Is Ukraine Next?

KIEV, Ukraine—At the end of Kiev’s main street, Khreschatyk, with its advertisements for mail-order-bride agencies and posh boutiques selling $3,000 opossum- fur duffel bags, stands a monument to an older Ukraine. Two burly 20-foot-tall members of the proletariat—one Russian, one Ukrainian—stand manfully, chests thrust forward, together holding up a five-pointed star inscribed with the hammer and sickle and the words “Friendship of Nations.” The formerly exalted spot is now somewhat cheapened by the presence of a few rickety attractions, like bumper cars and a shooting range where you can plink empty beer cans with a Kalashnikov-shaped air rifle.

Monuments like this are usually a good barometer for how a former Soviet republic feels about its relationship with Russia. Lithuania, which sprinted as fast as possible from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has moved its Soviet-era statues to a museum park, and Estonia even went so far as to remove a World War II memorial from the center of its capital city. On the other end of the spectrum, Lenin still stands tall in the central square of Minsk, the capital of Belarus, a country that regularly entertains proposals to reunite with Russia.

Ukraine is a bit more ambivalent. The Friendship of Nations monument stands next to a panoramic lookout spot over the Dnieper River, and most people who come to the monument barely pay it any attention; it’s just something they pass by to get to the view. The base’s inscription (a relief text that read “In Commemoration of the Reunification of Ukraine with Russia”) has been removed, though the outline of the letters is still visible because decades of pollution discolored the background around them. The statue now sports a little Ukrainian nationalist graffiti. But the Russian and Ukrainian workers still stand side by side.

The friendship between Russia and Ukraine is on the rocks these days. The 2004 Orange Revolution brought in pro-Western leaders who have prioritized joining NATO and the European Union to the detriment of Kiev’s ties to Moscow. The summer 2008 war between Georgia and Russia ratcheted up the tension even more: Ukraine sold arms to Georgia (some secretly, Russia and a few Ukrainians allege), and its president, Viktor Yushchenko, flew to Georgia to show Ukraine’s support. Meanwhile, Russian navy ships based in Ukraine ferried troops to Georgia and sank one Georgian coast guard vessel.

Immediately after the dust settled in Georgia, speculation had it that Ukraine was next in Russia’s sights. (Google “Is Ukraine next?” to see just how much speculation.) Like Georgia, Ukraine has NATO aspirations and a president dedicated to moving away from Moscow and toward the United States and Europe. And it has Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea where most of the population is not Ukrainian but ethnic Russian. It also hosts a large Russian naval base. Although Crimea is still firmly under Ukrainian control, Russia can turn up the heat there when it wants to. Shortly after the war in Georgia, I ran into a Russian diplomat I know  in Washington; I asked him what came next. He grinned and said, “Watch Crimea.” While the world’s attention has lately been focused on the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute, the issue of Crimea holds more long-term potential for conflict.

But while the situations in Ukraine and Georgia have several ominous parallels, they are also different in important ways. Ukraine is much larger—a population of 46 million, 10 times as large as Georgia’s—with a much stronger military. Georgians, traditionally mountain dwellers, have a legendarily fiery temperament, while Ukrainians’ reputation is more as mild-mannered farmers. The Ukrainian population itself is divided: While independence has allowed Ukrainian nationalism to flourish, especially in the western part of the country, 17 percent of Ukrainian citizens are ethnic Russians and many others still look to Moscow for cultural and political orientation. Public support for NATO membership hovers in the 30 percent range, while in Georgia it’s more than 80 percent.

Perhaps most important, though, Ukrainians share a long history and a cultural affinity with Russians. While Russia’s relations with Georgia date only to the 18th century, the histories of Ukraine and Russia have been inseparable for more than 1,000 years. Kiev was the site of the first great Slavic civilization, Kievan Rus, established in the 10th century. When the Mongols sacked Kiev in 1240, the city fell into decline, and the center of Slavic civilization shifted to Moscow (which had been founded by a prince from Kiev in 1147). Russians and Ukrainians still dispute whose country is the true successor of Kievan Rus. A Russian proverb says that Moscow is the heart of Russia and St. Petersburg is its head—but Kiev is its mother. Russia values these inter-Slavic ties highly; its low birth rates and high death rates create the potential that Russians will, over time, become demographically overwhelmed by the non-Slavic minorities that surround Russia.

I recently traveled through Ukraine to try to see whether my diplomat friend—and everyone else—was right. Was Ukraine next in Russia’s sights? No one knows, of course, probably not even at the Kremlin. But if there is an eventual conflict in Crimea between Russia and Ukraine, we’ll be able to point fingers in many directions: Moscow, for fomenting anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Crimea; Kiev, for pursuing clumsy nationalist policies that alienate Russians in Ukraine; Crimean Russians, for stubbornly holding onto the Soviet past rather than focusing on a future in an independent Ukraine; and Western governments, in particular the United States, for supporting the Ukrainian government so enthusiastically that Kiev feels emboldened to act more rashly than it otherwise might.

