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Ekaterina Chimiris

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Expert

The geopolitical position of Ukraine at the current stage of development of international order is complicated and somewhat challenging. The country is in the zone of interest of the USA and the Russian Federation, as well as Europe. This makes it a point of contention between powerful international actors.

The first question is — why it is so difficult to find a shared vision for the solution of the conflict? In the discourse of all the sides of the conflict, we see intent on finding and realising a solution. The main problem is the lack of trust between all parties, lack of trust between Russia and western countries. Trust between the Ukrainian and western elite is higher, but also contains some elements of alertness. Trust was destroyed from all the sides, both Russian and western. The situation is complicated by misunderstandings regarding intentions and proposals.

When we are in the situation of crisis — it means a lack of trust between the parties of the conflict. The question is how we can rebuild trust and further negotiations. The discourse in official media and official government statements show the intention to continue the dialogue, but at the same time, we see that the dialogue is quite difficult.

Russia is a significant international actor for Ukraine, and Kyiv will need to come up with some new kind of format for relations with Moscow sooner or later. This will happen after the frozen conflict has ceased to suit the key decision-making political actors. Prior to the inevitable talks, both parties will have to establish a negotiating position. It would be wise to start the talks with the less painful issues, but searching for such issues poses a special intellectual problem for conflict mediators. It is fairly possible that one of these steps will involve establishing a dialogue along the lines of Track II expert diplomacy.

A possible conflict solution for Donbass — giving Crimea back — will entail a significant transactional cost and a very high price for Russian elites. It is impossible in the current political situation, as we see the new nation and state legitimacy model. The connection of Donbass and Crimea issues will lead to more confrontation. If we put the Crimean issue outside the agenda, we can look at the following possible variants for the regulation of the conflict.

  1. Donbass as separate state — the variant of Transnistria.
  2. Donbass as part of Ukraine. Possible only on the basis of wide autonomy. At the same time, there is needed a process of economic reconstruction, without ethnic or language issues.
  3. Donbass as the part of Russia, the less possible one.

The second variant is considered to be the most peaceful for the international community. Nonetheless, we still have the army of Donetsk and Lugansk which are interested in their own profit. So for Russia and Europe, it will be very important to change the official discourse and start to see not the enemies, but rather strategic partners.


The geopolitical position of Ukraine at the current stage of development of international order is complicated and somewhat challenging. The country is in the zone of interest of the USA and the Russian Federation, as well as Europe. This makes it a point of contention between powerful international actors.

The first question is — why it is so difficult to find a shared vision for the solution of the conflict? In the discourse of all the sides of the conflict, we see intent on finding and realising a solution. The main problem is the lack of trust between all parties, lack of trust between Russia and western countries. Trust between the Ukrainian and western elite is higher, but also contains some elements of alertness. Trust was destroyed from all the sides, both Russian and western. The situation is complicated by misunderstandings regarding intentions and proposals.

When we are in the situation of crisis — it means a lack of trust between the parties of the conflict. The question is how we can rebuild trust and further negotiations. The discourse in official media and official government statements show the intention to continue the dialogue, but at the same time, we see that the dialogue is quite difficult.

What is it trust? — It is a opportunity to predict the behavior of the trusted partner [1]. The previous behaviour of the partners is not a good base for trust in the situation of the current Ukrainian crisis. Even during peaceful times, each agreement passed through a long and complicated process of negotiations. For example, regular gas crisis's between Russia and Ukraine.

At the same time, common values present an opportunity to rebuild trust. How can Russia, Ukraine and western partners understand that they have shared values? — the negotiation platforms, on the base of international institutions, such as Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), etc. In this article, I aim to look at the global structure and the roots of the Ukrainian conflict, in the context of historical, socio-cultural and political aspects.

The typology of international actors and the structure of their interests

The Ukrainian case shows different examples of strategies and frames [2] of external politics, used by different types of international actors toward the other state. I will name three types of actors that exist (not taking into account international organizations, global terrorist networks, criminal networks, etc.). In this article, I will discuss the goals and strategies of the Nation-State, Quasi Empire, and Nationalizing State. Each of these actors has certain peculiarities in creating international politics and agenda. All of them are engaged in the Ukrainian situation.

