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Johnson's Russia List | 24Sep2014 | Kirk Bennett,  Findlandization
Reflections on Russians and Ukrainians
Amid all the analyses of the crisis in Ukraine there is a subtle
element of the conflict between Russians and Ukrainians that has barely
been alluded to, and which I have not seen treated systematically
anywhere. It explains in large measure a Ukrainian paradox --
why, despite the overwhelmingly positive attitude of Ukrainians toward
Russia and Russians since the breakup of the Soviet Union, there has
never been a strong pro-Russian camp in Ukrainian politics.
It is instructive to observe the attitudes of Russians toward Ukraine,
and of Ukrainians toward Russia, over time. Russian sympathy
toward Ukraine and Ukrainians has moved virtually in lockstep with the
climate of bilateral relations, plunging at times of tension and
recovering as political relations normalized. Curiously, the
opinion of Ukrainians toward Russia and Russians has hardly budged even
during the Orange Revolution and the various gas wars, with Ukrainians
irrepressibly well-disposed, by all accounts, toward their mighty
northern neighbor, even when political relations were
Nevertheless, these positive feelings have never translated into any
serious Ukrainian political force prepared to align the country with
Russia. Groups beholden to Moscow have been marginal players,
such as the Communists and the various movements led by Viktor
Medvedchuk. Much recent commentary -- even by some people who
ought to know better -- has portrayed last winter's confrontation in
Kyiv as a black-and-white struggle between anti-Russian demonstrators
and a pro-Russian government led by President Yanukovych. The
latter was most assuredly not pro-Russian, nor pro-Western, but simply
pro-Yanukovych. Cheerfully free of any ideological
predisposition, loyalty or moral scruple, the Yanukovych "family" ruled
purely on the basis of self-enrichment, and shamelessly sought whatever
foreign support or favors it could gain from any quarter.
Yanukovych's abrupt reversal on the EU Association Agreement was not an
attempt to steer Ukraine in a different, pro-Russian direction, but a
simple calculation of short-term gain. Even after the fact,
his government showed no particular interest in Putin's flagship
Eurasian Union project, and maintained that the country's goal remained
integration with Europe -- contingent on securing "better terms" for
Ukraine from Brussels.
The notion that the demonstrators on the Maidan were anti-Russian also
bears reexamination. How, indeed, could a broadly based
"anti-Russian" movement emerge in a country where 75-80% of the
population consistently professed pro-Russian sentiments?
Indeed, many Russian analysts are convinced that the Maidan was not a popular
movement, but simply another chapter in the West's untiring campaign to
do Russia down. In fact, this analysis simply fails to
recognize the disconnect between Russian and Ukrainian perceptions of
what it means to be "pro-Russian."
In Moscow, "pro-Russian" is understood almost entirely in political
terms, especially support for Russia's integration agenda in the former
Soviet space. With this frame of reference, Russian pundits
have long complained -- with complete justification, from their
perspective -- that there has never been a genuinely "pro-Russian"
government in post-Soviet Ukraine.
Ukrainians, for their part, have tended to think in linguistic and
cultural terms. Almost all Ukrainians speak Russian fluently,
and many of them use it as their principal - or even sole -
language. Linguistic facility has led Ukrainians to embrace
the richness of Russian culture as well, and to take pride in the
Ukrainian connection of such luminaries as Gogol, Chekhov and
Bulgakov. A Ukrainian woman of my acquaintance, a doughty
Ukrainian patriot, was determined that her children grow up reading the
great works of Russian literature in the original language.
And why not? There was no contradiction between valuing one's
own Ukrainian culture and treasuring a kindred culture boasting
world-renowned geniuses. There was no need to choose --
Ukrainians could have them both.
The situation begs a question -- why has the deep linguistic and
cultural affinity of most Ukrainians for Russia not translated into a
pro-Moscow political orientation? I think there are basically
First, the incalculable contribution of Russia in all areas of culture
has not been matched in the field of governance. Ukrainians,
disgusted by the venality of their own rulers, could hardly look to
emulate their equally corrupt and oligarch-ridden northern
neighbor. Moreover, the towering historical figures of
Russian statecraft -- Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the
Great, and Stalin -- are revered for power, not justice.
