Editorial The Economist, 18.12.2021
It might have, had it chosen democracy
For centuries Ukraine had anchored Russia’s identity. The idea of Kyiv as just the capital of a neighbouring country was unimaginable to Russians. But not to Ukrainians KGB, hardline Communists and the army had placed Mr Gorbachev under house arrest and mounted a coup. After three days of peaceful resistance led by Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Soviet Republic, they backed down. That ruled out any return to a Soviet past. But Mr Gorbachev still clung to hopes for some sort of post-Soviet liberal successor as a way to hold at least some of the republics together. Mr Shushkevich’s call killed any such aspiration.
One of its triggers was Russia’s economic collapse. As Yegor Gaidar, Yeltsin’s top economic reformer, was later to write, it was an autumn of “grim food lines…pristinely empty stores…women rushing around in search of some food, any food…an average salary of seven dollars a month”. To successfully enact the sweeping reforms Mr Gaidar was designing, Yeltsin needed a Russia which controlled its own currency. That meant leaving the USSR. Mr Shuskevich, too, was motivated by the dreadful economy. He had invited Yeltsin to the retreat in the forest in the hope that by wining and dining him he would ensure that Russian gas and electricity would keep flowing to Belarus. It would have been a hard winter without them. The venue he chose was a lodge called Viskuli, where Leonid Brezhnev and Nikita Khrushchev had entertained themselves shooting bison and other game (hence its hard-wired connection to Moscow).
Yeltsin suggested that Leonid Kravchuk, the president of the Ukrainian republic, join them. The previous Sunday, Ukraine had voted overwhelmingly to ratify the declaration of independence from the Soviet Union which had been passed in its parliament, the Rada, immediately after the August coup.
Yeltsin did not just want what Mr Kravchuk had achieved in Ukraine for economic reasons. Independence would, he felt, be crucial to consolidating his power and pursuing liberal democracy. And Ukraine—never, until the 19th century, a well-defined territory, and home to various ethnic enclaves and deep cultural divides—becoming an independent unitary state within its Soviet borders set a precedent for Russia to define itself the same way, and refuse independence to restive territories such as Chechnya. That was why the Russian republic was one of the first three polities in the world to recognise it as an independent state.
But if a world in which Ukraine, Russia and indeed Belarus were completely independent from the Soviet Union was attractive, one in which they were not tied to each other in some other way was very troubling to a Russian like Yeltsin. It was not just that Ukraine was the second-most-populous and economically powerful of the remaining republics, its industries tightly integrated with Russia’s. Nor was it the question of what was to happen to the nuclear forces stationed there but still notionally under the command of Soviet authorities in Moscow. It went deeper.
In “Rebuilding Russia”, an essay published in theUSSR’s most widely circulated newspaper the year before, Alexander Solzhenitsyn had asked “What exactly is Russia? Today, now? And—more importantly—tomorrow?…Where do Russians themselves see the boundaries of their land?” The need to let the Baltic states go was clear—and when they left the Soviet Union in 1990, Solzhenitsyn, Yeltsin and most of Russia rallied against revanchist attempts to keep them in. Much the same was true of Central Asia and the Caucasus; they were colonies. Belarus and Ukraine were part of the metropolitan core. The bonds which tied “Little Russians” (ie Ukrainians), “Great Russians” and Belarusians together, Solzhenitsyn argued, must be defended by all means short of war.
For centuries Ukraine had anchored Russia’s identity. As the centre of the storied medieval confederation known as Kyivan Rus, which stretched from the White Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south, Kyiv was seen as the cradle of Russian and Belarusian culture and the font of their Orthodox faith. Being united with Ukraine was fundamental to Russia’s feeling of itself as European. In “Lost Kingdom” (2017) Serhii Plokhy, a Ukrainian historian, describes how “the Kyivan myth of origins…became the cornerstone of Muscovy’s ideology as the polity evolved from a Mongol dependency to a sovereign state and then an empire.” Russian empire required Ukraine; and Russia had no history other than one of empire. The idea of Kyiv as just the capital of a neighbouring country was unimaginable to Russians.
