Magazine article Newsweek International

Big Brother and 'Little Russians'; the Very Notion That Ukraine Would Turn into a Western Outpost on Russia's Southern Flank Is a Nightmare for Russia's Ruling Elite

Magazine article Newsweek International

Big Brother and 'Little Russians'; the Very Notion That Ukraine Would Turn into a Western Outpost on Russia's Southern Flank Is a Nightmare for Russia's Ruling Elite

Article excerpt

Byline: Richard Pipes (Pipes is professor emeritus of Russian history at Harvard. His latest book is titled "Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger" (Yale University Press).)

The dramatic events unfolding since Ukraine's presidential election can be understood only by taking into account both Russia's imperial ambitions and its neighbor's split identity. Russians have always been inordinately proud of their country's size. In the 17th century they would boast to foreign visitors that Russia was larger than the surface of the visible moon. In their language, velikii means

both "large" and "great," so that by a mental sleight they have come to believe that entitles them to the status of a Great Power.

The collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet empire profoundly affected the psyche of Russians. They simply cannot adjust to the fact that they have been so much reduced in size and influence. According to public-opinion polls, three-quarters of Russians regret the passing of the Soviet Union: much of this nostalgia derives from the feeling that the loss of the Soviet empire has turned them into a minor power, which other nations neither respect nor fear. To deal with this problem, the government of President Vladimir Putin has quietly but steadfastly sought to restore Moscow's influence over what had once been the Soviet republics and now are sovereign states.

Various devices have been employed to this end, including economic pressure and the refusal to withdraw Russian troops from such places as the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol, home port to Russia's Black Sea fleet. Such methods have led to great tension in some neighboring regions, notably Georgia, where Moscow has been intervening in blatant disregard of that republic's sovereign rights.

No loss has been more painfully felt than that of Ukraine. This is not only because Ukraine is the richest and most populous of the lost dependencies. It is also because Ukraine had been the cradle of Russian statehood, for it is here, in Kiev, a thousand years ago, that its first government was formed. The "Little Russians," as Russians traditionally called Ukrainians, are considered brothers, and their separation into an independent state is seen as betrayal. But the present conflict has yet another dimension. Viktor Yushchenko, the popular candidate for the presidency whom the authorities have declared the loser, is openly pro-Western, and some of his supporters have incautiously predicted that under his administration, Ukraine might apply for membership in NATO.

This prospect is intolerable to Moscow, which has gone as far as it can in reconciling itself to NATO's presence along its European border. The very notion that Ukraine would turn into a Western outpost on Russia's southern flank is a nightmare for Russia's ruling elite. …

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