Russia without Ukraine is a country;
Russia with Ukraine is an empire.

Ukraine-Russian Relations

Russian President Vladimir Putin informed George W. Bush at a NATO meeting in Bucharest in April 2008 : “Ukraine is not a real country.” By this, he meant that Ukraine has been an integral part of Russia for a thousand years. He publicly refers to Ukraine as Little Russia.

In his annual state of the nation address to parliament and the country’s top political leaders, on 25 April 2005 Putin said the Soviet collapse was a tragedy for Russians. “First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” Putin said. “As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.... The epidemic of collapse has spilled over to Russia itself,” he said, referring to separatist movements such as those in Chechnya. “We are a free nation and our place in the modern world will be defined only by how successful and strong we are,” Putin said.

From the point of view of geopolitics the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, in fact, was inevitable. The outburst of confrontation was only a matter of time. American political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in his book "The Grand Chessboard”, analyzing the consequences of the collapse of the USSR, that the most painful for Moscow was the loss of Ukraine. Over time, it has become clear that Russia is not going to put up with it and just waiting for the right moment. "However, if Moscow regains control over Ukraine, with its 52 million people and major resources as well as access to the Black Sea, Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia," Brzezinski said in the book, published in 1997.

Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus all trace their origins to Kyiv, the "mother of Russian cities" that was once the capital of the great state of Kyivan Rus. All three countries have separate, but related, languages. Russians have not reconciled themselves to Ukraine's independence. Boris Yeltsin, in January 1994, described Russia's position in relation to other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States as "first among equals"; and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, in summer 1993, called Ukraine "a mythical state”. Zbigniew Brzezinski writes of "...the widespread feeling in Moscow that Ukrainian independence is an abnormality as well as a threat to Russia's standing as a global power."

Stephen J. Blank noted that with respect to Russia, "Kiev has good reasons for genuine alarm or concern about its security. Foremost among them, and perhaps the most deeply rooted and enduring, is many Russian elites' visceral and deep-seated belief that without Ukraine, Russia's very identity is imperiled and that Ukraine is nothing more than "Little Russia" (Malorossiia).... For many, even liberals, Ukraine's independence is worse than treachery; it strikes at the very concept, let alone existence, of a Russian state."

The population of Ukraine is about 45 million. Ethnic Ukrainians make up approximately 78% of the total; ethnic Russians number about 17%, ethnic Belarusians number about 0.6%. The industrial regions in the east and southeast are the most heavily populated, and the population is about 70% urban. Ukrainian and Russian are the principal languages. Although Russian is very widely spoken, in the 2001 census (the latest official figures) 85.2% of the ethnic Ukrainian population identified Ukrainian as their native language.

Moscow tended to view the Commonwealth of Independent States [CIS] as the basis for a future restored military-political union ofthe former Soviet republics. Since 1991 Russian clashed often with Ukraine on economic, territorial, and military issues within the CIS which the Ukraine refused to see as more than an instrument for a civilized divorce.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was strident in his support of Georgia since the Russian incursion there in August 2008. He has traveled to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to demonstrate that support for his close friend, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. After Russian Black Sea Fleet vessels sailed from their home port of Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula to attack the Georgian harbor at Poti and land troops there, Yushchenko ordered tighter restrictions on Russian ship movements in Ukrainian territorial waters. That, coupled with a Ukrainian offer to discuss the integration of its early-warning missile systems with the West, further enraged Moscow. Many Ukrainian and foreign politicians, diplomats, and analysts believe Crimea could provide the flashpoint for a future conflict.

After Yushchenko came to power in 2004, he and Saakashvili -- both brought to power by colored revolutions -- have developed very close ties based on their common desire to join NATO and find alternative sources of oil and gas through the GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) regional alliance in order to lessen both countries' dependence on Russia. But neither of these two strategic goals has been achieved so far. NATO has not offered a Membership Action Plan to either Kyiv or Tbilisi, while the GUAM grouping, which initially also included Armenia, seems to be standing idle, if not falling apart.

Russia wants to be the monopoly supplier of gas in Europe. For Russia, the ultimate goal remains pipelines that runs directly to Europe interrupted by potentially quarrelsome post-Soviet neighbors. South Stream is projected to run from Russia's Black Sea coast to Italy via Bulgaria and Greece, crossing Ukraine's continental shelf but bypassing its soil. Arguably greater hopes are invested in Nord Stream, which is designed to pipe gas directly from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea. The Germans are actively assisting Russia in this. The long-stalled Nabucco project proposes to pipe gas from Central Asian and Azerbaijani suppliers directly to Europe via Turkey, and is seen as a direct competitor to South Stream.

Ukraine was the only gas transit system Russia did not control -- and they wanted it. Russia's Gazprom has been raising the price of Russian gas for Ukraine sharply since 2005, and that pushed Ukraine's trade and current accounts into deficit. Prime Minister Tymoshenko signed a memorandum in October 2008 with Prime Minister Putin which contained two key features: direct contracts, no intermediaries, and a gradual structured transition to international economically justified prices.