Europe presents an alternative model of governance that, whatever its
shortcomings, offers citizens basic dignity and respect for
rights. People do not really yearn for democracy, which is no
guarantee of good governance. Rather, they yearn
for justice -- a commodity in critically short supply in the
post-Soviet space -- and Ukrainians generally saw in the EU their best
hope of obtaining it. However, Ukrainians did not, for the
most part, view a European orientation as a repudiation of Russia and
its cultural riches, and likewise hoped to maintain strong economic
ties with their largest single trading partner. Once again,
there was no need to choose. Ukrainians could have it all --
their own national identity, close economic and cultural ties with
Russia, and the basic fairness and dignity of a European vocation.
Second, and more importantly, Ukrainian love and admiration for Russia
are largely unrequited. In contrast to their bilingual
Ukrainian neighbors, ethnic Russians in Ukraine are remarkably
impervious to the Ukrainian language. Russians are inclined
to perceive Ukrainian not as a separate language - eloquent, expressive
and poetic in its own right -- but as an illiterate dialect of the
language of Pushkin. It is deeply galling for Ukrainians to
speak their language in their own country and be met with genuine or
feigned incomprehension, often tinged with contempt, from monoglot
Russians. The resentment engendered explains the negative
reaction of so many Ukrainians to the idea of creating special
privileges in Ukraine for the Russian language.
Unfortunately for Russian-Ukrainian relations, many Russians view
Ukrainians simply as defective Russians, and Ukraine as an artificial
state cobbled together largely from supposedly "Russian"
lands. In the extreme Russian view, the only real Ukrainians
are the inhabitants of Galicia; the remaining population of Ukraine is
comprised either of Russians, Malorossy
("Little Russians" -- people who, despite their local peculiarities of
speech and custom, acknowledge their basic Russianness), or khokhly.
The latter term is an ethnic slur connoting wily peasants, incorrigibly
stubborn and willfully ignorant - above all in their insistence on a
separate ethnic identity.
There is a new ethnonym in Ukraine that has emerged from nowhere in
recent months -- Novorossy, the inhabitants of Novorossiya or "New
Russia." It is worth taking a moment to ponder this curious
entity, for its brief and inglorious existence illuminates a great deal
about the course of recent events in Ukraine.
Novorossiya was a term used briefly in the late 18th century to
designate the territory on the northern shore of the Black Sea ceded to
Russia by the Ottoman Empire. At the time, there was not a
single Russian village in the entire length and breadth of "New
Russia." Therefore, when Catherine the Great embarked on a
tour of her new domains, her favorite, Grigoriy Potemkin, constructed
his now-legendary Potemkin villages to create for the monarch a fašade
The Potemkin analogy is entirely appropriate for Russian efforts to
revive the idea of a Novorossiya in southern Ukraine. There
has never been a group of people who considered or called themselves Novorossy.
They are a completely Potemkin people invented to populate the spectral
Potemkin villages from the time of Catherine the Great.
As Ukraine was convulsed by unrest in late winter, Moscow evidently
thought it need only proclaim the resurrection of Novorossiya in order
to sunder Ukraine in two and draw the entire Russophone south and east
into the bosom of Russia. The campaign flopped. The
sheer artificiality of the concept is shown by the fact that the
Donbass -- the only portion of Ukraine where the idea gained any
traction whatsoever -- was not even a part of the historic
Novorossiya. The abject failure of the Novorossiya project
has ended any hope of bringing all or most of Ukraine voluntarily into
Moscow's orbit. However resolutely Moscow tries to stick the
Novorossiya label on whatever Ukrainian territory it controls, the idea
has virtually no resonance among Ukrainians themselves.
For all their historically warm feelings toward Russia, Ukrainians do
not view themselves as incomplete Russians. They see
themselves and Russians as fraternal but separate nations, in contrast
to the oxymoronic Muscovite notion of "a single fraternal people" --
which views the Ukrainians as something akin to an undigested meal.
Ultimately, Ukrainianness must be defined as that which is "other" and
different from Russianness. It is that sense of a cherished
separate identity that sets even Russophone, bi-cultural Ukrainians
apart from ethnic Russians. It is the root cause behind the
spectacular failure of the Novorossiya
idea to take hold in southern and eastern Ukraine.