National State

The Nation-State model is most common in the world. It is a phenomenon of the modern period and is considered to be the only variant of state. The borders of a Nation-State are strictly defined and protected by the political regime of the country. State unity is based on a common nation (state language, citizenship). The Nation-State “looks inside” itself and tend to protect the borders and the inside unity of the country [3].

Quasi-Empire Project

Then quasi-Empire elements on the post-soviet space (after the collapse of USSR) the Russian Federation still have not constructed the national state in the classical view. Or the same elements of the quasi-empire project we can observe in the behaviour of the USA. Nowadays, we cannot speak about empires in the full sense of the word, but some elements can still be found. Some previous empires are on the transition way towards Nation-State, but the empire legacy still has its' impact [4].

The borders of the nation empire are not finally defined and political elites look at the opportunity to enlarge the territory or to influence somehow on the other states and communities. Before the Ukrainian crisis, such ideas were rather marginal, but the political crisis in Ukraine moved the issue into the official discourse.

This approach is typical for quasi-empire and unacceptable by the Nation-States. — Here is the first point of misunderstanding and lack of trust. Why do empire nations believe they have the right to other states? — Because it still does not have a common understanding of its nation. Usually, it is a multinational and multi-confessional state and needs institutions different from those of the Nation-State.

Nationalizing State [5]

The territories, which were under the empires usually, become nationalizing states. Nationalizing state is a kind of transition situation (but it can be so for a rather long period). Such states emerge after the collapse of big empires or other countries. The nationalizing state usually moves towards the Nation-State: so the task is to create a nation and to define the borders.

The nation is also in the process of creation, but usually, it is created on ethnic base. The same situation is in Ukraine now; the current political elites tend to support the idea of the Ukrainian nation (Ukrainian language, certain historical myths), at the same time most of the people who live in the East and South of the country are automatically excluded from this nation criteria. The nationalizing states usually became the sphere of interest of quasi-empires.

Society without a State

After 2014 we also can see the marginal area of Donbasss, on which some unique social and political processes are developing, described by James Scott 6. These societies try to escape hierarchy of any kind. Based on cultural flexibility, pragmatism and self-reliance of autonomous communities. Once this kind of society is formed — it will be a difficult task to reintegrate it back to a Nation-State.

Why is it important to know the type of actor when we speak about external politics and conflicts? The case is that the behaviour and expectations of a Nation-State will radically different from the ones of a quasi-Empire. The main aim of a Nation-State is to protect the borders, which were defined and legitimized. Quasi-Empire aims to have potential territorial or cultural growth. That is why the idea of soft power was created in the USA and is so prevalent in the Russian Federation now — these states would like to influence the territories much outside their borders. In this case, the external politics of nationalizing states are reactive — they can only react on the impulses from quasi-empires, and struggle for their national identity and diffused borders. Donbasss is in a unique situation as it is not much needed in Europe or Russia. It is more likely that we can find institutes created to avoid any form of state and obedience.

That is why Europe blames Russia for annexing new territories; at the same time, it is seen in Russia as the historically logical process of state-building. And Russia blames the EU and the USA for the violation of regional security. Both of them blame each other for making Ukraine dependent.

The Ukrainian National Identity and Europeanization

Ukraine first embraced the European path during the 2004 revolution. Institutionally, this path implies the country’s aspiration to join the EU and NATO. Recent amendments to the Ukrainian constitution legitimize this drive.

The European identity is historically a superstructure above the national identity. Ukraine’s main problem is its aim not to follow the traditional procedure and therefore try to skip the phase of forming its own national identity in its desire to join the European family.

Essentially, Ukraine is replacing the notion of Ukrainism with that of Europeanism. Democratic institutions are paramount for European countries as they are the integrating base of the rule of law that makes up the Union. However, Ukraine does not give value to the institutions' content and operation, but to their own existence.