But not to Ukrainians. At the first dinner in Viskuli, with Yeltsin and Mr Kravchuk sitting opposite each other, a number of toasts were raised to friendship. The friendship Mr Kravchuk wanted, though, was of the cordial sort that comes with a decent alimony cheque, not the sort that goes with a fresh plighting of troths.
Mr Kravchuk was born in 1934 in the western Ukrainian province of Volhynia—then part of Poland, but ceded to theUSSRas part of the infamous pact it made with Germany in 1939. A childhood surrounded by ethnic cleansing, repression and war had taught him, as he put it, “to walk between the raindrops”. It was a skill that made him an ideal party apparatchik and then saw him turn himself into a champion of Ukrainian independence—not for any high-minded ideological reasons, but because he wanted the chance to be in charge of his own country.
The referendum had given it to him, with independence endorsed by majorities in every part of the country, both those in the formerly Austro-Hungarian west, with its Baroque churches and coffee shops, and in the Sovietised and industrialised east, where most of Ukraine’s 11m ethnic Russians lived. There were practical things he needed from Russia, and Russian interests he recognised; he wanted a good relationship with Yeltsin and so had come to the forest meeting. But he was not interested in giving Russia an exit from the union that in any way compromised Ukrainian independence.
The agreement reached, in draft form, at 4am on Sunday morning achieved those aims with a rather neat piece of casuistry. For Russia simply to have followed Ukraine into independence would have left moot the question of the Soviet Union’s residual powers. So instead they abolished the union itself.
The Soviet Union had been formed, in 1922, through a joint declaration by four Soviet republics—the Transcaucasian republic and the three represented at Viskuli. With the Transcaucasian republic long since dismembered, the presidents dissolved by fiat what their forebears had bound together. In its place they put a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)—Mr Kravchuk would not allow any use of the word “union”—with few clearly defined powers which any post-Soviet state would be welcome to join. There was to be no special relationship between the Slavic three.That afternoon the three men signed the agreement, thereby proclaiming that “The USSR as a subject of international law and geopolitical reality has ceased to exist.” It then fell to the most junior of the three—who was also the least enthusiastic about what they had done—to inform Moscow of what had happened.Mr Gorbachev was furious. The importance of Ukraine was not an abstract matter to him. Like Solzhenitsyn, he was the child of a Ukrainian mother and a Russian father. He grew up singing Ukrainian songs and reading Gogol, who reimagined his native country’s folk magic as rich poetry after moving to St Petersburg. The Soviet Union had meant that Mr Gorbachev and others like him, whatever their parentage, could partake in both identities.
More immediately, though the failed coup had made some such break-up more or less inevitable, disassembling a multi-ethnic empire of 250m people was still a subject of huge trepidation. As Solzhenitsyn had written in “Rebuilding Russia”, “The clock of communism has stopped chiming. But its concrete edifice has not yet crumbled. And we must take care not to be crushed beneath its rubble instead of gaining liberty.” The fact that in that rubble, if rubble there was to be, there would be the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, spread between four separate countries (the three Slavic ones and Kazakhstan), frightened statesmen around the world. When, as the economy worsened, Mr Gorbachev went to President George Bush for $10bn-15bn, Bush’s top concern was the nuclear threat. The same worry had led him to oppose Ukraine’s secession in a speech given just before the August coup. “Do you realise what you’ve done?” Mr Gorbachev demanded of Mr Shushkevich. “Once Bush finds out about this, what then?”
The question was being answered on one of the lodge’s other phone lines. Andrei Kozyrev, Russia’s first foreign minister, had had trouble getting through to Bush. A State Department receptionist—Mr Kozyrev did not have the White House number with him—told the man with a Russian accent demanding that she connect someone called Mr Yeltsin to the president that she was “not in the mood for prank calls”. Nor could Mr Kozyrev be called back in a way that might prove his bona fides: he had no idea of the lodge’s phone number. In the end, though, he got through, and was able to act as interpreter as Yeltsin explained to Bush that the world’s largest nuclear arsenal was now in the hands of something called the CIS. If Mr Gorbachev had been unclear how Bush would react, so was Bush himself. A voice memo he recorded the next day is a string of anxious questions: “I find myself on this Monday night, worrying about military action. Where was the [Soviet] army—they’ve been silent. What will happen? Can this get out of hand? Will Gorbachev resign? Will he try to fight back? Will Yeltsin have thought this out properly? It is tough—a very tough situation.” Similar doubt assailed the three presidents in the forest. When Yeltsin and his entourage set off back to Moscow, they joked about their plane being shot down. The laughter was not entirely free from anxiety.
