Delivered by James Sherr
Senior Fellow, Royal Institute of International Affairs
March 8, 2012
“Ukraine at the Crossroads”
I will have the temerity to open by noting that this is my fourth visit to Ottawa. I feel privileged to be back and delighted to be among so many old acquaintances. I also feel gratified to be introduced by my good friend Robert Amsterdam whom I see often at various diplomatic roundtables at Chatham House.
Given my topic, I suspect that the question foremost on your minds is clearly the following: “What can we expect from Russia-Ukraine relations after Putin’s ‘victory’—with a ‘victory in what’ being a big side question?”
The first thing we need to understand is what is not going to change. Unless and until there is a revolution in thinking and practice in Ukraine, Russia is going to remain a country which, by and large, regards Ukraine’s independence as a historical aberration and as an anti-Russian geopolitical project. Ukraine for Russians—Ukraine for Russia—is part of Russia’s identity. The notion that “St. Petersburg is the brain, Moscow is the heart and Kyiv is the ‘mother’ of Russia” is deeply embedded in the Russian psyche and therefore, regardless of how Ukrainians may view the relationship, Russians generally do not understand the charge of neo-imperialism; they regard Ukrainians, Byelorussians and Russians as essentially a single ‘people’. This is not a sentiment confined to the current regime or the President-elect Putin, although he feels these things, as does current President Medvedev, with a particular passion and intensity. Let there be no doubt about that. It is a sentiment that is shared with a very large number of Russian liberals who have long hated the ‘system’, but are absolutely faithful to Vernadsky’s axiom that “democracy in Russia ends where the question of Ukraine begins”. It was Alexey Navalny who said recently in Ukraine on public TV that “we are, practically speaking, one and the same narod”. Russia, under Putin, has been devoting itself in Ukraine, first & foremost, to ‘identity politics’. It is multidimensional, it is focused and it is very aggressive; it has recently felt very little pushback in Ukraine and it has been very little noticed abroad. It is something that certainly will not diminish in the foreseeable future. If there was a revolution in thinking and practice in Ukraine, you could almost tangibly sense what substantial implications this would have on the character of Russia itself and, knowing that, you could understand that Ukraine’s future course is almost as vital an interest for Russia as it is for Ukraine itself. Do not underestimate, now that Mr. Putin is coming back to the presidency, what the stakes are and the risks that may be run.
That is my first point. Secondly, the geopolitical framework—the atmospherics, if you will—in Europe, as the Russians see it, has become darker, tougher, more Darwinian. In the 1990s, the Russians generally had a positive view of the strengthening of the European Union because they saw the European project as a counter to NATO and the US. But over the last ten years, they have come to correctly understand that the EU, before all else, is a project or mechanism of integration on the basis of a political and socio-economic model that is, in most respects, incompatible with that which is developing and maturing in Russia and. for that matter, in most of the post Soviet space. That model—the post Soviet construct—is network driven rather that market driven; it is not motivated by a ethos of competitiveness but rather a desire for monopoly; it is not founded on property rights and judicial integrity but on patron-client relations, an incessant need for order and on privileged relations between business structures and power structures on every level. It is also based on money—lots of money—which is used not only to keep certain networks where they are or strengthen them, but also to expand them abroad, outside the former Soviet Union, so as to undermine the ethos and regulatory structures and mechanisms of the European Union. And therefore, this relationship—between these two very different models of economics—is not simply confined to bilateral relations with Ukraine; it effects all of Europe. The Russians fear that the European Union is building a new ‘Iron Curtain’ that is moving East; they seek to move it back West. And the fact that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are part of EU and NATO is not seen by them, at this point, as much of a deterrent.
All of this is the second reality—and that reality is magnified by the fact that the just described economic system is also Ukraine’s economic system. The failure of the Orange tandem to understand, to address it—indeed to make it the top priority, preserved Ukraine’s greatest vulnerability when the tandem was in power; now, Yanukovych is strengthening the construct. Is he strengthening it to help Russia? No!! He is strengthening it to help himself. President Yanukovych is doubtless someone who would prefer that Ukraine have an association agreement with the EU than that it be a member of a Russian dominated CIS Customs Union. But he would rather be president of a Ukraine that is joining the Customs Union than not be president of a Ukraine that is joining EU. And that preference needs to be understood.
Now, let’s look forward. Today, Vladimir Putin feels very strong—and with good reason. And—I hate to say it, though we will likely soon have to accept it—as unsettling as the precipice was, the present wave of opposition has crested.
