effective borders in the Carpathian Mountains. These considerations may explain why the Russian state, now sure of its permanent influence over Ukraine, may not feel particularly nervous about the severely asynchronous nature of the Kharkov agreement.

Besides, by piecing together the other Russo-Ukrainian deals in this period, the gas-for-fleet agreement no longer looks anywhere near as one-sided as it appears on paper. Yanukovych needs the cheap gas to ease Ukraine’s fiscal situation, which is in dire straits. Russia on the other hand is proceeding with a series of initiatives to “lock in” Ukraine into its sphere of influence, such as its proposals to merge their nuclear, aviation, and gas industries.

Not all of them have been met with enthusiasm even by the heavyweights in the Party of Regions. They must recognize that should it be allowed to proceed, the marriage of Russian and Ukrainian economic interests will be near irreversible, and cannot fail to produce political consequences that will lead to a dimunition of Ukraine’s sovereignty, as observed in Belarus or Armenia. But it should be stressed that this is not a new development under Yanukovych. Russian corporations were busy buying up Ukrainian industrial assets, such as the Industrial Union of Donbass steel giant, even under the Orange administration. Whatever the personal reservations of Ukraine’s leaders, this process can only accelerate under a Ukrainian government that is overtly friendly with Russia.

And this brings us to the third class of analysts who I don’t believe have it quite right – those who recognize Russia’s growing influence over Ukraine, like Alexander Motyl, but couch it in the negative and ideologized language of “Russian imperialism” and “democratic rollback”, with all their dark connotations. Their approach conflates democracy with liberalism, economic pragmatism with anti-market neanderthalism, and Eurasian reintegration with Ukrainian subjugation.

If anything, Ukrainians are even less liberal in their views than Russians. This is not surprising considering that it is an economic disaster zone, essentially a post-Soviet fragment that never left the Yeltsin-era state of “anarchic stasis”. Twenty years on, Ukrainians are tiring of it all. They now just want a leader who can get things done. (Interestingly, and very tellingly, even the Ukrainian nationalists tend to respect Putin and wish they had someone like him at the helm). What about the lower gas prices perpetuating Ukrainian industrial backwardness – is it not a short-term fix that will only benefit Yanukovych’s oligarch allies in the Donbass? But Ukraine’s industry won’t flourish at “market” gas prices; the post-Soviet experience suggests much of it will simply collapse, and Ukrainians do not want that. Or in another words, as so often happens to the dismay of Western chauvinists, the people’s choice, as channeled through democracy, clashes with both liberal and market ideals.

Finally, the process of “Eurasian integration” cannot simply be reduced to slogans like “Russian revanchism” or “neo-imperialism” (though this is not to say that they are wholly false). Ukrainian attitudes towards this are actually rather contradictory. The opinion polls indicate that while most are supportive of entering into an economic union with Russia and Belarus, a similar majority insists on maintaining Ukraine’s political sovereignty. But herein lies the contradiction. Economics and politics are inextricable linked, especially in that part of the world. Economic reintegration cannot help but result in a certain level of political integration, and considering Russia’s position of economic dominance in Eurasia, it cannot help but result in “a regathering of the Russian lands” (or what Motyl calls a “creeping re-imperialization”). This circle cannot be squared.

Some Russia-watchers like Nicolai Petro believe that Ukraine Can Have Them and Us.

Few, however, seem to see that there is a third option — embrace Ukraine and turn it to the West’s advantage. Replace the misguided “divide and conquer” strategy that the West has been pursuing in the region with a new one that aims at the simultaneous integration of the Slavic cultural component of Europe into pan-European institutions. Make Ukraine Europe’s indispensable partner for bringing Russia into the European Union. Rather than placing the two countries on different tracks, reward them both for moving along the same path.

Although I respect Petro as an analyst, I think this assessment is pollyannish, a dream that can only be realized if history truly ends. But history never ended. “Divide and conquer” is the way of states and this remains the case to this day, even though it is now far better concealed and fought with money, not motor rifle divisions. This will become clearer in the next few years. Burdened by an increasingly untenable debt load and global commitments, the US and its allies and proxies cannot help focusing inwards during the next decade; even in the unlikely event that it should it tilt sharply back Westwards, the “Ukraine fatigue” that Pfifer warns about is all but inevitable in Western capitals.

In the meantime, Russia is resurging and seemingly set to become a developed nation by the 2020’s. Despite the popularity of EU membership amongst Ukrainians, it is unreachable. Not only are European countries against Ukraine’s accession, but the EU itself now shows more signs of disintegration than further expansion. On the other hand, Ukraine would always be welcome in Eurasia, and as pointed out above even more Ukrainians want to join the Union of Russia and Belarus than the EU. The attractions of joining (ailing) Europe will diminish, while the pressures propelling Ukraine back into (dynamic) Eurasia will intensify.

[Source: A (feasible) geopolitical forecast from the Italian magazine Limes. Though the details will probably be wrong, the general trends correlate with reality].

In his Presidential campaign, Yanukovych told America that Ukraine would be a bridge between East and West. In the coming age of post-peak oil “scarcity industrialism”, one of the surest predictions I can make is that the world will see the retreat of liberal globalization, more protectionism, and the rising preeminence of regional economic blocs. If Ukraine were to follow Yanukovych’s or Petro’s vision, its bridge would not survive; it would get sucked into a geopolitical black hole. And empires rarely tolerate vacuums on their borders.

Hence the contradictory views of many Ukrainians on how to reconcile Ukraine with a Russified Eurasia, and the profound challenges its rulers face in balancing national interests against the imminent return of history.

* To be achieved by glorifying freedom-fighting pogromists, making an anti-Ukrainian genocide out of a Stalinist democide, changing the Great Patriotic War to World War Two in history textbooks, etc.

** Personally, I am a moderate “Eurasianist” and support (non-coercive) economic, political, and military integration between Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. As I’ve argued on this blog, it would provide manifold benefits to the majority of Eurasian people. Does that make me a “Russian chauvinist”? In my own (unavoidably biased) view, probably not, though that really depends on who you ask.

If you like the words I write, and want me to write more of them, consider donating or supporting me on Patreon.