By Andrey SusentsovValdai club program director
Why do Russian-Ukrainian relations concern all Russians and Ukrainians? To some extent what is happening is a delayed civil war, which could have happened in the early 1990s with the collapse of the USSR, when the first generation of Russian and Ukrainian leaders boasted that they had avoided a bloody divorce like the one in Yugoslavia. .
In Russia, one in two people has relatives in the neighboring country, and what happens there is more a matter of domestic politics. For example, if the Ukrainian government closes Russian Orthodox churches or bans a pro-Russian opposition political party, the story is immediately covered on state television and Russian politicians issue statements.
All post-Soviet countries achieved independence on the same day, and each of these states is something of a state-building experiment; in the establishment of foreign and domestic political strategies.
The particularity of the experience of the Ukrainian state is underlined by the following dilemma: how is it possible to reconcile the two pillars of the Ukrainian state – Galician Ukraine and the Eastern Russian community? At some point, the representatives of the western regions had a stick in their hands, and they began to use it in their dialogue with the representatives of the east – that’s why the last Maidan won. The path along which the Ukrainian experience has developed reflects a gradual reduction in the presence and interests of Russian identity.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, when he tried to win support in the east of the country during the elections, promised that he would never ban the teaching of Russian in schools, that he would guarantee the status of Russian as a language when communicating with government agencies, and that it would protect the memory of the Great Patriotic War. As soon as he came to power, it became clear that his intentions were to do just the opposite.
Now, looking at what is happening in the Western media, we can see everything portrayed as big, strong Russia attacking little Ukraine. From the point of view of the strategic balance of power, however, the situation is not so obvious. Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe in terms of physical size after Russia. The population of Ukraine is around 40 million, which is large by European standards.
The Ukrainian army is the third in Europe after those of Russia and Turkey – between 220,000 and 240,000 people. Military spending as a share of Ukraine’s GDP was almost 6% (at Israel’s level), the armed forces were modernized, and kyiv purchased modern armed systems from the West. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg directly pointed out that Western instructors had trained tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers. By pumping Ukraine with weapons, the West sought to create a counterweight to Russia, confronting it in a way that would completely absorb its attention and resources – similar to Pakistan’s confrontation with India.
A few weeks ago Russian pranksters called the British Defense Secretary and, on behalf of the Ukrainian Prime Minister, asked how Britain would react if it planned to create nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The Minister of Defense replied that the UK would always support its Ukrainian friends.
It seems to many that the West would never allow Ukraine to obtain its nuclear weapons, but it is quite possible that the West will react in the same way as in the case of Israel: formally, the country has no WMD, but, as one Israeli leader said, “If necessary, we will use it.” Metaphorically speaking, you could say that the Americans put a bulletproof vest on the Ukrainians, gave them a helmet and pushed them towards Russia: “Success, buddy”. In the end, all of this led to a one-sided dependency relationship. Ukraine is very dependent on the West, but the latter does not plan to support it systematically forever.
How would the Americans behave if Russia responded with a comparable threat? During one of the US Senate hearings, US Admiral Kurt W. Tidd said that “Russia is expanding its presence in the region in direct competition with the United States for influence in our hemisphere.” Imagine if Russia started to interact with Mexico in the same way the West now behaves with Ukraine: unexpectedly for Americans, Mexico begins to rapidly militarize, think of its own missile program, nuclear weapons. Mexicans remember grievances from the 19th century, when Texas was not yet part of the United States. What would the United States do, given the very recent leaks about former President Donald Trump’s willingness to invade Venezuela? “because of a threat to regional security?
We are probably at the beginning of an ongoing crisis, not close to its end. The first diplomatic proposal that Russia made at the start of the crisis was that Ukraine remain neutral, that Crimea be recognized as Russian territory and that the Donbas republics be recognized as independent. In response to these demands, Ukraine offered its own: full repatriation from its pre-2014 territory and no approach to Russia. The maximization of Ukrainian demands means that a balance point has not yet been found in the current military campaign. However, it has its own development options.
In the first scenario, the current Ukrainian government and Russia come to an agreement that takes Russian demands into account, and these agreements are recognized by the West as part of an overall agreement on European security. The Russian-Ukrainian crisis would give way to a Russian-Western military-political confrontation, akin to the Cold War.
The second scenario assumes the development of events under the influence of the military situation on the ground. As a result, either a balance is inevitably found or one side wins. In this case, there are risks that the West will not recognize the results of the agreement, and that a new Ukrainian government will arise and face opposition from the government in exile. From the west, there will be a support system for the Ukrainian underground, similar to that which existed in western Ukraine in the 1950s.
The third scenario involves a sharp escalation of tensions between Russia and the West. It is possible that the crisis will spread to NATO countries or that the escalation of the sanctions war against Russia will follow in the hope of shaking the foundations of the Russian state. In this case, the risks of nuclear collision will increase. However, so far we see Western leaders distancing themselves from such plans and declaring that they will not send NATO forces into this conflict. Nevertheless, we have seen many times how the West crosses its own “red lines” – it really can happen again.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.