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Volume VI, No 2 (November-December 1995)

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Russia-Ukraine: The Imperial Syndrome
Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences

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
The emergence of an independent Ukraine was seen by most Russian politicians as the collapse of a political order that had been sanctioned by centuries of tradition. One must bear in mind the Russian psychological habit (not confined to politicians) of regarding Ukraine as a "younger brother," with the attendant consequences of this view for both countries.

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.

The Crimea
Clearly, Russia's demands on Ukraine fall within a broader context than the mere division of the fleet or the status of the Crimea as a territory settled by a mainly Russian-speaking population. For Russia, the Crimea has strategic significance as a military base in the Black Sea region, close to the Caucasus, the Middle East and the Balkans; it is also seen as an area to be destabilized in order to maintain political pressure on Ukraine. The separatist ambitions of the Crimean political establishment, which will continue to exist as long as Russia supports them, could constitute a political precedent for other largely Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, most notably the Donetsk basin and the south. This is a threat to the integrity of Ukraine's territory and clearly weakens its ability to counteract Russia's imperialist ambitions.

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.


  • January 1992: The Russian parliament and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemns the administrative transfer of the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954;
  • April 1992: Russian Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi visits the Crimea, calls for its secession from Ukraine, and the Russian parliament begins debates on the status of Sevastopol;
  • April 1993: A Russian member of parliament, Valentin Agafonov, declares that Russia is preparing to oversee a possible referendum on the independence of the Crimea and will welcome the peninsula's accession to the CIS as an independent state;
  • July 1993: The Russian parliament adopts a resolution declaring Sevastopol to be an integral part of Russian territory and headquarters of the indivisible Black Sea Fleet (the UN Security Council declared this resolution incompatible with the UN charter and with the treaty of 1990 between Russia and Ukraine, in which both countries recognized each other's territorial integrity), and the Russian parliament declines to amend its resolution on the status of Sevastopol.

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
The Black Sea Fleet is an integral part of the "Crimean problem." Technically obsolete and economically burdensome, the fleet comprises between 300 and 440 ships, 18 submarines and 250 small vessels, 300 naval aircraft and helicopters, and 70,000 personnel. It has become an apple of discord in relations between the two countries. Russia has repeatedly made clear that it aspires to a dominant role in determining the disposition of the fleet. Official propaganda has persistently exploited the notion of the Black Sea Fleet as a Russian sanctuary and Sevastopol as a historical site of Russian glory. Ukraine simply does not fit into this scheme.

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.

Russia is clearly intent of reestablishing its empire, and Ukraine is meant to play a key role in this policy. Should Russia succeed in integrating Ukraine into its geopolitical model and forcing it to resume the status of "younger brother," the CIS inevitably will be transformed into a reconstituted Russian Empire. Indeed, as for now, Ukraine is still a CIS member in a position to resist neo-imperialist tendencies in Russia; hence one must assume that it will become the object of increasing pressure.

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.

1. Yuri Afanasyev, "A New Russian Imperialism," Perspective , vol. IV, no. 3, February-March 1994, pp. 7, 8-11.
2. Vera Tolz, "The Burden of the Imperial Legacy in Russia," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Report, vol. 2, no. 20, 14 May 1993, pp. 42-43.
3. See Fiona Hill and Pamela Jewett, "Back in the USSR." Russia's Intervention in the Internal Affairs of the Former Soviet Republics and the Implications for United States Policy Toward Russia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project, 1994), p. 69.
4. "A Puzzle," The Economist, 18 March 1995, p. 51.
5. For more detailed analysis, see "Ukrainian Security Issues," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Report vol. 3, no. 4, 28 January 1994; John W.R. Lepingwell, "Ukrainian Parliament Removed START-1 Conditions," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Report, vol. 3, no. 8, 25 February 1994.
6. OMRI Daily Digest, no. 138, Part II, 18 July 1995.
7. Ibid. no. 56, Part II, 20 March 1995.
8. Pislia Sochi, Demokratychna Ukraina, 20 July 1995.
9. OMRI Daily Digest, no. 201, Part II, 16 October 1995.

Copyright ISCIP 1995
Unless otherwise indicated, all articles appearing in this journal have been commissioned especially for

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