Russia and Ukraine: Part II

By Nicholas Dima l January 26, 2009

Tymoshenko Yushchenko Yanukovych Yanukovych with Putin

Ukraine’s attitude was decisive in sealing the destiny of the Soviet Union. In his book, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, Leon Aron devoted several pages to how hard Boris Yeltsin had to negotiate a new relationship between Moscow and Kiev, with the Ukrainian leaders. Neither Mikhail Gorbachev nor Boris Yeltsin wanted or expected the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the dismemberment came as a shock to both the leadership and average Russians. To avoid a total disintegration, Gorbachev and Yeltsin proposed to replace the USSR with a Union of Sovereign States. Ukraine, however, rejected any further submission to Moscow and insisted on a simple “community of equal and independent republics,” whose primary objective was to be economic. Even the road toward such a limited community was very bumpy. President Yeltsin declared that he could not conceive a new union without Ukraine, but on December 1, 1991, Kiev organized a referendum in which 80 percent of its people favored independence. Once again, Ukraine chose to go its own way, but contentious problems arose from the start. Among the problems that required further negotiations were the questions of: the Russian minority living in Ukraine; the sovereignty of Crimea; the nuclear arsenal left behind in the Ukraine; and, the ownership of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet.

From a political point of view, during the first years after the Soviet collapse, Ukraine was led by former Communist Party bosses, including Leonid Kravchuck and Leonid Kuchma, who in many ways acted in concert with their former colleagues in Moscow. In December 2004, however, a younger, Western-leaning, non-Communist leader, Viktor Yushchenko, was elected president. Suddenly Ukraine appeared to be on its way to real independence and the new president acted immediately to prove it. As reported by on August 13, 2008, the new leader “issued an edict mandating that all Russian naval and air forces traversing Ukrainian territory and in particular the Russian Black Sea Fleet give their Ukrainian counterparts a 72-hour notice on movement, destination, cargo and munitions details.” The Russian Foreign Ministry immediately called the decision a serious anti-Russian move. Moscow would not easily relinquish its control over Ukraine and to this end it was determined to exploit all the weaknesses of its former vassal.

Ethnic, Cultural and Other Related Problems:

The most difficult obstacle for the Russians to accept Ukraine’s total separation and independence is probably historical and psychological. Aron argues that Ukraine occupies “a unique place in Russia’s historic memory and national consciousness.” The current generation of Russians cannot reconcile themselves with the loss of their former empire and Ukraine is the key to their European holdings. Hypothetically, it appears that Moscow might even be willing to sign some union accord with the European Union and possibly join NATO if Russia could hold on to its former domains and would be treated as an equal partner. But to let Ukraine join NATO and the EU is unconceivable for Moscow.

From an ethnic standpoint, almost one third of Ukraine’s population is non-Ukrainian. Of its 49 million inhabitants about 20 percent are Russian and at least another 10 percent speak Russian as their mother tongue. Other important minorities are Tatars, Romanians, Poles, etc., who also prefer Russian as a means of cross-national communication. Linguistically, the Ukrainian language is now official and mandatory, but Russian remains widespread. In addition, many Russians and Russian speakers are concentrated in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea, where they outnumber the Ukrainians.

From a religious point of view, most Ukrainians are Eastern Orthodox Christians, but the Orthodox Church is almost equally split between those who belong to the Russian Patriarchate of Moscow and those who belong to the national Ukrainian Patriarchate, which is not even recognized by Moscow. The relationship between these two churches is uneasy to say the least.

Economically, eastern Ukraine was mostly developed during the Soviet years and Moscow is unwilling to relinquish its rights over this area. As a matter of fact, recently when Ukraine wanted to sell modern Soviet-era tanks manufactured in this region to a third country, Moscow claimed that it could not do so without its consent. From certain points of view, Russia’s military hardware depends on this Ukrainian region, which begs the question of, ‘what happens if this region threatens to fall into NATO’s hands?’

Geopolitical Problems:

The status of Crimea is another bitter bone of contention between Russia and Ukraine. During the early Middle Ages, Crimea was inhabited by Slavic people in the north and by Greeks and Italians living in city-states by the Black Sea in the south. Then, during the 13th and 14th centuries the peninsula was conquered by the invading Tatars who later allied themselves with the Turks. The Turks kept Crimea from 1478 until 1774, when it was occupied by Russia. Consequently, from 1774 until 1954 Crimea was part of tsarist and later Soviet Russia. During those centuries the proportion of Tatar inhabitants slowly diminished, while the number of Russians and Ukrainians increased. In 1954, on the anniversary of 300 years of Russian-Ukrainian “union,” former premier Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine probably as a gesture of good will. At the time, an independent Ukraine was beyond imagination.