After a year of bilateral irritations over natural gas, Georgia, NATO, the Holodomor and other issues, no one was in the mood to negotiate gas prices by December 2008. When Yushchenko and Tymoshenko began to play the negotiations for their own political advantage, the situation became emotional - in Moscow as well as in Kyiv - and Moscow overreacted. The December 2008 - January 2009 gas crisis, referred to Ukrainians as the gas "war," was the latest episode in a general downward trend in Ukrainian-Russian relations over the course of the past year. The gas dispute led to a frosty two-week cutoff in gas supplies in January 2010. The final contract was negotiated by Tymoshenko in Moscow on 19 January 2009. Ukraine and Russia signed a 10-year contract on natural-gas supplies and transit, which ended the latest energy dispute between the two countries. The EU would continue to receive one-quarter of its gas supplies from Russia -- and four-fifths of that via pipelines in Ukraine -- just as it did before the feud began.

President Yushchenko, the Defense Minister and many others in the Ukrainian elite attributed the crisis to geopolitics, particularly Russia's desire to assert its regional dominance. The political elite seemed to have reached consensus that only an emotional overreaction in Moscow could have led to a cutoff to Europe as well as to Ukraine. (Reftel describes Ukrainian views of Russia's role in the actual cut off of supplies.) Russia's primary objective, Ukrainian leaders believe, was to discredit Ukraine as a reliable partner, and gain commercial and political control of Ukraine's gas transit system. Prominent experts and observers highlight the importance of Putin's personal enmity toward Yushchenko; in particular, they note the irritant of Yushchenko's outspoken criticism of Russian military actions against Georgia. Prime Minister Tymoshenko has portrayed the outcome as a victory for Ukraine and emerged as someone with whom Putin could cut a deal.

The gas crisis was cast against the background of a year of growing tension in Ukrainian-Russian relations and the politicization of the bilateral relationship in the domestic power struggle between Yushchenko, PM Tymoshenko, and Party of Regions leader Yanukovich. While initial reaction from Yushchenko and his administration focused on criticizing the final contract negotiated by Tymoshenko, this position evolved. During his January 26-28 meetings with European Commission President Barroso in Brussels and in Poland with President Kaczinsky and Czech Minister for Foreign Affairs Topolanek, Yushchenko made clear that Ukraine would abide by the contract, despite what he sees as its disadvantages for Ukraine. On January 28, Yushchenko referred to the "myths cranked out by the Russian government or Gazprom", and noted Russian geopolitics were behind the gas crisis. "Gas means politics, while large amounts of gas mean big politics," he said, continuing that Russia's actions appeared to be aimed at discrediting Ukraine and obtaining political and commercial control of the Ukrainian gas system.

By late 2009 Russian actions had spurred a public discussion within the Ukrainian elite about Russian intentions toward Ukraine. The most systematic contribution to the debate has been made by former National Security Advisor Volodymyr Horbulin, who believed that internal Russian considerations were pushing Russia toward a confrontation with Ukraine prior to the expiration of the Black Sea Fleet basing agreement in 2017. Some echoed and even amplified Horbulin's sense of alarm; others have downplayed the risk of armed conflict while remaining concerned about the general trajectory of Russian-Ukrainian relations. The overall impression is that Russian military action against Ukraine, while still unlikely, was no longer unthinkable.

Russian President Medvedev's 11 August 2009 letter to Ukrainian President Yushchenko, followed by the September 9 passage by the Russian Duma of the first reading of a draft amendment to the Law on Defense, expanding authority for Russian forces to be deployed abroad, generated a high-profile public discussion about the parlous state of Russian-Ukrainian relations. The day after the Duma's action, an open letter by 29 Ukrainian intellectuals and public figures, including former President Kravchuk, took Russia to task for allegedly disregarding Ukrainian sovereignty and trying to interfere in Ukraine's foreign-policy and security choices. "For the first time in many years," the authors warned, "there are signs that the Kremlin is not excluding the use of force from its arsenal of foreign-policy instruments toward Ukraine."

Still more noteworthy were two long articles in consecutive issues of "Dzerkalo Tyzhnya" ("Weekly Mirror") 12 and 19 September 2009 on Russia and Ukraine co-authored by Volodymyr Horbulin, currently Director of the Institute of National Security Issues and formerly National Security Advisor to President Kuchma. After a lengthy analysis of Russian politics, Horbulin concluded that various ideological and domestic factors "are forcing the Kremlin to make the extraordinarily dangerous and risky wager on Russian imperialist chauvinism and the fanning of militarist psychosis." While Moscow is not looking for a new global competition with the West, he wrote, Russia views the "taming" of Ukraine as the key task in restoring its regional domination.