The shared history of Russia and Ukraine is a double-edged sword. Over and over, people in Ukraine—both pro-Russian and pro-Western—told me that Ukraine and Russia would never fight because of their close historical and cultural ties. But, I wondered, had close ties helped the Croats and Serbs, the Union and Confederacy, Iraqi Sunnis and Iraqi Shiites, or countless other groups of compatriots-turned-enemies? Russia’s roots in Ukraine make the stakes much higher here—the loss of Ukraine to the west would be felt more keenly in Moscow than would the loss of Georgia, and so Russia will be willing to try harder and to risk more to keep it in its sphere of influence.

In addition, Ukrainians have centuries of grievances against Russia on which to draw and a walk through Kiev’s grand old center provides plenty of reminders. Just across from the golden-domed St. Sophia’s cathedral (which dates from 1037 and whose connection to Kievan Rus history probably spared it from destruction under the Soviets) and in the shadow of a gleaming Hyatt hotel is an equestrian statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the Ukrainian Cossack leader who signed a peace deal with Russia in 1654. Ukrainians now criticize the deal as having sold out the country, resulting in Ukraine’s subjugation to Russia. (The statue, erected in the czarist era, points toward Moscow.)

Just across the cobblestoned street is a small monument commemorating those who starved during the Soviet collectivization of the 1930s; in November 2008, the Ukrainian government inaugurated a new, much larger monument to the famine. Between 3 million and 6 million Ukrainians died, and historical opinion in Ukraine is increasingly reaching the conclusion that the famine was a deliberate genocide against the Ukrainian people perpetrated from Moscow, rather than the unintended consequence of collectivization—something that Russian historians hotly dispute and that has become another issue of contention between the two countries.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who never misses an opportunity to needle Russia, attended the new monument’s inauguration. In his remarks, Saakashvili said current Russian attempts to deny the genocide show that “the ideology of evil remains alive. Even 75 years after the tragedy, the seeds of evil still grow in some individuals.” Meanwhile, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev sent a letter to President Yushchenko complaining that “the tragic events of the 1930s are being used in Ukraine in order to achieve instantaneous and conformist political goals.”

The Georgia war was a watershed moment for this part of the world. It demonstrated vividly that the balance of power here had tipped. Georgia was the most loyal ally the United States had in the former Soviet Union, and when America failed to come to Georgia’s aid, Russia essentially called Washington’s bluff—they were willing to use force to defend their interests, and the United States wasn’t. The advances Washington had made in the last two decades—expanding NATO, building new oil and gas pipelines, establishing military relations—suddenly looked a lot more fragile.

I had been wondering whether this was causing other U.S. allies in the former Soviet Union to have second thoughts about throwing in their lot with Washington. So I arranged a meeting with Boris Tarasyuk, an elder statesman of Ukrainian diplomacy and Yushchenko’s first foreign minister. If he was having second thoughts, he wasn’t admitting it. In fact, he was offended by the very premise of my question.

“Ukraine is not Georgia. The Georgian situation is not the same as the Ukrainian situation. So you cannot speak as if you are speaking about similar situations. This is a completely wrong conceptual approach. You should not speak in these terms,” he said. “In Ukraine there are no territories outside of its control. Ukraine, by its size, is not comparable to Georgia. Ukraine has one of the largest armed forces in Europe, so one cannot compare the military capabilities of Georgia with those of Ukraine. This is a rather serious situation, to attack Ukraine militarily, because the consequences of such a confrontation would affect the whole of Europe. I am of the opinion that this is understood by both sides.”

Still, he admitted that Russia has the same kind of designs on Ukraine that it does on Georgia. “Their strategic foreign-policy objective is to impose domination over Ukraine,” he said. And Ukrainian fear has only grown since the war in Georgia: Polls showed that 47 percent of Ukrainians felt less secure as a result of the war. “What happened in Georgia convinced many people in Ukraine, especially those in charge, to pay adequate attention to the quality of its armed forces and the necessity to allocate adequate funding for making the armed forces modern, well-equipped, and ready.” (After the Georgia war, Ukraine’s defense minister called for the military budget to be more than tripled from 2008 to 2009.)

“We are always using all means to protect our interests,” he said. Then he added, “And at the same time, we are not provoking any unpredictable results. We have to calculate first, what is the challenge, how to cope with the challenge in an effective way, and not to cause unexpected result. In this sense, Ukrainians are different from Georgians.”

Did he think it was inevitable that Russia would try to conquer Ukraine? “Looking at history, the Russian elite was always trying to enlarge Russia at the expense of its neighbors and to pursue the policy of imperial quest. You can trace this deep into history,” he said. “In the past there was no Russia, there was Moscow kingdom, and they called it Muscovia, it was only at the beginning of the 18th century that Peter the Great invented the name Russia, thus taking the historic name of what was known as Kievan Rus.”

Tarasyuk quickly sketched a history of Ukraine in which, consistently, the only thing to come from the east was trouble—from the wars that ended in Khmelnytsky’s 1654 peace deal to the formation of the Soviet Union to the famine. So what did Tarasyuk think of the monument to the Friendship of Nations? He paused, and smiled. “I don’t see any danger in the friendship of nations.”