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Russia-Ukraine: The Imperial Syndrome
On 26 August 1991, shortly after the failure of the communist putsch in Moscow and Ukraine's declaration of independence, Russian President Boris Yel'tsin's press secretary Pavel Voschanov announced on the president's behalf that Russia reserved the right to review existing borders among republics of the USSR (excluding the Baltic republics). It became apparent later that this statement, which was repudiated in short order, was neither an expression of short-term political ambitions nor a political gaffe. Rather, it gave voice to the administration's actual political line, perhaps not fully recognized as such, which has manifested itself in recent years in Russia's actions in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Moldova, and, of course, in its policy toward Ukraine. This line was quite aptly characterized by the Moscow historian Yuri Afanasyev as neo-imperialist.(1) Ukraine occupies pride of place in Russia's neo-imperialist ambitions.
New Times, Old Habits
Many Russians continue to think of Ukraine as an integral part of Russia that became separated accidentally. Whatever their political orientation, most Russian politicians traditionally have considered Ukraine as a part of Russia's geopolitical sphere of interest. Characteristically, Russian political forces of every shade and gradation, from "red" or "brown" to a portion of the democratic camp, are united in their attitude to Ukraine as an inalienable component of Russia. It is worth noting that the first serious split among the Russian democrats took place in November 1991, when it became apparent that the leaders of Democratic Russia supported the independence of the new republics, first of all Ukraine. At that time, the Democratic Party of Russia (led by Nikolai Travkin), the Constitutional Democratic Party of Russia (Mikhail Astaf'ev) and the Russian Christian Democratic movement (Viktor Aksyuchits) all withdrew from Democratic Russia. Early in 1992, as a result of Ukraine's declaration of independence, such well-known democrats as Sergei Stankevich, Yevgeni Ambartsumov and Oleg Rumiantsev shifted their allegiance from the democratic to the national-patriotic camp.(2)
Russia's ruling elite, led by Yel'tsin, initially tolerated Ukraine's aspirations toward independence, clearly calculating that nothing more than verbal declarations would result. There is no question that the Russian leaders expected to reach agreement very readily with the Ukrainian nomenklatura,which maintained its hold on power by mouthing pro-independence slogans, and that they regarded the CIS as a new framework for the integration of nominally independent republics under Russia's dictate. Thus, Yel'tsin declared that CIS members would share a common currency and economic space, a common price policy and economic reform strategy, a joint army, etc. The CIS as a new form of the old relationship between metropolis and borderlands became an idee fixe for most Russian politicians.
The border question arose once again as the CIS was taking shape: the Russian side repeatedly made it clear that the territorial status quo would pertain only to CIS members, while Ukraine insisted that the recognition of existing borders should not be tied to membership in the CIS.(3) The subsequent tone of relations between Russia and Ukraine was set when it became evident that Ukraine meant to achieve real, not merely declarative, independence. At a meeting of CIS leaders in March 1992, Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk stated that Ukraine was moving to establish its own armed forces, including a navy, and that it was laying claim to 16 percent of Soviet assets, including gold reserves and foreign assets. In the summer of 1992, Ukraine announced its intention to introduce its own currency (which was accomplished in November of that year). This moment marked the beginning of Russia's actual confrontation with Ukraine.
Russia repeatedly has sought "special status" in its relations with Ukraine; a status that in fact amounts to a position of dominance. Since Ukraine became the largest and potentially most powerful country in the European "near abroad," it remains Moscow's unchanging ambition to entangle its neighbor in various blocs, unions and alliances with Russia in order to prevent the Eurasian balance of power from shifting decisively in favor of the West. On the contrary, Ukraine has insisted on basing relations with Moscow on its own law and on international legal norms. As a result, post-communist relations between the two countries have been marked by a succession of Russian demands.
Ukraine has become the object of sustained pressure on the part of its northern neighbor, which has resorted to economic and political blackmail as well as to direct intervention in Ukraine's internal affairs. Russian pressure concerns Ukraine's foreign debt, the rights of Ukraine's Russian-speaking population, territorial claims regarding the Crimea, nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory, and the Black Sea Fleet. The style of Russia's aggressive measures vis-a-vis Ukraine was wholly reminiscent of the scenario prepared by the Soviet leadership for use against the Baltic states when they were attaining sovereignty. Characteristically, a combination of pressure tactics was employed to this end: The economic war between Russia and Ukraine in 1992-93 was accompanied by provocations in the Crimea; the debt problem was linked to Ukraine's willingness to make concessions on the division of the fleet and on integration into CIS; and any instance of tension between the two states led immediately to "energy blackmail," a particularly effective strategy since Ukraine depends on Russia for 90 percent of its energy supplies.
Some of these problems have been resolved only through the active intervention of the West. In particular, an agreement on the restructuring of Ukrainian debt (more than $5 billion) on terms favorable to Ukraine was reached because of pressure on Russia by its Western creditors.(4) The problem of transferring nuclear weapons from Ukraine to Russia was resolved only after US intervention: (5) Russia is to supply Ukraine with approximately $1 billion worth of nuclear fuel rods in compensation for the strategic materials in nuclear warheads transferred to Russia.(6) Even though Ukraine finally has met its obligations, Russia is in no hurry to honor its part of the bargain. Conflicts over the issue of nuclear arms in Ukraine have invariably arisen as a result of Russian "initiatives." The most acute confrontation was triggered in January 1993 as a result of the Russian government decision to take charge of rocket-equipped troop formations and strategic air forces based in Ukraine.
