Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Ukraine on July 27 to attend a joint commemoration marking the 1,025th anniversary of Russia’s conversion to Christianity. As Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, points out, despite the religious nature of the occasion, Putin used the event to push for a more secular and, for the Kremlin, more pressing agenda.
Russia’s conversion took place in the medieval principality of Kievan Rus, the state that later gave rise to the Russian Empire and today’s Russian and Ukrainian states. Today, engaging the rhetoric of the common historical and cultural background of the two countries, Moscow is seeking to economically integrate Ukraine with Russia by joining a Kremlin-sponsored customs union and a broader Eurasian Union of former Soviet states. Ukraine, meanwhile, is facing a critical choice between East and West that could shape its domestic and foreign policy for years to come. In November, it plans to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union at a summit in Vilnius, an act that would grant it trade preferences with Europe and, the Kremlin insists, preclude membership in Russia’s customs zone.
During his trip, Putin urged Ukraine to weigh carefully the benefits of joining Russia’s regional trade bloc against its plans for closer ties with the European Union. “There is tough competition going on for global markets,” Putin told a press conference. “And I am sure most of you realize that only by joining forces can we be competitive and win this rather tough struggle.” He cited figures that show that while Russia’s trade with Ukraine declined by 18 percent in the first quarter of 2013, trade within the post-Soviet customs union rose by 2-3 percent. Russia has hinted that if Kiev joins, it could get a discount on Russian gas supplies, on which Ukraine depends heavily, but which it claims Moscow is today selling for exorbitant prices.
On July 27, Putin met briefly with his Ukrainian counterpart, President Viktor Yanukovych, when they attended the official celebration of the anniversary of Kievan Rus’ baptism, along with the presidents of Moldova and Serbia. The next day, Putin and Yanukovych presided over a parade for Russian and Ukrainian Navy Day. Press reports suggest that the two also discussed trade, economic, and security cooperation.
Yet the visit was ultimately about soft coercion, not hard politics. Russian money and the promise of cheap gas can ultimately make up for neither Moscow’s unappealing image in the world nor for the lingering power of now-discredited ideas, such as the Pan-Slavism of the nineteenth century or the Marxism-Leninism of the twentieth. Today, Putin’s Russia is unsure what it stands for. In an effort to improve Russia’s image and influence, the Kremlin has been growing the profile of Rossotrudnichestvo, the agency in charge of promoting better relations abroad. The agency received an increase to its budget in July, part of a trend that is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. A second initiative has been the regime’s promotion of the idea of Russkiy Mir, or Russian World, which puts Moscow at the center of an Orthodox civilization of kindred neighbors: Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
Putin’s visit to Ukraine was ultimately about soft coercion, not hard politics. Still, Russian money and the promise of cheap gas can’t ultimately make up for Moscow’s unappealing image in the world.
These approaches, based on conservative nationalism, serve both domestic and foreign goals. At home, they divert attention from a regime widely viewed by many Russians as corrupt and out of touch with popular concerns (though Putin himself remains relatively popular). Conservative nationalism also provides a legitimating idea for authoritarian rule. Abroad, it supports traditional international law, with its emphasis on national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of states. It thus strongly opposes liberal interventionism, democracy promotion, and externally sponsored regime change. Such nationalism also provides a justification for Moscow’s claim to leadership of a major, alternative world (and a rationale for the West’s reluctance to embrace Putin’s Russia). With regard to Belarus and Ukraine in particular, the Kremlin uses this ideology of soft power to pursue, in James Sherr’s colorful phrase, an “artfully contradictory proposition”: that the former Soviet Union is a sphere of Russia’s privileged interests, built upon “historical conditional relations.”
At a reception during his trip, Putin spoke of the primacy of Russian and Ukrainian spiritual and historical bonds, regardless of the political issues that divide the two governments. “We are all spiritual heirs of what happened here 1,025 years ago,” the Russian president told Church leaders at the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, one of the holiest sites in Orthodoxy, and one that overlooks a glorious panorama of the historic Dnieper. “And in this sense we are, without a doubt, one people.” Meanwhile, Patriarch Kiril I, who arrived in Kiev bearing relics of the cross on which the Apostle Andrew is believed to have been crucified, and who was accompanied by representatives of the world’s Orthodox Churches, presided over prayers on July 27. (In another example of the close ties between Russian Church and state, the cross had already been venerated by hundreds of thousands of Russians on a cross-country tour sponsored by Vladimir Yakunin, the oligarch who heads Russian Railways and is close to both Putin and the Moscow Patriarchate).
The meeting between Putin and Yanukovych was cool, according to press reports. Upon entering the room for negotiations, they did not even shake hands. Yanukovych was too solicitous of Russian demands early in his presidency—most notably on Ukrainian NATO membership, the basing of the Black Sea Fleet, and language policy—but for now at least he appears to have drawn the line at yielding more. His government says it still seeks to sign the EU Association Agreement (though closer ties with the West are currently on hold due to the politically motivated prosecution of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s main rival).
Yanukovych’s resolve has apparently been steeled by the business oligarchs who back him. These moguls are fearful of being displaced by Russian commercial and business interests and see a promise of greater profits in closer ties with the West. Many Ukrainians, moreover, see Putin’s campaign as yet another Muscovite attempt to steal part of their heritage and annihilate the rest. (A recent analysis by a group of Kremlin advisors of a message Yanukovych delivered to the Ukrainian parliament concludes that Ukraine no longer views itself as part of the Russian cultural world, defines itself in European terms, and cooperates with Moscow only when and because it has too.) (P. Goble, “Window on Eurasia: Ukraine Even Under Yanukovich Shifting Its Focus from Russia to Europe, Kremlin Advisors Say, July 16, 2013).
Conservative nationalism provides a justification for Moscow’s claim to leadership of a major, alternative world (and a rationale for the West’s reluctance to embrace Putin’s Russia).
Ukraine’s search for its own path is unlikely to be easy. First, it’s uncertain whether the Yanukovych government can long afford to continue rejecting Moscow’s Eurasian Union—Ukraine’s economy has not yet recovered from the double-dip recession of the past few years. Second, Russia can easily abandon its soft-power approach to Ukraine and create problems for Yanukovych in the 2015 presidential elections. Third, Yanukovych’s own mismanagement and poor human rights record make achieving an EU Association Agreement difficult. Finally, despite elite support for EU affiliation, Ukrainian public opinion remains divided.
During his Kiev visit, Putin said he will respect any choice Ukraine makes about its future; however, Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant, argues that “Russia is really desperate, because Ukraine is the major trophy in Putin’s Eurasian Union project. That’s what leads Putin to pull out all the stops in the race to win this.” On July 29, the day after Putin’s return to Moscow, Ukrainian leaders were reminded of the harsh measures that could follow if they ignore his call to honor the ties of blood, religion, and history: Russian regulators banned on health grounds imports of chocolates and other sweets produced by Ukrainian confectionary giant Roshen, a company owned by pro-EU oligarch Petro Poroshenko. It was the latest in a string of trade restrictions imposed by Russia on Ukraine this year, on goods ranging from steel pipes to cheese.