As for Ukraine, the very idea of Eurointegration resulted in an escalation and subsequent loss of part of the country’s territorial integrity in 2014. Historically, European institutions have only been partially effective in heterogeneous societies with contrasting socio-cultural backgrounds. For the population of eastern Ukraine, Soviet values have proven to be even more important than they are for Russian citizens. In his research on national construction in post-Soviet territories, Vladimir Lapkin determines the post-Soviet secession phenomenon, in a process backed not only by a classic nationalist impulse but also by the nostalgia of the Soviet past. Lapkin asserts: "These 'special separatists', unlike 'classical separatists' who attempt to oppose their ethnonational project to the dominating ethnic nation (or its simulacrum), promoted ideas that were absolutely impossible within the political prevailing of the imperial universality of the 1990s and 2000s. In the absence of a better example, an ‘idealised USSR’ or a ‘revived Russian state’ is often appealed.” [7]

Consequently, Ukraine’s European path towards the EU and NATO easily turns into a semiotic myth because it embraces the idea of a universal solution for many problems Ukraine faces today, including those concerning the economy, social sphere, territorial integrity, and government’s legitimacy. The underlying idea towards European integration and the subsequent introduction of European institutions may actually create the potential and necessary motivation for action. Perhaps, the myth existence regarding the future integration with the EU and NATO may bring about prosperity, nonetheless completely negates any initiative or attempt to actually achieve anything.

None of the presidential frontrunners deny that the drive towards Europe could be difficult or even fatal. The approach of Ukraine needing to become part of the EU and NATO due to Russian aggression is a temporary one. It only aims to secure the current regime legitimacy and will be no longer useful once Russia has begun restoring its relations with the West afterwards the enduring crisis. That is when Ukraine will once again be faced with the great problem of rebuilding its sovereignty statehood.

Russian vision of the Conflict

The global perception of the crisis in Russia is based on the post-soviet legacy. It is closely related to the process of creating a Russian identity, defining the borders and strengthening positions as a global actor.

The interest towards the situation in Ukraine is high among Russians. Therefore, the Russian population is keenly following the Ukrainian elections, given the close economic and other personal ties (likelihood of having family between the two countries). Analysis conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center explored popular opinions within Russia regarding the Ukrainian elections, and the results were quite interesting. "The Russian populations' awareness of the upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections is rather high: 79% of Russians have heard of the election campaign including 18% who are following the campaign closely". At the same time, fears of possible manipulations are widespread among Russians, with 68% of those polled believing that the election results will be falsified by the Ukrainian authorities and thus won't be representative of the will of the people. More than one and every ten respondents (12%) believes that while there might be certain violations, but they will not influence the overall results. Altogether, the elections do not inspire much credibility in Russian society, doubting even about their legitimacy.

If we consider general attitudes towards Ukraine in Russian society, the radical positions have not changed much. On the one hand, one of them is that Ukraine is an example of fair and transparent elections. On the other — Ukraine is a “historical fault”.

On Russia’s side, Crimea is not an issue for discussion anymore, after Russia feels it has settled questions concerning security in the Black Sea and, more broadly, security for the Russian speaking community in the region. That is why now Russia’s main goal is to move towards a peaceful resolution of the current conflict with Ukraine, excluding the Crimea issue from the future negotiation process. Based on my research and observations, I believe Russian interests in Ukraine can be summarized in three key points:

First, Russia is highly interested in the implementation of the Minsk agreements and reintegration of Donbasss in Ukraine. In this respect, the Russian Federation is concerned about the rights of the Russian-speaking population in addition to their safety, and this issue will rank high on Russia’s agenda.

Secondly, Russia aims at rebuilding its economic ties with Ukraine, since Moscow is still Kiev’s largest trade partner: according to World Bank data, in 2017 Ukrainian export to Russia was 3 943 217.84 $ (9.08%), by comparison — Poland is the second (6.28%) and import — 7 196 562.10 (14.56%), China is the third (11.41%).

Third, despite the conflict, labour migration from Ukraine to Russia remains a reality. Russia is interested in qualified workers and students coming to study. Ukraine remains the main country of origin of migrants to Russia, even if the number has decreased (137,700 in 2018 as opposed to 150,100 in 2017) and there is a trend of more Ukrainian citizens to leave Russia.