Despite the fact that there was visible progress in Russian-Ukrainian relations on several topics last year (the problems of debt, the USSR's foreign assets, nuclear weapons, etc.), it is apparent that Russia does not fully respect the principle of equal partnership and that Ukraine remains one of the few CIS members to resist Russia's will. The most contentious issues -- the Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet remain.
Moreover, much of Moscow's political establishment continues to exploit the problem of the Crimea's Russia-speaking population in Russia's internal political contests. In this connection, Russian political leaders have deliberately created tensions in relations with Ukraine, making demands that can be described only as interference in Ukraine's internal affairs. The following is a very brief chronology of these events.
Not until February 1994 did Russian Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin state that Russia had no grievances against Ukraine concerning the Crimea; this, however, did not prevent the Russian parliament from providing a forum for anti-Ukrainian declarations by the (now former) chairman of the Crimean parliament, Sergei Tsekov.
Paradoxically, it was the war in Chechnya that led to a break in Russia's efforts to separate the Crimea politically from Ukraine. In March 1995, Ukrainian politicians finally took decisive action, exploiting Russia's preoccupation: the Ukrainian parliament abolished the Crimean presidency and suspended the Constitution of the Crimean Republic. Ukraine's president, Leonid Kuchma, subordinated Crimea's government agencies directly to himself. Focusing as it was on the war in Chechnya, Russia was unable to mount an adequate response, despite pleas from some members of the Crimean parliament to put pressure on Ukraine. Although the head of the State Duma Committee on CIS Affairs, Konstantin Zatulin, called for serious economic and political sanctions against Ukraine, the head of the Russian parliament, Ivan Rybkin, confirmed that the Crimean problem was Ukraine's internal affair. (7) The recent attempt of a part of Crimean legislators to provide a region-wide plebiscite on "union with Russia and Belarus'" has failed to a great extent because of the lack of Russian support. Still, bearing in mind the legacy of previous relations between the two states, the growth of chauvinist attitudes among the Russian political elite and the problem of the Black Sea Fleet (which is taking on new significance because of the coexistence of the fleets of the two states), it may be asserted with confidence that the Crimea will remain one of the main levers that Russia can use to exert pressure on Ukraine.
The Black Sea Fleet
Initially, the Black Sea Fleet was the joint navy of the CIS member states. In June 1992, after Ukraine had announced its intention to establish its own navy, agreement in principle was reached on the division of the fleet. Later the fleet came under formal joint Russian-Ukrainian command. A year later, in June 1993, the presidents of Russia and Ukraine reached agreement on the 50-50 division of the fleet (at this time the Russian parliament declared Sevastopol Russian territory). In September 1993, Russia proposed that Ukraine give up its half of the fleet in return for partial remission of its debt. Intergovernmental delegations and committees established to resolve the technical questions involved in the division of the fleet, however, could never reach ultimate agreement, as the Russians refused to treat Ukraine as an equal partner. It is worth noting the statement by Zatulin that delay in resolving the problem of the Black Sea fleet was in Russia's interest.(8) Also significant was the position adopted by Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, who in April 1994 unexpectedly and demonstratively left the negotiations that were proceeding between government delegations in Sevastopol. This action that effectively put an end to the talks. These negotiations were attended also by numerous conflicts, mutual provocations and maneuvers that threatened the development of normal relations between the two countries.
Finally, at a meeting of Presidents Kuchma and Yel'tsin held in Sochi on 9 June 1995, a "full stop" was put to the problem of the Black Sea Fleet, as the Russian president expressed it, with agreement on a division of ships (81.3 percent assigned to Russia, and 18.7 percent to Ukraine, with property divided 50-50), as well as on their basing and related matters; the legal status of Russia's military presence in Ukraine was to be decided at a later date. It soon became evident, however, that the Russian side was not disposed to a "full stop:" shortly after the Sochi meeting, the Russian president made it unmistakably apparent that a final resolution of the fleet issue was a sine qua non for his visit to Kiev and the signing of an extensive bilateral agreement between the two countries that would serve as a basis for their future relations. On 6 October 1995 the Russian State Duma passed a moratorium on the division of fleet forces, assets, and infrastructure.(9) Thus Russia once again resorted to political blackmail.
In its near-term policy toward Ukraine, the importance of Russia's political situation will increase. If reformist forces remain in control in 1995-96, one may expect them to act in a more sophisticated manner, with economic pressure on Ukraine playing a greater role. Should the national-patriotic forces prevail, Ukraine's relations with Russia could turn into one of the most dangerous confrontations in world politics. Whatever the outcome, it may be confidently predicted that the future development of Ukraine's independence, accompanied by specific policies meant to endow it with economic and political content, will be met with corresponding efforts on Russia's part to retard this process or put a stop to it. This will continue unless the Russian political elite manages to free itself of the imperial syndrome and to realize that the age of empires ended in the 20th century, and that the 21st century is almost upon us.
Copyright ISCIP 1995