Instead the shooting down of planes, along with the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, the seizure of Crimea, the reassertion that the legacy of Kyivian Rus meant the nations must be shackled together and the reversion of Belarus to dictatorship—that all came later, a sequence of events which led, 30 Decembers later, to 70,000 or more Russian troops on the border of Ukraine and, in a ghastly sideshow, thousands of Middle Eastern refugees stuck in the Belovezh forest itself. The once seemingly settled question of post-Soviet relations between the three nations has once again become an overriding geopolitical concern.
Back then, though, as he stood among the snow-capped pine trees after leaving the meeting, Yeltsin was overcome by a sense of lightness and freedom. “In signing this agreement,” he later recalled, “Russia was choosing a different path, a path of internal development rather than an imperial one…She was throwing off the traditional image of ‘potentate of half the world’, of armed conflict with Western civilisation, and the role of policeman in the resolution of ethnic conflicts. The last hour of the Soviet empire was chiming.” Maybe the convoluted interdependency of Russia and Ukraine did not matter as much as people thought; maybe democratic nationhood was enough. Maybe the problem had been a failure of imagination.
In 1994, after three years of horrific economic contraction, two of the three men who had met at Viskuli fell from power. In Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, who had previously run a large collective piggery, won election over Mr Shushkevich. Mr Lukashenko told people he would sort out the economic mess by taking them back to the security they had had before. Reforms stopped—as would, at a later stage of Mr Lukashenko’s now 27-year reign, competitive and fair elections. The flag, which had been changed to the red and white of the very short-lived Belarusian Republic of 1918, was turned back to one like that of the Soviet era.
There was no such turnaround in Ukraine, where Mr Kravchuk lost the presidential election to Leonid Kuchma, a skilled Soviet-era industrial manager. Mr Kravchuk held the more nationalistic, Ukrainian-speaking west of the country; Mr Kuchma took the Russian-speaking and collectivist regions to the east. But unlike Mr Lukashenko, Mr Kuchma was not a reactionary, and he was to prove canny in wooing Ukrainians who had at first distrusted him.
Yeltsin was not required to stand for election that year. But a year earlier he and his reformists had faced down an insurgency by Communists and an assortment of anti-Western, anti-democratic factions led by the speaker of the parliament. One of their grievances was the loss of Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea reallocated from the Russian republic to the Ukrainian republic in 1954 but still seen as part of Russia by most Russians. A holidaying place for both the Soviet elite and for millions of ordinary people, it had been at the heart of the imperial project since the days of Catherine the Great.
The insurgency of 1993 was bloody; Yeltsin ordered the parliament building shelled by tanks. The public stood by him. A referendum held in the aftermath greatly increased the powers of the presidency. His foreign supporters stood by him too, and the following year a security agreement saw America, Britain and Russia guarantee respect for Ukraine’s integrity within its existing borders—which is to say, including Crimea—in exchange for its giving up the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviet Union. Ukraine was grateful; the West saw further evidence of a transition towards a liberal, democratic Russian state.
Some, though, thought this dangerously optimistic; one such was Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Polish-American diplomat and former national security adviser. In March 1994 Brzezinski took his own shot at Solzhenitsyn’s question—the question he believed, rightly, to provoke “the greatest passion from the majority of [Russian] politicians as well as citizens, namely ‘What is Russia?’” Rather than give a definitive answer, he gave an alternative one: “Russia can be either an empire or a democracy, but it cannot be both.” He was right. Yeltsin’s unburdened moment among the trees had been that of a man who did not want to, and did not have to, rule an empire. He consciously rejected not just the Soviet Union’s ideology and central planning, but also the tools of statecraft that had held it together—repression and lies. To him, the market economy was a condition for freedom, not a substitute for it. His successor, Vladimir Putin, also embraced capitalism. But he saw no need for it to bring freedom with it, and had no problem with a state run through repression and lies. He thus reversed Yeltsin’s democratic project and, though not at first territorially imperialist himself, took the country down the other side of Brzezinski’s fork. It is that which puts Russia and its Slavic neighbours in such a parlous position today.
