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Balancing Ukraine

By Dr Kevork Oskanian.

A mere three months ago, Vladimir Putin probably thought he had scored one of his presidency's greatest coups, when he coerced or persuaded – depending on your perspective - Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovych into abandoning the long-expected initialling of his country's Association Agreement with the EU. Yanukovich's U-turn had, to some extent, been presaged by an earlier about-face – under very similar circumstances – of far smaller Armenia's Sargsyan. And for a while, it appeared that Kiev would sooner or later follow several other former Soviet Republics into the Russian president's latest geopolitical project of choice: the Eurasian Economic Union. The Kremlin probably did expect such a move to invite trouble for someone who, despite an occasionally fraught relationship, had long been seen as "Moscow's man in Kiev". But it probably did not anticipate the ferocity of the wave of indignation that followed, much less foresee Yanukovych's fall, a few months later, as a result.

And yet, Kremlin policymakers should have known better; everyone in Moscow would have been well aware of the manifold splits and contradictions within Ukrainian society. In much simplified language: much of the East looks East, much of the West looks West, and much of the Crimea – which only became part of the country in the 1950s as, quite literally, a Soviet-era 'present' from Russia – sees its current position an unfortunate quirk of history. While realities on the ground are much more complicated than what such neat geographic line-drawing would suggest – the East-West division is actually more of a gradual transition - the basic point on a deeply conflicted society remains acutely valid: Ukraine could not move towards Eurasia without first tearing itself apart.

Ever since it emerged from the Soviet Union, Ukraine has been an incoherent state. And incoherent states have a peculiar problem: they are unable to generate the security practices or, in Joel Migdal's terms, the collective "survival strategies" required for the state to function as a coherent institutional and social corpus. If the state is to enjoy a monopoly of legitimate force over a given territory and population, such a monopoly would require some measure of agreement on the values and identities it is meant to safeguard, as well as the means through which such safeguarding should occur. That minimal amount of consensus on state identity has been woefully absent since 1991.

As a result, Ukrainians remain in fundamental disagreement over which values and identities their state should secure; and this, in turn, shapes their diverging threat perceptions to a considerable degree. If you define Ukraine as Western, and see Moscow as the West's other, you will tend to see Russia – especially Putin's Russia – as an autocratic neo-imperial threat; if, on the other hand, you place Ukraine in the Russian/Eurasian cultural sphere, you will see the liberally decadent West – as it has widely come to be portrayed in Putin's Russia and beyond - as a fundamental menace to that identity. Needless to say, such selective and contradictory world-views present benign policymakers with complications, and, conversely, those of a more malicious bent with fertile opportunities for meddling and provocation.

What has been remarkable over the past few weeks has been the way both sides in this conflict – including their Western and Russian supporters – have generated the sort of selective narratives that, in the context of an incoherent state, are pregnant with danger, regardless of the relative merits of closer European ties or membership in the Eurasian Union. The pro-Russian press has latched onto the (admittedly highly disturbing) presence of right-wing extremists among the Euromaidan demonstrators to dehumanise the Euromaidan opponents of Yanukovych's volte-face as 'Nazis' and 'fascists'. The Kremlin's policymakers had clearly over-estimated their point man's ability to repress the large part of the Ukrainian population that had adopted values and identities fundamentally at odds with Putin's plans for his 'Near Abroad'. Resistance to a perceived existential threat to those values – membership of the Eurasian Union - had to be conveniently explained away, delegitimised and marginalised, so as to allow for its repression without affecting the narrative of shared economic interests and 'shared Soviet/Russian values' on which the Eurasian project is supposedly based.

The danger now is of events swinging to the other extreme. Just as Yanukovych provoked his Western-leaning countrymen onto the streets by ignoring their sensitivities, Ukraine's parliament – or Verkhovna Rada – risks inflaming similar 'securitisations' in the Russian-speaking parts of the country. Russian has already been demoted as a regional language, and deputies from the virulently right-wing Svoboda party have proposed an end to the retransmission of Russian Television channels. Presenting a government consisting entirely of pro-European elements as one of "national unity" when it is clearly not further complicates matters. Such selective perception should not remain unchallenged; it risks repeating those mistakes that were made earlier in places like Georgia and Moldova, where nationalist post-Soviet governments needlessly excluded and provoked their minorities in avoidable blunders that then led Ossetians, Abkhazians and Trasniestrians to break away in response to perceived existential threats to their divergent values and identities – with, as is now widely accepted, the help of elements in Moscow.

Could these elements do it again – on a much larger scale – in Ukraine? Russia is emphatically not interested in a violent, uncontrolled breakup of its large neighbour; but the key words here are violent and uncontrolled. The stakes for Russia being what they are, some in Moscow's corridors of power could see the Crimea in particular as a place where Georgian- or Moldovan-style meddling could be feasible. It is the most clearly pro-Russian corner of Ukraine. As a peninsula, it is geographically separated from the rest of the country, and, therefore, relatively more self-contained than the Eastern regions. With the Black Sea port of Sevastopol acting as the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet since Tsarist times, it is seen as absolutely crucial to the Kremlin's military capabilities (not to mention its prestige).

The Kremlin is interested in keeping 'Little Russia' within its orbit. Ukraine is not just an essential part of Russia's creation myth. More significantly, it is a westward transit corridor for Russian and Central Asian gas, still central to the hydrocarbon-powered strategy that Moscow has been pursuing under Putin, targeted at stemming (and partially reversing) the effects of the 'geopolitical disaster' that the fall of the Soviet Union is still seen as by large parts of the Siloviki elite. The Kremlin could simply not allow Ukraine to follow Poland, Hungary and Romania - in a continuation of 1989-1991 – without putting up a spirited fight. In terms of Russia's territorial sensitivities, the Western frontier would otherwise move far too close to Moscow for comfort.

This does not necessarily mean playing the separatist card: there are several other punitive levers of influence at Moscow's disposal – Ukraine's energy dependence, its weak financial position, its largely Russian export market. Moscow is not interested in a violent breakup of Ukraine, and the ethnic variant remains unlikely because of the enormous risks involved. However in the Crimea at least, some could come to think these risks manageable and proportionate in light of the enormous stakes involved. The new authorities in Kiev should therefore aim to maximise their inclusiveness in the weeks and months to come, and prudently avoid any moves that would present the ethnic card on a silver platter. Marginalising the extreme right and its provocative nationalist bravura would be a good place to start.

February 2014