Crimea is now an autonomous republic of Ukraine with its own constitution and parliament. The Peninsula has an area of 10,100 square miles and a population of about two million. Of these inhabitants 58 percent are ethnic Russians, 24 percent are Ukrainians and 12 percent are Tatars. The main port of Crimea is Sevastopol, where the remaining part of the former Soviet Black Sea Navy is based. For years following the Soviet collapse, this Navy became a contentious issue between Ukraine and Russia, but after difficult negotiations the two sides signed an agreement granting Russia most of the Navy and allowing it temporary lease of the harbor. However, the agreement is due to expire in 2017 and Kiev is not inclined to extend it, which means additional problems. The recent dispute over the Kerch Strait illustrates once again the precarious state of Russian-Ukrainian relations.

The Crimean Peninsula is separated from Russia to the east by the Kerch Strait which also closes the small Azov Sea. During the Soviet years, the Strait was controlled by Moscow and it made little difference who had nominal title to it. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia became very concerned, especially since Moscow and Kiev did not draw the maritime boundary through this Strait. According to’s November 10th article, Ukraine, Russia: The Importance of the Kerch Strait, Russia currently controls half of the Strait and rents the other half from Ukraine, in order to freely transport its goods into the Sea of Azov. Russia has also made several offers to rebuild the transport systems across the Strait, but Ukraine refused. Very recently, to prove that the land belongs to Ukraine, President Yushchenko ordered more troops into Crimea and additional patrol boats to watch the port of Sevastopol. The Ukrainian authorities declared, however, that they did not intend to wage war against Russia, but neither would they allow a replay of the South Ossetian scenario to take place in the Crimea.

International military specialists claim that in case of a conflict over the Kerch Strait Ukraine cannot possibly challenge Russia successfully. They also underline that during such a conflict most of the local Crimean population would side with Russia, which could lead to a civil war. The Kerch incident was rather small, but a small dispute like that could trigger a much larger one, given the strategic importance of this area to the Kremlin. Russia’s fear is that an independent-minded Ukraine would allow NATO forces access to the Sea of Azov and thus encroach even further upon Russia’s interests. In preparation for such an eventuality, Moscow is issuing Russian passports to many inhabitants of Crimea and this trend has accelerated after the recent Georgian war. If eastern Ukraine is highly influenced by Russia and would side with Moscow in a possible conflict, western Ukraine is a different story.

By historical standards, Western Ukraine is a relatively recent addition to the country with lands annexed, some of them very recently, from Poland, Slovakia and Romania. In the past, many inhabitants here belonged to Poland or Austria and some of them became Catholics and acquired a Western education. To this day, these people feel like they belong to Europe rather than to Russia. In fact, such people helped the modern Ukrainian renaissance and after the fall of the USSR have insisted on strong links to Western Europe. It was also in this part of Ukraine that presidential candidate and former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko found his largest mass of supporters. However, the difference between east and west Ukraine made the noted American scholar and Harvard professor, Samuel P. Huntington, write in his book, The Clash of Civilizations, that “Ukraine is a cleft country with two distinct cultures.” Indeed, Ukraine is roughly split along the Dnepr River with the eastern part of the country being very much pro-Russian and the western part being pro-European. Accordingly, it is said that in case of a conflict, Ukraine could split along cultural and linguistic lines. And Moscow is all too willing to provoke such a split. In fact, it appears that Moscow is already preparing for such a scenario, as revealed in the Carpathian area of Ukraine.