The "Russian Spring" has sent a frosty north wind down upon
Ukraine. Russia has risen from her knees -- and come out
swinging against her neighbors. Russians might think they are
striking blow after blow against Western arrogance and world
domination, but it is Ukraine that actually lies bruised and bloodied
at Russia's feet. Russians might believe they have righted a
great historical wrong by annexing Crimea; Ukrainians see only a
treacherous and deceitful land-grab at their expense.
Russians might imagine they are in Ukraine killing fascists and Western
hirelings; Ukrainians see the dead soldiers as their own sons and
husbands -- and as patriots.
With their gambit in Ukraine, Russians run a risk worse than the loss
of "Bush legs," Polish apples or French cheese, more profound
than isolation from the West, more severe than recession and economic
hardship. The risk is that 2014 might go down in history as a
watershed year in Russian-Ukrainian relations -- and that Ukrainianness
might come to be defined not simply as non-Russian, but as anti-Russian.
Kirk Bennett is a former
Foreign Service officer who served in both Moscow and Kyiv.
The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent the views of
the U.S. government.
Johnson's Russia List | 06Jan2015 | Kirk Bennett
Finland and its Lessons for Ukraine
Since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, and with increasing vehemence
as the crisis has deepened, thoughtful people in both Russia and the
West have called for urgent, high-level negotiations among Moscow,
Washington and Brussels. These calls have generally included the
outlines of a grand compromise that would presumably satisfy the core
interests of both Russia and the West. One key element of seemingly
every plan is the renunciation of NATO membership for Ukraine and the
country’s Finlandization. In view of the popularity of this concept, it
is worth taking a closer look at the historical model of Finlandization
to see how it might usefully apply to Ukraine.
It is important
to keep in mind that Finland was Finlandized by the Finns.
Finlandization was not the product of some East-West agreement, nor
even a topic of negotiations. Rather, it was a free choice by the Finns
themselves -- a gamble that ultimately paid off well for them during
the Cold War.
However, it is no less important to recall that
Finlandization did always work. Finland was already Finlandized in
1939, in the sense that the country was scrupulously neutral and
presented no plausible security threat to any of its neighbors. That
fact did not save Finland from invasion by the Soviet Union, and it was
only Finland’s fierce resistance in the Winter War that spared it from
becoming the 16th Soviet republic.
Why, then, did Finlandization work well during the Cold War when it had failed so spectacularly in 1939-40?
the Winter War the Soviet Union had a completely free hand. With World
War II already under way, none of the major powers had any attention or
resources to spare for Finland; Germany, in fact, had expressly written
Finland off in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. During the Cold War
confrontation, on the other hand, Moscow had to be careful not to drive
Finland into the camp of the USSR’s adversaries. Both during the Cold
War and after, Finns have retained the option to join NATO, which has
given them considerable leverage in dealing with Moscow.
very much underappreciated element of the post-1945 success of
Finlandization is the fact that, at some imperceptible point between
1939 and 1945, Moscow accepted Finnish independence as an accomplished
fact. No more was Finland to be viewed as a temporarily separated
fragment of historical Russia. If in 1939 Moscow created the puppet
Terijoki Government as a prelude to Finland’s complete absorption, in
1944-45 there was no attempt even to Sovietize Finland, let alone annex
it. The extension of Moscow’s rule to the Gulf of Bothnia had simply
become a bridge too far.
Before applying these lessons to the
current crisis in Ukraine, it is important to underscore one important
fact that most proponents of Ukraine’s Finlandization appear to have
missed: prior to the appearance of the famous little green men in
Crimea, UKRAINE HAD ALREADY BEEN FINLANDIZED.
Ukrainian governments had dabbled, with varying degrees of seriousness,
with NATO. However, even the Orange euphoria after 2005 had failed to
generate much enthusiasm among Ukrainians for NATO membership. At its
height, the percentage of Ukrainian support for NATO membership
struggled to breach the mid-twenties, and for the past five years or so
had wallowed in the mid-teens. Even solid-orange Halychyna could not
muster a pro-NATO majority.