I would like to attract your attention to one citation from Russian President speech to the Federal Assembly in 2014:

“It was an event of special significance for the country and the people, because Crimea is where our people live, and the peninsula is a place of strategic importance for Russia as the spiritual source of the development of a multifaceted but solid Russian nation and a centralised Russian state. It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptised before bringing Christianity to Rus”.

He speaks about strategic importance, development of the Russian nation, and a centralized Russian state. And all of these things are now connected to Crimea. Each country has to have a historical heartland. For the Russian Empire, it should be the Kievskaya Rus, which is now situated in Ukraine. In fact, Russia and Ukraine struggle for the same territories to be their heartland. This citation shows us a new ideological reality in Russia.

Accordingly, Crimea became the centre of civilization for Russian identity. It is a new ideological reality of internal Russian politics, which should be considered as crucial in policymaking decisions. In this sense, we can argue that putting the Crimean issue in the negotiation agenda will lead to a more radical Russian position.

Russian and Ukrainian Struggle for History

In the current situation, we find not only the negotiation of an attempted settlement to the East Ukraine armed conflict, a new stage of information and ideological confrontation also seems to be developing a rivalry between Russia and Ukraine over the interpretation of their past. In fact, the fabric of the history of the Kievan Rus looks very much like a blanket, with each country trying to pull all of it to their side.

What we have seen so far has been sluggish but definitely intensified by the media struggle, textbooks, movies and other cultural areas for the exclusive right to interpret the same historical facts. Why can't these two states share a common history, and why is it so important to possess a unique past?

In his address to the Federal Assembly (December 2014), President Vladimir Putin mentioned Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev in the Crimean context, which was perceived by a large part of the society as a legitimation of the peninsula´s affiliation through the myth of restoration, the historical truth and the preservation of continuity in traditions, culture and statehood. To this end, Moscow will erect a memorial to Vladimir on Vorobyovy Hills to honour the 1000th anniversary of his death. In his turn, Ukrainian President Poroshenko released an executive order to commemorate Grand Prince Vladimir as the "founder of medieval state Rus-Ukraine," while the Russian State Duma responded by accusing Kiev of attempting to privatize the memory of Russia's Baptizer.

Having made history as the ruler who baptized Rus and bolstered its statehood (the key features attributed to him by history textbooks), Grand Prince Vladimir has recently emerged as a substantial stumbling obstacle of Russian and Ukrainian politicians’ mutual comprehension.

In Russia, the deep-rooted historical legitimacy and continuity of historical epochs have not practically undergone any revisions, with all projects to interpret and describe history (Sergey Solovyov, Vassily Klyuchevsky, Sergey Uvarov's triad of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality) working to build a single, non-contradictory historical model of development. With some slight variations, this scheme was taught both in the Soviet period and following the disintegration of the USSR. Nobody questions the Kievan Rus as the source of statehood and the Moscow Princedom and later the Russian Empire as its successor.

However, the political decision to annex Crimea had been perceived ambiguously both in Russia and abroad and hence has required additional legitimization. The new mythologem is intended to smoothly integrate the current political reality into the existing legitimization model and provide it with additional fixtures.

As far as Ukraine is concerned, the legitimization of its statehood is a much more complicated affair. The executive order of the former president, Poroshenko, to honour Grand Prince Vladimir was meant as a reminder that this relevant period is an inherent part of Ukraine's history. Within the current quagmire of problems over the legitimacy of borders, Ukrainian national identity and diminishing political support, this order was designed to preserve available structures and the legitimacy model. Because of this, the political effect appears quite questionable.

Compared to Russia, historical legitimization is a much more complicated endeavour for Ukraine. En route to statehood, Ukraine felt the impact of the powerful state and ideological machines of the neighbouring Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. And it was Mikhail Grushevsky who launched the construction of the model for a unique Ukrainian history when Nation-States emerged after the breakup of these empires. His project primarily reflected the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was briefly implemented during the revolutionary reforms in the Russian Empire. The scheme was revived in 2004 by the instigators of the Orange Revolution and the former president, Pyotr Poroshenko.

