Ukrainians like to blame their country’s ills on “Moscow and the Muscovites,” but the UK’s highly respected Royal Institute of International Affairs (a.k.a. Chatham House) has just provided good grounds for thinking that their paranoia may be justified.

Take a look at the January 2012 briefing paper, “A Ghost in the Mirror: Russian Soft Power in Ukraine,” by two Kyiv-based analysts—Alexander Bogomolov and Oleksandr Lytvynenko. Bogomolov is president  of the Association of Middle East Studies, while Lytvynenko is director of research projects at the Foreign and Security Policy Council. Neither is a “nationalist hothead.” Both are sober establishment men.

Here are the bullet points of their argument:

  • “For Russia, maintaining influence over Ukraine is more than a foreign policy priority; it is an existential imperative. Many in Russia’s political elite perceive Ukraine as part of their country’s own identity.”

The problem with existential imperatives is that they are “zero-sum games.” If Russia’s existence truly depends on Ukraine’s nonexistence, then compromise is impossible, at least as long as Russia’s rulers perceive Ukraine as part of Russia’s identity.

  • “Russia’s socio-economic model limits its capacity to act as a pole of attraction for Ukraine. As a result, Russia relies on its national myths to devise narratives and projects intended to bind Ukraine in a ‘common future’ with Russia and other post-Soviet states.”

Russia’s Putinist model is more accurately termed “fascistoid,” an ugly word that captures the wretched nature of Vladimir Putin’s brand of authoritarianism plus charismatic strongman rule. (For more on this, see “Fascistoid Russia” in the current issue of World Affairs.) The good news is that, since no right-thinking non-Russian elite would presumably want to adopt such a model, even Ukraine’s doltish Regionnaires may want to resist Russian soft-power blandishments if they recognize that they are a cover for the hard-power brutality of Putinism.

  • “These narratives are translated into influence in Ukraine through channels such as the Russian Orthodox Church, the mass media, formal and informal business networks, and non-governmental organizations.”

Here’s the bad news for Ukraine. Its elites can, in principle, easily say no to Putin and Putinism, but how does one say no to religion, language, and culture?

  • “Russia also achieves influence in Ukraine by mobilizing constituencies around politically sensitive issues such as language policy and shared cultural and historical legacies. This depends heavily on symbolic resources and a deep but often clumsy engagement in local identity politics.”
  • “Russia’s soft power project with regard to Ukraine emphasizes cultural and linguistic boundaries over civic identities, which is ultimately a burden for both countries.”

The last two points are especially bad news for Ukrainian and Russian liberals committed to interethnic tolerance and amity. If Russian soft power is focused on creating “disloyal minorities” with intolerant identities, then the ultimate effect will be to promote racism, chauvinism, and intolerance both within Ukraine and Russia and between Ukraine and Russia.

According to the two analysts, the root of the problem is that

the very idea of a Ukrainian nation separate from the great Russian nation challenges core beliefs about Russia’s origin and identity. Ukraine hosts the most valuable symbols constituting the core of Russia’s national identity—the mythological birthplace of the Russian nation and the cradle of the Russian Orthodox Church along with its holiest places…. From this perspective, the collective goods that bring the majority of Ukrainians together as a nation … appear to be meaningless, second-rate or blasphemous to a large number of Russians. Generations of Russian intellectuals have turned belittling of the Ukrainian language and culture into a part of the Russian belief system alongside anti-Tatar and anti-Muslim stereotypes. But whereas the latter are built around national differences, what makes Ukraine stand out in this list is a dismissive attitude to any assertion that national differences exist. This coexistence between friendship for a “kindred people” and hostility to the Ukrainian nation is what gives relations between Ukraine and Russia their distinctive quality.

More than distinctive, the quality of Ukrainian-Russian relations is, given such a mind-set, necessarily going to be conflictual. Worse, if such dismissive attitudes are part and parcel of Russian identity, then there is no solution short of a fundamental transformation of Russian identity—something that, even in the best of circumstances, will take a long time.

Unfortunately, regardless of the dastardly intentions of “generations of Russian intellectuals,” Ukraine’s policymakers have compounded their country’s problems by behaving as if they were paid agents of Russian hard power. Here’s what Edward Chow, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an expert on Ukraine’s energy, told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 1st:

I have not met a single Ukrainian or Western geologist who does not believe that Ukraine has the geologic prospects to greatly increase its domestic oil and gas production. … Together with energy efficiency improvements, Ukraine can be more than 50 percent self-sufficient in gas. … Ukraine’s oil and gas sector is operated in a totally dysfunctional manner. … In fact, if you were to design an energy system that is optimized for corruption, it might look very much like Ukraine’s. You would start with a wholly state-owned monopoly that is not accountable to anyone except the head of the country who appoints the management of this company. It would operate non-transparently…. Domestic production would be priced artificially low, ostensibly for social welfare reasons, leading to a large grey market in gas supply that is allocated by privileged access rather than by price. ... The opaque middleman is frequently paid handsomely in kind, rather than in cash, which allows him to re-export the gas or to resell to high-value domestic customers, leaving the state company with the import debt and social obligations. … Russia may expect to gain full control of [Ukraine’s] gas transit system over time, as Ukraine continues to mismanage its energy sector…. The result of this possible scenario is that Ukraine becomes an energy appendage of Russia’s.

As Chow suggests, fixing Ukraine’s energy problems is technically a piece of cake. All you need to do is stop stealing from time to time. Naturally, no corrupt Ukrainian policymaker—and certainly no Regionnaire policymaker, almost all of whom are by definition corrupt—will put his country ahead of his Swiss bank account.

As Bogomolov and Lytvynenko imply, neutralizing Russia’s soft-power assault on Ukraine is also doable. All you need to do is speak Ukrainian from time to time. The Orange governments tried and were denounced by the Regionnaires. And, naturally, no Regionnaire will put his country ahead of his inability to speak a second language. 

All of which leaves Ukraine trapped between Russia’s hard and soft power. A few more years of Regionnaire indifference and Yanukovych may go down in history as the man who transformed his country into both an energy and identity “appendage” of Russia.

Alexander J. Motyl


Ukrayinska Dumka


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