One of Brzezinski’s problems with Yeltsin’s Russia was “that the emerging capitalist class in Russia is strikingly parasitic”. By the time Mr Putin became president in 2000 Russia was run by an oligarchic elite which saw the state as a source of personal enrichment. But when pollsters asked people what they expected of their incoming president, reducing this corruption was not their highest priority. The standing of the state was. Russians wanted a strong state and one respected abroad. As Mr Putin’s successful manifesto put it, “A strong state is not an anomaly to fight against. Society desires the restoration of the guiding, organising role of the state.” When, shortly after his election, Mr Putin restored the Soviet anthem, it was not as a symbol of reverting to central planning or rebuilding an empire. It was a signal that the strong state was back. State power did not mean the rule of law or a climate of fairness. It did not have, or need, an ideology. But it did have to take on some of the “geopolitical reality” that the meeting in Viskuli had stripped from the Soviet Union.
The strong state which provided an effective cover for kleptocracy in Mr Putin’s Russia was not an option for Mr Kuchma’s similarly oligarchic Ukraine. It had no real history as a state, let alone a strong one. Its national myth was one of Cossacks riding free. So in Ukraine the stealing was instead dressed up in terms of growing into that distinctive national identity. The essence of the argument was simple. As Mr Kuchma put it in a book published in 2003, “Ukraine is not Russia”.
This was not an attack on Russia. Ukrainians liked Russia. Polls showed that they admired Mr Putin more than they did Mr Kuchma. It was just a way of defining things that put the nation first. And Mr Putin had no problem with it. Ukraine might not be Russia, but it was not significantly different from Russia, let alone threateningly so. It was just a bit more corrupt and chaotic.
The degree to which Ukraine was not Russia became clearer, though, in 2004, when a rigged presidential election saw hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians protesting in the streets. Mr Kuchma could have used force against them; Mr Putin encouraged him to do so. But various considerations, including Western opprobrium, argued against it. Perhaps most fundamental was his sense that, as a Ukrainian president, he could not thus divide the Ukrainian nation. He stayed his hand and allowed a second vote. Viktor Yushchenko, pro-Western and Ukrainian-speaking, beat Viktor Yanukovych, a corrupt thug from Donbas (the easternmost part of the country and, save Crimea, the most ethnically Russian) who had claimed victory the first time round. The “Orange revolution”, as the protest came to be known, was a serious setback for Mr Putin—all the more so when a similar uprising in Georgia, the Rose revolution, put another pro-Western state on his borders.
In 2008 Mr Putin took a constitutionally enforced break from the presidency, swapping jobs with Dmitri Medvedev, his prime minister. The shift did not stop him from overseeing a war against Georgia that summer. In 2010, though, the Orange revolution became, in retrospect, a somewhat Pyrrhic victory. Mr Yushchenko proved a sufficiently poor president that in 2010 Mr Yanukovych was able to beat him in a free and fair election.
Mr Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 came at a time when the global financial crisis had choked the Russian economy. The rigging of Russia’s parliamentary elections the year before, and the prospect of Mr Putin’s return, had seen tens of thousands take to the streets. And the West, spooked by the increased belligerence Russia had shown in Georgia, was taking a keen interest in Ukraine. The EU offered the country an association agreement which would allow Ukrainians to enjoy the benefits of a deep and comprehensive free-trade agreement and free travel across Europe.A year earlier a group of economists had told Mr Putin that a customs union with Ukraine would be a smart move. What was more, such a deal would preclude Ukraine’s association with the pursuing it was thus a way for Mr Putin to achieve three things at once: push back against the West; give Russia a victory that would prove its importance; and help the economy.Time for some Slavic unity. When Mr Putin flew to Kyiv for a two-day visit in July 2013, his entourage contained both his chief economic adviser and the patriarch of Russia’s Orthodox Church, whose jurisdiction covered both countries. The trip coincided with the 1,025th anniversary of the conversion to Christianity of Prince Vladimir of the Kyivan Rus, and subsequently of the people as a whole, in 988: the “Baptism of Rus”. With Mr Yanukovych he visited the cathedral in Chersonesus, the site in Crimea where Prince Vladimir is said to have been baptised. He and the patriarch also visited Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, a monastery founded in caves a millennium ago.