But, at the same time, even Putin knows, and we should know as well, that the next presidential term is not going to be like the last one was. One, he knows that “the teflon has worn off’; the illusions are gone. Two—and one of the world’s principal experts will be speaking to this issue in the next session—the dynamics of the economic trends of Russia, at present, are not favorable; they are not good. Thirdly, the entire economic construct/model will find itself under economic threat if, as is quite possible in the next five years, the price of oil falls below 80 dollars a barrel and stays there.
So the initial question is: When will these strains become apparent to those who today feel so strong?
The follow-up uncertainty we have to consider is how the system will react when it is under strain. And here we have to be worried about it because there is a history in Russia and in the Soviet Union regarding how you react under pressure and it is not a ‘course of incremental retreat’. It is rather a course of resourcefulness and maneuver and using retreat to regain the offensive and unbalance/divide opponents. So what do I mean? Putin himself not only understands but positively thrives in this work; he is a master not only of penetrating the opposition but of creating opponents who can later be co-opted—thus confusing the issue. Ask yourself what the reaction would be in the West—Washington, Brussels, Ottawa—if, at the end of this year, Dmitry Medvedev is palpably incapable of managing the national economy, particularly under the mentioned strains, and is thanked for his services and Alexey Kudrin, a very principled person, is brought back. He is indeed a principled individual and a consummate professional. He is also a very robust critic of the current macro-economic policy.But he is likewise what the Russians call an ‘operativni chalovyek’. He has said very little against the real sinews that make the ‘system’ what it is—the hidden system of privileges and prerogatives that connect money and power in Russia. When [Kudrin] comes back and the West decides that Putin is suddenly back on a reformist path, what, for instance, will the people in this room do or say?
All of this leads us to a still larger uncertainty—and reality—that exists. The ‘system’ in Russia is much bigger that Putin—just as it was bigger than any leader during the Soviet Union with the arguable exception of Josef Stalin. There are a hundred billionaires in Russia; look at the organizational charts of power provided by Russian political scientists and you will see 50 to 100 individuals. Half or 2/3 of those on the charts are people of whom the West has never heard, but they are there. They are there and many are thinking about themselves and their futures—they want the system preserved for them and their offspring. In doing so, they are also thinking that if Putin is unable to sustain the initiative and maintain it, they have to think beyond him. And in the volatile climate, you can start thinking about Alexey Navalny and other figures who are potentially extremely attactive. And I wonder what the Western response would be, because I can assure you the Russians have already pre-programmed much of that response.
Now, to my last point. What are the implications to Ukraine? We know perfectly well, for starters, several things. One, Ukrainians understand better than most that Gazprom is not a business, but a power. Two, from the beginning, that power—or the ‘energy card’—has been linked, most conspicuously under Putin’s rule, to enhancing geopolitical and geo-economic positions. Because the Russians have pursued a well thought out strategy on this account and because Yanukovych and Ukraine before him generally have compiled such a dismal record of malpractice in the energy sector that they have managed to convince the world ‘that any problems they may have are all of their own making’—here I simply want to add that Yushchenko must openly bear responsibility for some of this if you look at 2006, the Russians have managed to maintain the image—and, yes, even the reality—of being ‘solid players’ in all of this.
But there is one exception of note. If you look just outside Ukraine, you will find it: the ‘South Stream’ pipeline. Please recount that what we all thought of as a ‘virtual project’, is now looking like something that will be built. And it will be built because of the energy and resources that an individual like Putin knows how to concentrate on the impossible, the ineffective and the unworkable—through inducement, through bullying and through sheer force of will. How is Russia going to respond to events in Ukraine as the strains inside Russia mount and become more serious—as the unworkable becomes the unpalatable? A serious expert would not make a rash prediction. But I will be rash and make one: I think there is a very strong chance that, in this presidential term, when it comes to Ukraine, Russia will go for closure.
There is a final small riddle in all of this which I look forward to discussing it in our last session and that is how the Russia-Poland ‘reset’ will play out in this design, because although the Poles understand what they are doing, the Russians also understand what they are doing. For the latter, this is a ‘diplomatic revolution’ and their views ought to be put on display without illusions or embellishment.
My time is up, Ladies and Gentlemen, and rather than add a number of recommendations, I think this might be a gracious moment for me to close and turn the floor over to my friend and sometime colleague, Andrey Andreyvich Piontkovski. Thank you very much for your attention.