In 1898, Mr Grushevsky released the first volume of History of Ukraine-Rus that contained a compilation of facts intended to substantiate the historical independence of the Ukrainian people by tracing an alternative succession of historical stages. He rejected the unity of eastern Slavs, drawing a line between the Ukrainian-Russian people and Great Russians. Before Mr Grushevsky, Ukrainian history had one way or another been integrated into the history of Russia and Poland, the neighbour powers which controlled Ukrainian territories. Accordingly, his innovation suggested an alternative model of historical development and a new succession in the continuity of state entities seen as the forerunners of modern Ukraine.

Mr Grushevsky discarded the Muscovite version of history, insisting that although the Kievan Rus transferred some forms of the socio-political order to the Great Russia lands, there was no full-fledged continuity between the Kievan Rus and Moscow Princedom. The Tatar invasion undermined the socio-political basis of the Kievan Rus. East of the Dnieper River, these traditions were practically ruined, with only some of them preserved on the right-hand side and advanced in the Galitsk-Volyn Princedom and later under the rule of Lithuania and Poland. The history’ version developed by Moscow was also unfit for legitimizing Ukrainian statehood because the emergence of the Ukrainians as a separate people was dated to the 14th-15th centuries, thus something absolutely unsuitable for Mr Grushevsky as the ideologue of the Ukrainian statehood.

As before, the key issue still lies in establishing the successor of the Kievan Rus. Prior to the appearance of Mr Grushevsky's interpretation, the succession of the Kievan Rus and Tsarist Russia had been universally recognized (see V.M. Solovyov, V.O. Klyuchevsky). The incorporation of the Kievan Rus period into the historical roots of a state proceeds from the establishment of a certain state entity through a certain ethnic groups. Proponents of the unity of the three eastern Slavic peoples agree that the Kievan Rus was set up by the Slavs, who later gave rise to the Russians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians. In his History of Ukraine-Rus, Mr Grushevsky not only substantiated the autochthony of the Ukrainian ethnos' origin but also firmly insisted that the Kievan Rus belonged to the tradition of the Ukrainian statehood.

This concept smoothly resonates again in the current official Ukrainian debate because it provides grounds for the logical construction of national identity. Ukrainians assert that Moscow was built on its own, borrowing practically nothing from the Kievan Rus under immense Tatar influence.

Although this is ancient history, the two historical paradigms are popular in modern politics, with the described myths being only a fracture of the entire mythology arsenal employed in the debate. The history of the Great Patriotic War actually plays the same role, the most cited issues being the dichotomy of the Soviet troops and collaborationists on occupied Ukraine territory, the odious Stepan Bandera, Golodomor, etc. The interpretation of concrete events and the formation of myths (as semiotic systems) helps to assign friends and foes and additionally validate political decisions.

Conclusion

Although Russian and Ukrainian leaders use the same historical facts surrounding the Kievan Rus, their motivation differs. While Russia wants to add additional legitimacy to its political decision over the voluntary entry of Crimea into the Russian Federation, Ukraine is trying to restore the shattering legitimacy of its state borders and the national identity of its population.

The use of historical facts is a long applied instrument for fueling an entire political context, usually with quite material consequences. In fact, turning the status of Crimea into the historical centre of Russian statehood may create a stumbling block during zero-sum international negotiations. If the partners opt for a more constructive approach to handle other issues, Crimea should be off the agenda. Ukrainian legitimacy appears more threatening. Independent for over 20 years, Kiev has failed to generate a state-wide identity and is now trying to revitalize older models, which have regrettably demonstrated their ineffectiveness after Maidan 2004. The country will face the irreparable loss of its legitimate borders and government, as well as the identity of its population.

In a situation like this, Russia and the West appear to have coinciding interests in handling the issue of Ukraine's legitimacy because neither would like to see a Somalia-style failed state at their borders. This move should be affirmative, shedding the extremes a la "Ukraine is not a state," etc. since this is a field for determined efforts to establish a constructive myth for a state on the verge of a breakdown.

