Geopolitics matters. Ukraine may be fated to remain in Russia’s orbit as long as the Kremlin has the power to disrupt the country’s westward drift. But unless Russia develops a genuine power of attraction, Ukraine will become a festering imperial sore.
The conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine certainly differs from the “old” Cold War. Yes, just like in the old days, Russia and the West claim to offer alternative solutions to the world’s problems. Each country’s politicians believe that they represent the superior option. But unlike communism earlier, the Russian anti-liberalism hardly constitutes an ideological threat to the West. Russia and the world had already been economically codependent during the Cold War; now they are even more intertwined. Recently, the crashing ruble has shown that the new Russian autocracy is even less of an autarky than its Soviet predecessor was.
Still, today’s Ukrainian battleground resembles Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Like Joseph Stalin in Poland, Vladimir Putin tries to assume control over Ukraine through faits accomplis. Now, as then, the Kremlin actively intervenes in the affairs of its sovereign neighbor. Publicly, the Russian leaders deny any such involvement, and in a well-rehearsed Soviet scenario, accuse the West of meddling instead. In the bipolar world of the Cold War, Stalin needed a supine Poland as a buffer state against the West. Today, against the backdrop of deepening ideological incongruities, political divisions, and international tensions, Mr. Putin clearly wants Ukraine to fill that role.
Much like Poland after World War II, today, Ukraine is a terrain contested by Russia and the West. Much like Poland then, Ukraine may now be doomed—at least until Russia reforms itself or, like the USSR, collapses under the tremendous weight of its own problems. A weak agricultural country with inexperienced, quarrelsome elites, Ukraine has little the West will want to fight for on the long run. Neighboring Russia is big, flush with oil and gas, and desperate to prove its strength to the world. Europe is dependent on Russian oil and business and internally divided, and the United States—freshly out of the recession, pivoting to Asia in its foreign policy, and militarily overstretched throughout the Middle East—is far away anyway.
With oil prices falling, the ruble is tumbling down, and Russia’s immediate economic prospects are grim. But the Russian leaders’ political will to retain Ukraine is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. The lands that became modern Ukraine had been part of Russian empire for three and a half centuries. Vladimir Putin has shown inexhaustible energy in obstructing Ukraine’s rapprochement with the West; Ukraine’s prospective successes in integrating with the EU (or, in a more adventurous scenario, with NATO) would be a heavy blow to Russia’s prestige and to Mr. Putin’s ego. Therefore in the long run, it seems unlikely that any person or institution can prevent the Russian president and his cronies from wresting Ukraine back firmly into the Russian orbit. Continue reading ‘Patryk Babiracki: Post-Soviet Ukraine: Not Unlike Postwar Poland. What Putin’s Russia (and the West) Can Learn from the Cold War’ »