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Ukraine, Russia and Putin: The force of revivalism and the price of commitment

The key to understanding what is likely to happen in Ukraine (45 million people and Europe’s largest country in territorial terms) as the desperate tug-of-war continues between Europe and Russia, is an accurate insight into what Putin understands to be culturally Russian, and territorially his.  The heart of the matter is that Putin is willing to go all out to reclaim what he sees as ‘greater Russia’.

Europe and the Europeans have no equivalent, visceral motivation and are therefore unwilling to commit resources or political capital to the same extent. Whatever Europe (and the US) has done over the past 20 years to secure democracy in Ukraine, it is laudable but in no way rivals Putin’s commitment to dominating ‘his’ territory; Nor does Europe’s heart feel the sort of kinship that would compel it to treat Ukraine as an integral part of its cultural and political space.  This is the real failure of the post-1989 era and efforts.

The bottom line is that Ukraine matters more to the Russians than it does to Europe. It may be for all the wrong reasons, but it gives Russia’s resolve an undeniable edge.  And this in a context created by Putin and in which he has, in effect, no institutional limits on his actions. This imbalance of commitments is obvious and crucial: It makes Putin ready to intervene in Crimea (which he already considers to be his) and ‘protect’ Crimean Russians but also unflinching in his willingness to escalate matters if the government in Kiev is too pro-EU (which it looks as though it will be — and not, as once evoked, a ‘unity government’).  It’s not that global reputation and image don’t matter to him.  Just that greater Russia matters more. David Remnick in a current New Yorker article (March 3rd issue), writes of Sochi as “the televised revival of a demoralized country”–the display in Ukraine is about the political revival of a humiliated empire.

Europe and the Americans should be showing an equal commitment to Ukraine by backing it economically—but they’re not.  Ukraine is broke and needs money badly, but the hard-line Ukrainian opposition will not take any money from Russia. Perhaps understandably.  But this places the IMF in a position it doesn’t relish and has done everything to avoid: as the sole backer of Ukraine’s economy.

In this tug of war, the rope is fraying but there can be no doubt that Russia is willing – and institutionally able – to pull a lot harder than Europe. This is a tragedy in European terms (and for the Ukrainian people in the long term)  no matter what side of the river they’re on) but it should help us learn the lessons we failed to learn from Georgia. And lead us to renew our commitment as Europeans to engage far more strategically in democracy building in those places that matter to us politically, strategically and culturally.

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