Speaking on the possible steps towards the successful Nation-State for Ukraine:

First, Ukrainian politicians need to come up with a uniform set of values and legitimacy that would be relevant to most of the country’s population. We could hypothetically suggest the idea of the country’s independent economic development. With its favourable geography, Ukraine may well become an economic hub, a target for effective investment, and a growth point for innovative projects. For this to happen, however, the country first needs to shed its dependence on any single strong external actor, be it Russia, Europe, the U.S., or, in the longer term, China. It would be fairly possible to create effective, law-governed economic institutions without joining the EU and NATO.

Second, Ukraine needs to mould its youth in a way that would facilitate negotiating practices and an ability to achieve a compromise. No matter how skilful the Western European advisors may be, Ukraine will have a hard time introducing democratic institutions unless society revises its long-standing habits. Introducing brand new institutions is always a complicated process that involves breaking established behavioural patterns. This is primarily the mission of educational establishments. The mere drive towards Europe is not going to unite the nation in any significant way.

Ukraine should also stop picturing Russia, or any other country, as its nemesis because this only works as a short-term solution. Seeking out external enemies is only good as an interim method of legitimising a government and securing public unity. The method has a number of disadvantages. First, consolidating against an external enemy requires a particular exertion of forces; no system is capable of holding out for long under stress. Second, the external enemy’s environment may change radically. Third, a country that is defending itself expends much of its strength on defence, not on development.

Russia is a significant international actor for Ukraine, and Kyiv will need to come up with some new kind of format for relations with Moscow sooner or later. This will happen after the frozen conflict has ceased to suit the key decision-making political actors. Prior to the inevitable talks, both parties will have to establish a negotiating position. It would be wise to start the talks with the less painful issues, but searching for such issues poses a special intellectual problem for conflict mediators. It is fairly possible that one of these steps will involve establishing a dialogue along the lines of Track II expert diplomacy.

A possible conflict solution for Donbass — giving Crimea back — will entail a significant transactional cost and a very high price for Russian elites. It is impossible in the current political situation, as we see the new nation and state legitimacy model. The connection of Donbass and Crimea issues will lead to more confrontation. If we put the Crimean issue outside the agenda, we can look at the following possible variants for the regulation of the conflict.

  1. Donbass as separate state — the variant of Transnistria.
  2. Donbass as part of Ukraine. Possible only on the basis of wide autonomy. At the same time, there is needed a process of economic reconstruction, without ethnic or language issues.
  3. Donbass as the part of Russia, the less possible one.

The second variant is considered to be the most peaceful for the international community. Nonetheless, we still have the army of Donetsk and Lugansk which are interested in their own profit. So for Russia and Europe, it will be very important to change the official discourse and start to see not the enemies, but rather strategic partners.

First published in “Geopolitical Challenges of European Security in the South Caucasus and Ukraine 19th Workshop of the Regional Stability in the South Caucasus Study Group, 16/2019 Vienna, October, 2019”.

1. Uslaner, Eric: The Moral Foundation of Trust. Cambridge University Press 2002.

2. Uslaner Goffman, Ervin: Frame analysis: an essay on the organization of experience. Harvard University Press 1974.

3. Uslaner For Nation-State see: Habermas, Yurgen: The European Nation-State And The Pressures Of Globalization. In: New Left Review. 235/1999.

4. Uslaner Kaspe, Svyatoslav: Imperii I Modernizatsiya. Obshaya Model I Rossiyskaya Specifika. Moskva, 2001.

5. Uslaner Brubaker, Rogers: National Minorities, Nationalizing States, and External National Homelands in the New Europe. In: Daedalus. 124/1995, pp. 107-132

6. Uslaner Scott, James C.: The Art of Not Being Governed. An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press 2009.

7. Uslaner Lapkin, Vladimir: Problems of Nation Building in Multi-ethnic Post-Soviet Societies: Ukrainian Case in Comparative Perspective. In: Polis. 4/2016, pp. 54–64.

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