The commitment he gave there to protecting “our common Fatherland, Great Rus” was not without irony. When in 1674 monks at the Lavra published the “Synopsis”, the first demotic history of Russia, the city was under threat of attack by the Ottoman empire and desperately needed support from the Russian lands to the north. The “Synopsis” sought to encourage Slavic solidarity by stressing the importance of Vladimir and his virtuous Kyivan Rus to Kyiv and Muscovy alike—something historians like Mr Plokhy now see as expedient mythmaking. Mr Putin was cynically mining a mythos itself contrived for political ends.
Mr Yanukovych did not want to be Russia’s vassal. Nor did he share western Europe’s values—especially when applied to matters of anti-corruption. But eventually he had to choose a side. At a secret meeting in Moscow in November 2013, as European leaders were preparing to sign their agreement with Ukraine, he was promised a $15bn credit line with $3bn paid up front. He ditched the European deal. And at 4am on November 30th his goons bludgeoned a few dozen students protesting against his betrayal in Kyiv’s Independence Square, known as Maidan. By “turning into Lukashenko”, as one journalist put it, Mr Yanukovych crystallised the choice facing Ukraine: dignity? Or subservience? Tents sprang up on Maidan. Volunteers distributed food and clothes. Oligarchs, afraid that a deal with Russia would see their ill-gotten gains stolen from them, tried to restrain Mr Yanukovych. Mr Putin pressed him to use force. Mr Yanukovych dithered until, on February 18th, Kyiv went up in flames. Nobody agrees on who fired the first shot. But by the third day of violence around 130 people were dead, mostly on the protesters’ side, and Mr Yanukovych—to everyone’s surprise—had fled Kyiv.
This was far worse, for Mr Putin, than the Orange revolution. Ukraine had made geopolitical reality, to coin a phrase, of the independence it had claimed two decades before. Its demands for dignity resonated with Russia’s middle class and some of its elite, making it a genuinely dangerous example. So Mr Putin annexed Crimea and started a war in Donbas.
According to Russian state media, Mr Putin was not undermining a revolution against a corrupt regime quite like his own; he was protecting the Russian people and language from extermination at the hands of western Ukrainian fascists. The relevance to Russia of the issues that had led to what was being called in Ukraine “the revolution of dignity” was thus obscured. At the same time the brutality in Donbas, relentlessly televised, showed Russians the disastrous consequences of rising up: civil war.
On March 18th Russia’s ruling elite watched Mr Putin enter the Kremlin’s gilded Hall of St George in triumph as he hailed the return of Crimea and, thereby, Russia; the annexation was supported by nearly 90% of the Russian population. A year later he had a stone from Chersonesus brought to Moscow to be built into the pedestal of a giant statue of Prince Vladimir outside the Kremlin gates. In “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, a tract published in both Russian, Ukrainian and English in July 2021, Mr Putin described how the inheritors of “Ancient Rus” had been torn apart by hostile powers and treacherous elites, and how Ukraine had been turned from being “not Russia” into an anti-Russia, an entity fundamentally incompatible with Russia’s goals.
All baloney. Mr Putin did not attack Ukraine in order to honour or recreate an empire, whether Russian or Soviet. He attacked it to protect his own rule; the history is window-dressing. At the same time, following Brzezinski, for Russia to be something other than a democracy it has to at least be able to think of itself as an empire. And in Russia, empire requires Ukraine—now more deeply opposed to union with Russia than ever before.
In November 2021, Vladislav Surkov, Mr Putin’s cynical, loyal ideologist, turned his attention to the question of empire. “The Russian state, with its severe and inflexible interior, survived exclusively because of its tireless expansion beyond its borders. It has long lost the knowledge [of]—how to survive otherwise.” The only way Russia can escape chaos, he argued, is to export it to a neighbouring country. What he did not say was that Mr Putin’s export of chaos, and violence, to that end has severed the ties between the Slavic nations and their peoples in a way which the collapse of the Soviet empire did not.