In light of this persistent fact,
both Ukrainians and the West had accepted Yanukovych’s 2010 law on
Ukraine’s non-bloc status. Washington and Brussels mouthed niceties
about the alliance’s open door and the prospect that Ukraine would “one
day” join. However, beset with “Ukraine fatigue” and having bigger
security fish to fry elsewhere, the West was doing nothing to hasten
Let no one imagine that Yanukovych’s ouster introduced
any substantive change into this equation. The Maidan was emphatically
NOT about Ukraine joining NATO, but about the country drawing closer to
Europe, up to and including eventual EU membership. There is no reason
to believe that this movement toward the EU would have entailed NATO
membership for Ukraine any more than it has for Finland -- another
appropriate lesson to draw from the historical experience of
(Parenthetically, there is EVERY reason to
believe that any post-Yanukovych government would have tried to revisit
the 2010 Kharkiv Accords that extended the lease of the Russian Black
Sea Fleet in Sevastopol until 2042. However, such a move would have had
nothing to do with NATO and is outside the scope of an essay on the
lessons of Finlandization.)
The pre-2014 Finlandization of
Ukraine has been destroyed not by Western machinations or some
purported upwelling of Ukrainian fascism, but by Russia’s own actions.
Yes, the Ukraine crisis has spawned the worst downturn in Russia-West
relations in decades, but at its heart it remains a conflict between
Russia and Ukraine. It is in this context that Finlandization offers
some useful lessons.
Arrogant, self-important Westerners that we
are, we insist on imagining that a) it’s all about us; and b) we can
fix other people’s problems. How comforting to believe that we can
resolve the Ukraine crisis simply by taking into account “legitimate
Russian grievances,” by acknowledging “historical rights,” by accepting
a Russian sphere of privileged interests in the post-Soviet space! But
it’s not all about us, and we have to resist any inclination to believe
we can sit down with the Russians and cut a deal over the heads of the
Ukrainians -- if not out of moral scruples, then due to the purely
practical consideration that such an approach would fail.
practical matter, how do you now convince the Ukrainians to accept
neutrality? If Russia brushed aside other solemn obligations like the
Budapest Memorandum and various bilateral agreements in violating
Ukrainian sovereignty, then why should another “scrap of paper,”
blessed by the West and implemented by Kyiv but potentially ignored by
Moscow at any convenient time, stand in the way of future Russian
Moreover, as we have seen, Russian alarm at
Yanukovych’s ouster was not, and could not have been, due to any
near-term prospect of Ukraine joining NATO. Rather it was the
recognition that a Ukrainian turn toward Europe -- even without EU
membership -- would be a watershed event sounding the death knell for
Russia’s own ambitious reintegration plans in the post-Soviet space.
And if Ukrainian NATO ambitions were not the real trigger for Russia’s
intervention, then having Kyiv renounce any NATO aspirations would
hardly fix the problem.
To conclude, the Finlandization paradigm offers some excellent guidance for resolving the current crisis in Ukraine:
1) Finlandization must be voluntary and not dictated by outsiders.
Moscow must not be allowed to have a free hand vis-Ó-vis Kyiv, or
Finlandization will not work as intended -- indeed, it would be
counterproductive. Finland has not had to renounce NATO membership in
order to be Finlandized, and neither should Ukraine.
Finlandization of Ukraine must entail genuine Russian recognition of
Ukrainian sovereignty. Just as Finnish resistance during the Winter War
dissuaded Moscow from a policy of absorption, so the mass Ukrainian
rejection of Moscow’s “Novorossiya” project could begin to shape
Russian thinking to understand Ukrainian independence not as a
temporary historical accident, but as a geopolitical fact of life.
obvious course for Russia in a Finlandization scenario would be to
accept, however grudgingly, Ukraine’s freedom to choose its own course,
while acting to ensure that Ukrainians never feel compelled to exercise
the NATO option. Such a policy would have maintained Ukraine’s prior
Finlandization even after Yanukovych’s overthrow, and still represents
the best hope for pulling both Ukraine and Russia out of their present
The key to success, of course, is to be
true to the historical example. Unfortunately, when some analysts
pronounce the word “Finlandization,” it comes out sounding rather more
like “Munich” instead.
[W.Z. The reader is also urged to read my response to a 17Feb2015 article by Kirk Bennett at
Arming Ukraine: A Dose of Realism email@example.com, 01Mar2015; Will Zuzak
I accuse the pseudo-realists of condoning the genocidal aggression of
the Putin regime and the Russian "nationalists" against Ukraine.]