In the westernmost corner of Ukraine one finds the Carpathian Oblast, a scenic mountainous area, which was acquired by the former Soviet Union mostly from Slovakia after the Second World War. The area is strategically located in the heart of Central Europe near Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Poland. Economically, Ukraine promotes the Carpathians as a popular tourist and resort area. Politically, the Carpathians are an entirely different matter. This area is inhabited chiefly by Ruthenians, a population linguistically related to both Russians and Ukrainians, but still distinct of the two. Recently, the Ruthernian leaders organized themselves into a regional council and after a meeting held in October of 2008 issued an unexpected statement. They stressed their decision to pursue their own independence following the Kosovo model. The leader of the council, Dimitri Sidor, is an Orthodox priest subordinated not to Kiev but directly to Moscow. According to the Ukrainian TV Channel 5, the Ruthenians insisted that if Kiev would not grant them autonomy by December 1, 2008, they would seek a separate independent state under the name of Carpathian Russia. In the meantime many Ruthenians began to ask Moscow to grant them Russian passports and citizenship and Russia was eager to oblige. A similar ploy was used in the two breakaway provinces of Georgia, before Moscow sent in the troops to allegedly defend the local Russian citizens.

To the west as well, Ukraine also has territorial disputes with Romania. In 1940, prior to the beginning of World War II, the USSR invaded the Romanian provinces of Bessarabia and Bukovina and annexed part of them to Ukraine. The leaders in Kiev are aware of this thorny issue and claim that Romania is presently Ukraine’s worst enemy. Having obtained foreign lands that never before belonged to Ukraine, Kiev is now worried that in the new world order it might lose some of them. Indeed, a Russian-Ukrainian conflict will undoubtedly involve Moldova, where Russia maintains troops and military equipment on Ukraine’s southwest flank. This will attract Romania, and would further complicate the Eastern European scene. With all these ethnic and territorial implications, Ukraine is caught in a real dilemma. Should it continue to pursue a pro-Western policy, Russia may simply decide to dismember it.

What Should the West Expect?

For the time being, the best Ukrainian policy to keep the country together is to preserve the status quo and to continue to act as a bridge between Russia and Europe. But as Huntington noted, a bridge is not a strong and desirable position and it can eventually break. That reality makes the Ukrainians want to anchor themselves to a strong shore, but they face a difficult dilemma; should it be with Russia or the West?

For now, Kiev and Moscow are mostly posturing and are rather careful not to cross the line. President Yushchenko may really want to join the EU and NATO, but the Ukrainian leadership is split on these issues and he does not have much support, even in Kiev. His chief ally, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, is also a Ukrainian patriot, but she seems to be an ambitious woman, who wants to become president herself. This is weakening the present political alliance. The former prime minister and contender to the presidency, Viktor Yanukovych, is avowedly pro-Russian having received strong support from Moscow, particularly from then-President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as evidenced by the 2004 election results from eastern Ukraine. Parliamentary and presidential elections will be held in 2009, but it is unlikely that they will resolve the real Ukrainian dilemma.

At the recent EU-Russia meeting held in Nice, Russia’s President Dimitri Medvedev appeared determined to keep Ukraine close to Moscow. As reported by Agence France Press (AFP), Medvedev declared that Moscow’s recognitions of the Georgian breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are “final and irrevocable” and he firmly opposed Ukraine inclusion in NATO. As also reported by AFP, Russia’s ambassador to Brussels warned strongly against granting Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans (MAP) to start negotiations for integration into NATO. Actually, during the 2008 NATO Summit held in Bucharest, the main European countries opposed the integration of Ukraine and Georgia in the Alliance. Strangely, the United States insisted on granting membership to the two countries, and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared that negotiations could start even without going through the preparation stages. Should the U.S. insist on including Georgia and Ukraine in NATO, such an insistence may cause a split in the organization, which is what Moscow wants in the first place.

During the Bucharest Summit, Ukraine’s ambassador to Romania declared that his country was very determined to join NATO. As reported by the Romanian Press Agency, Ukraine’s ambassador underlined that to this end Ukraine was prepared to fight “till the last bullet.” All these facts and statements made Moscow draw the line and put its foot down. From a Russian point of view, Ukraine will have to stay as it is or risk the consequences. Should Ukraine cross the line, the world should expect the unexpected. In all likelihood, Russia would invade the Ukrainian territory east of the Dnepr River, ostensibly to defend the Russian minority there and then it may accept to negotiate a settlement. Europe and the United States may not accept a replay of Georgia, but it is doubtful that NATO will intervene militarily, although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Volodymyr Ohryzko signed the U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership and Security in Washington on December 19, 2008. In the event of such a scenario, the United States and the North Atlantic Alliance will have to a take a clear-cut position in order to save Western and especially American credibility.

Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.