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.
Here, Stalin and Poland come to mind again. The balance of power favored the United States after World War II, at least until the Soviets developed their own nuclear weapons. Still, the propitious international situation enabled Stalin to turn Poland into a Soviet vassal state; he used force and deceit to complete the job. His outlook was revealing: speaking of World War II in 1945, Stalin was reported to have stated that “This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach.” Indeed, the Red Army decided the communist victory in Poland—and several other East European states. Now, the length of the Kremlin’s energy pipelines decides the outer limits of the Russian empire. The means of conquest may be somewhat different. But the Russian leaders’ assumption that security and power depends largely on the size of imperial domains is very much the same.
Empires have traditionally paid a heavy price for failing to balance out coercion with compromise. “The more a nation is governed in accordance with its wishes, its character, and its habits, the more devoted it is to its rulers,” wrote Prince Adam Czartoryski to his friend and boss, Russian Tsar Alexander I, in 1806. Alexander failed to pay heed; as a result, Poles overwhelmingly supported Napoleon when he invaded Russia shortly thereafter. During the Cold War, the Kremlin relied more on coercion than concessions to keep Poland in check. And in response, between 1944 and 1989, Poles staged violent uprisings and peaceful protests against the system they considered alien. By the time of the Polish crisis of 1980-81 (widespread strikes organized by the Solidarity labor union), the Soviets refused to intervene. They had just embarked on a costly war meant to save socialism in Afghanistan. Fraught with antagonism and animosity, the Soviet empire turned out to be an expensive enterprise. And then, in 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
So if today’s Ukraine is indeed a bit like yesterday’s Poland, there are lessons to be drawn. Once Mr. Putin drives a strong wedge between Ukraine and Europe, he and his successors had better think of a way to make his anti-Western, anti-liberal vision of the world attractive to the Ukrainians. Right now he has little to offer beyond Russia’s economy powered largely by profits from oil and gas; a corrupt, despotic political culture; and a mixture of Russian nationalist, xenophobic, and homophobic sloganeering. As soon as this mixture will be enough to the majority of Ukrainians, or indeed, residents of other post-Soviet states, the Russian empire might prove to be an appealing alternative. But now, with Ukraine’s one foot in Europe, one can assume that many people in this post-Soviet state want more.