Because Russia's "aggressive policies" were driven by the needs of Russia rather than the actions of Kyiv, argued Horbulin, even a major change in Ukraine's political course would not produce any substantial change in Moscow's approach. Horbulin reckoned that Moscow realizes it has a relatively short window of opportunity offered by Ukraine's internal political squabbling and international isolation, so "the 'assault on Kyiv' will unfold in the nearest future and will be determined and merciless." Moreover, experience has convinced the Russians, he maintained, that "pro-Russian" politicians in Ukraine quickly adopt a pro-Ukrainian/pro-Western course as soon as they come to power. While Horbulin believed that Russia has many non-military levers with which to influence Ukraine (above all, by stirring up trouble in the Crimea), he did not rule out the use of military force, especially if Ukraine's new president proves not to be as pliable as the Kremlin may hope.

Unlike Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko put an emphasis not on NATO, but on the European Union, and the European collective defense framework. Prime Minister Tymoshenko publicly opposed changing the constitution to make Russian an official second language in Ukraine, entering into any sort of international gas-transport consortium, or extending basing of Russia's Black Sea Fleet (BSF) in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol. Tymoshenko largely kept her own counsel on foreign policy. Unlike Yanukovych, she did not have a stable of foreign-policy advisors; Deputy PM Nemyria seems to be her only close counselor. Second, Tymoshenko is a consummate politician with a strong populist streak, and her approach to Russia -- as with just about everything else -- would be shaped by perceived political advantage at least as much as by ideology or principles.

In the 2010 Ukrainian presidential elections Russia played a smarter game than in 2004-5 by not throwing its support behind one candidate. All the serious candidates campaigned in favor of improving relations with Russia, and either denounced or soft-pedaled the notion of NATO membership for Ukraine. Moscow's chief Ukrainian nemesis, incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko, was not only eliminated but abjectly humiliated in the first-round vote. either of the runoff contenders, PM Yulia Tymoshenko or former PM Viktor Yanukovych, would be seen as a good interlocutor by Moscow, and expect that Russian-Ukrainian relations would improve no matter which candidate wins. One observer noted, "Putin likes Tymoshenko but doesn't trust her; the Russians trust Yanukovych more, but they don't especially like him."

The 2010 election of President Viktor Yanukovych ushered in a change in direction and tone in Ukrainian policy toward Russia. Dmitriy Medvedev, who refused all contact with Yushchenko since at least August 2009, invited Yanukovych to visit Moscow in March 2010. Yanukovych's team sought to renegotiate the January 2009 gas deal that Tymoshenko worked out with Putin, saying, in effect, that Putin took Tymoshenko to the cleaners. They wanted to examine the relationship in its entirety and were willing to make concessions in return for concessions.

NATO membership was not on the agenda, securing one of Moscow's primary goals. However, Yanukovych emphasized he wanted to maintain contact with NATO including through training and exercises. The Party of Regions invited NATO SYG Rasmussen to the inauguration (although NATO wasrepresented at a lower level).

Yanukovych announced he was open to renegotiate the lease for the Russian Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol, which expires in 2017. Yanukovych would seek substantially higher rent. Regions leaders appear to see this issue as a bargaining chip to get concessions in other areas, such as the gas deal.

Yanukovych would seek to make Russian language official for education and other purposes in areas where Russian speakers are a majority. Regions claims that this is consistent with European norms. Yanukovych had campaigned on a pledge to make Russian a second state language, but he does not have the votes in the Rada to change the constitution to make this happen.

Yanukovych talked favorably about increasing trade and economic ties with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and flirted rhetorically with the idea of joining the Customs Union; however, his advisors recognized that joining a Customs Union would be incompatible with both WTO and an EU Free Trade Agreement, so he is unlikely to go that far.

In November 2011, the Russian, Belarusian and Kazakh presidents signed a declaration on Eurasian economic integration, a roadmap of integration processes aimed at creating the Eurasian Economic Union, which will be based on the Customs Union and common economic space among the three countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin on 12 July 2012 promised not to force Ukraine into the Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. “Russia and its partners will never force any country into the union, that’s a counterproductive move,” Putin said at a press conference after talks with Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych. Putin emphasized that Ukrainians should make the choice themselves. In his turn, Yanukovych thanked Putin for his invitation to join the Customs union. “We do not say no, we are now closely studying this processes. We should decide on our future soon.”

By 2012 Russia was growing increasingly impatient with the Yanukovych administration. It had ardently criticized Yulia Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, especially since the firebrand populist was jailed for abusing office in negotiating an allegedly unfavorable 2009 gas contract with Russia. Yanukovych had also played hardball with Moscow, fending off the Kremlin’s advances to buy up Ukraine’s energy transportation infrastructure and to pull Ukraine into the Russian-led customs union.

By the end of 2013 Ukraine and neighboring Moldova were at a historic crossroads: join a free trade pact with the European Union or join President Putin’s Moscow-based Eurasian Union. Moscow gave Ukraine a taste of the penalties it faces for moving westward. The Kremlin tightened customs controls, threatened higher gas prices, and warned that Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine could secede and join Russia. President Yankovych decided in November 2013 to back out of an agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.

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