Mr Putin now talks of the collapse of the Soviet Union as “The collapse of historical Russia under the name of the Soviet Union.” But he has hardly restored its empire. Ukraine is not a province, or a colony; it is a beleaguered nation in a messy, perilous process of self-realisation. Belarus, for its part, is a grim illustration of how “severe and inflexible” things have to get in order to stop such aspirations welling up. Mr Lukashenko has met a nationalist resurgence with ever more brutal and well-orchestrated repression—a bloody irony given that he helped start it.
When Mr Putin annexed Crimea Mr Lukashenko feared his own fief might be next. So he decided to strengthen the Belarusian identity which he had previously worked to suppress. It was an opening he would regret. Social media quickly gave well-prepared liberal nationalists access to half of the country’s population. In 2018 the centenary of the Belarusian republic saw its red-and-white flag rise again.
In 2020 Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, previously apolitical, ran against Mr Lukashenko in the presidential election in place of her husband, who had been jailed, the red-and-white flag waving over her rallies. When Mr Lukashenko stole that election on August 9th it was in the same flag that protesters draped a vast statue of their motherland. Like Ukraine, Belarus had no real history of statehood; all that Mr Lukashenko had given it since 1994 was a rough approximation of its Soviet past, fascism with Stalinist trappings. But the idea of something better had taken hold.
Unlike the Ukrainians, though, the protesters in Belarus had no independence-friendly oligarchs to take their side. They had no equivalent to the radical fringe of western Ukrainians who had shown themselves ready to kill and ready to die on Maidan. And they were pitted against someone who would not stay his hand, as Mr Kuchma had, or cut and run, like Mr Yanukovych. Mr Lukashenko doubled down on repression, his brutality honed and guided by experts from Moscow.
For Mr Putin, the situation has become the reverse of that faced at Viskuli 30 years ago. Then a free and independent Ukraine—and, to a lesser extent, Belarus—were a necessary condition for what Russia sought to become. Now such freedom would constitute an intolerable affront to Russia staying as it is. At the same time, though, their struggles feed Mr Putin’s need for enemies. Russia’s great-power “geopolitical reality”, as sold to the people, has become that of a besieged fortress. America is the enemy-in-chief; Ukraine, and those within Belarus and Russia itself who have aspirations like those seen in the “revolution of dignity”, are its lackeys, all the more despicable for betraying their kin.
Russian propaganda outlets are baying for war. But that does not mean Mr Putin plans to take fresh territory. He has never laid claim to the western part of the country. He is probably aware that there are now enough Ukrainian patriots to fight Russian occupation in central and even eastern parts of Ukraine, and that the army he has massed on the border would prove less good at occupation than invasion. But he still needs conflict and subordination. Left unmolested a free Ukraine reopens the existential threat of an alternative to empire.
Ukraine’s struggles since 2014 have been slow, frustrating and messy. According to Evgeny Golovakha, a sociologist, this is in part because “Ukrainians love to experiment.” True to that assessment, in 2019 they elected Volodymyr Zelensky, who as a television comedian had played a history teacher accidentally elevated to the presidency, to tackle the role in real life. His biggest achievement, so far, has been to consolidate protest votes against the old elite across Ukraine, making the electoral map look more cohesive than it has ever looked in the past. That will not necessarily stop him getting voted out in two years’ time. “We find it easier to change [people in] power than to change ourselves,” says Yulia Mostovaya, the editor of Zerkalo Nedeli, an online news outlet.But change is afoot; it can be seen in the way that demography increasingly trumps regional allegiance. Even in the east nearly 60% of those born since 1991 see their future as in the EU—countrywide, the figure is 75%. All told 90% want Ukraine to stay independent, and nearly 80% are optimistic about its future.
The same optimism is hard to find in Russia, let alone stricken Belarus. But the same yearnings are there, especially among the young. That is why Alexei Navalny was first poisoned and is now jailed. As the leader of the opposition to Mr Putin he has championed the idea of Russia not as an empire but as a civic nation: a state for the people. It is why Russia has recently become much more repressive. It is why Mr Putin cannot tolerate a true peace on his borders.
Unlike Ukrainians and Belarusians, Russians cannot separate themselves from Russia, so they have to change it from within. They cannot do that in a forest retreat, or with a few phone calls. But only through such change will they become truly independent of the Soviet Union.