Ukraine: A Question of Survival

By Dobriansky, Paula J. | The National Interest, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Ukraine: A Question of Survival


Dobriansky, Paula J., The National Interest


TWO YEARS AFTER its rebirth as an independent state, Ukraine is struggling to survive. The economy is in shambles; Crimea is a political tinderbox; given the results of the parliamentary elections in the Spring of 1994, the prospects for effective government remain uncertain; and Moscow's intentions toward Kiev, at best, are unclear. The very existence of Ukraine is in jeopardy.

In the West, assessments of Ukraine's prospects range from outright pessimism--notably embodied in a recent CIA National Intelligence Estimate which apparently forecasts that economic failure is likely to result in the splintering of eastern from western Ukraine--to more hopeful assessments of Kiev's political prospects, predicated upon optimistic readings of Ukrainian public opinion and the fact that no oblast in eastern Ukraine has a Russian majority.

There is less disagreement about the geopolitical and military consequences should Ukraine experience political collapse. Most analysts agree that this would probably entail both a civil war and a Russian-Ukrainian military clash. Indeed, many believe along with Karen Elliot House that "the major security threat to Europe in the near term will be Russia's attempts to reabsorb Ukraine," and that this could result in violence that will dwarf the Yugoslav conflict. Moreover, a collapse of the Ukrainian state would almost certainly mean the end of Russia's democratic experiment and a reversion to imperialism, with dire ramifications for Western security. In Zbigniew Brzezinski's apt characterization, "Russia can either be an empire or a democracy, but it cannot be both."

Averting the worst-case outcome in Ukraine will require judicious collaboration among all the major stakeholders: the Ukrainian government and opposition or reformist forces; the Russian government and diverse Russian political and bureaucratic players; and, last, but not least, Western governments. To be sure, both the primary responsibility for Kiev's future and the opportunity to shape it lie with the Ukrainian government and people; actions of other parties, at most, can make Ukrainian success more or less likely.

Different Interests, Different Perspectives

ON THE BANKS of the Dnieper River in Kiev stands a statue of the city's founders--Kiy, Shchek, Khoriv and their sister, Lybid. It is a reminder of the birth of a city and the growth of a nation at the vital strategic and commercial crossroads of Eurasia. Yet the statue itself and the history it symbolizes hold different meanings for Ukrainians and Russians.

Most Ukrainians view the past as a story of repeated brutal efforts to subjugate their country, primarily on the part of Russia, but also involving Poland, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey. In this view of things, Ukraine's history has been a record of betrayals, exploitations, suffering and partitions--a process of victimization that was relieved only by two very brief periods of genuine independence: the Zaporizhian Sitch (1648-1654), when the Zaporizhian Cossacks were governed by an elected leader, Hetman Bogdan Khmelnitsky; and 1918-1920, while the Russians were engaged in a civil war of their own. Kiev besieged on many occasions by barbarians, Westerners, and fellow Slavs--is a proud symbol of Ukraine's determination to survive and prevail.

Unfortunately, this vision is not generally shared by Russians, most of whom recall with pride the Kievan Rus' period, when Kiev, long before Moscow rose to prominence, supposedly functioned as one of the great Russian cities, alongside Pskov, Novgorod, Suzdal and Vladimir. Russians genuinely believe that, the commonly suffered privations of communism aside, throughout most of its history their country has behaved altruistically toward fellow Slavs in general and Ukrainians in particular. For example, for generations Russian textbooks have depicted the 1654 Treaty of Pereyslavskaya Rada, which secured the incorporation of Ukraine into the Russian empire, as a glorious event that freed Ukraine from Ottoman and Polish oppression.

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