Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of Independence of Ukraine (Part III) Interview by Nadia K. McConnell with Dr. Serhii Plohii

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Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of Independence of Ukraine (Part III) Interview by Nadia K. McConnell with Dr. Serhii Plohii

Ukraine in International Context

Nadia McConnell (N.M.): Thirty years after the country’s independence was proclaimed and internationally recognized, Ukraine continues to struggle bitterly against Russia’s efforts to maintain its imperial domination. Do you foresee a time when Putin and the Kremlin may come to the realization that Ukraine is an independent state? It just seems that they have a psychological inability to accept Ukraine as an independent state.

Serhii Plokhii (S.P.): I do not believe that Putin and his circle are ready to accept Ukraine as an independent state. This also applies to their generation as a whole. But a new generation will no longer understand the thinking of Putin’s generation. After all, Putin’s thinking was shaped in the 1970s, so his idea of normal was the Soviet Union as a superpower. And everything that happens after the 1970s is not normal for that generation. This is how we all are made: we develop a frame of thinking about this world when we are 20-30 years old, and then it guides us for the rest of our lives. The generation that is taking to the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities these days – they are completely different. They cannot understand Putin’s mindset of the 1970s, nor even his mindset of the 1990s.

This change of generations does not mean that some of Russia's imperial ambitions or claims to a dominant role in the region will suddenly disappear. But there will be a change in the perceived legitimacy of independent statehood for other Soviet republics. Of course, they will still try to manipulate, to influence psychologically, or to apply military force. In that sense, a new generation will not change anything. But there will be a change in their psychological perception of Ukraine’s independence: they will come to terms with it. Just like today, let us say, Putin might try to manipulate Poland or Hungary, but no one would question whether Poland and Hungary are entitled to independent statehood. By the way, even in the situation of 2014, Putin never put claims to Western Ukraine because it is obviously not Russian in regard to its culture, language etc. Those things are changing, but very slowly, so I do not foresee visible change for another decade or as long as Putin and his group remain in power. But eventually this policy will change, at least there will come a fundamental philosophical understanding that Ukraine is entitled to independent statehood.

N.M. It seems like Putin just cannot believe that Ukraine’s development as an independent state comes from within, not from outside. He seems to think that it was a conspiracy of Western countries. I wish he remembered that Shevchenko's words "When will Ukraine have its Washington with fair and just laws?” were written in 1857. In those times, there was no CIA or international assistance programs. So, this idea has been carried over for at least a century and a half. But Putin cannot get rid of the idea that Ukraine and Russia are one people, one nation. So, I would like to hope that your prediction will finally come true.

S.P. Putin's words about "one nation" reflect the thinking of a large part of the Russian society. Of course, Putin is a big problem, but a much bigger problem is that he is not the only one in Russia who thinks so. This is partly due to the long history of Ukraine’s existence within the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, and partly due to the russification of Ukraine. Russians who go to the Baltics do not ask a question whether perhaps it is a part of Russia. But when they would go to the Crimea, the Donbas, or when they come to Kyiv today and hear Russian speech, they ask themselves: "How are these people different from us?" And very often, they may decide that there is no difference.

In today’s world, the legitimacy of a state is linked to a distinct nation, and a nation is distinguished by its own culture, language, and so on. Here, Ukraine finds itself in a challenging position. But, on the other hand, Ukraine is giving answers to these challenges that Putin did not expect to receive. For him, the Russian language and a Russian-speaking culture equals to Russian identity and loyalty to Moscow. But, at least, in [Russian speaking] Dnipro people’s answer to him was "no", and in Kharkiv the answer was "no". That is, the Ukrainian response was the response of a political nation. There are different ethnic groups and languages in the country, but there is loyalty to the institutions, to a certain political and economic system – the one that Ukraine has chosen. This system is very different from that of Russia: regarding democracy, regarding a relatively free economic space which is not 100% controlled by the government (despite all our problems with the oligarchs), and so on. The political and economic institutions of Ukraine and Russia differ dramatically, and this becomes the basis for different identities. Of course, importance of language remains, importance of culture remains, but Ukraine can be used as just a textbook example of the influence of political institutions on identity: since 2013-2014, we see the growing loyalty of Ukraine’s population to these institutions and the people’s willingness to protect them.

N.M. What can you say about the expectations of “Russia without Putin”? What impact would that have on Ukraine and Russia’s relations with Ukraine?

S.P. Like all other post-Soviet countries, Russia undergoes shaping of its new national identity. Russian nationalism will continue growing. But as a result of the war in the Donbas and the problems that Russia discovered in dealing with Ukraine, to its surprise, this Russian nationalism will no longer be built around "all-Slavic people” concept and include Ukrainians and others. Instead, it will now be purely Russian. I expect that these changes will go further and lead to a psychological recognition of Ukraine’s entitlement to its own statehood. I also expect that the so-called "Russian World” project, which placed Russia and Ukraine under one umbrella, will be revised. It is far too costly for Russia, in terms of economic and political losses, and the losses in its relations with the West. This policy cannot continue indefinitely as it is detrimental to Russia and the Russian economy.

But I do not anticipate that Russia will leave Ukraine alone. It will behave like a great power dealing with a smaller neighbor. But this won’t be a policy of absorption, or attempts to seize some territories, etc. There will be a more or less normal great power policy rooted in the historical ties with neighbors. It seems to me that there will be some normalization on new terms, which still might not be fully normal and equal. But at least there will be no more confusion as to whether Kyiv is a Russian city or not. I think that Ukraine already gave the answer, and the next generation of Russian leaders will accept it.

N.M. The war in the East is on the minds of most people these days. Do you think there is a solution to that conflict other than military? Is it possible to have a diplomatic solution?

S.P. There is no military solution in that war. There is only a diplomatic solution, and the main issue is not to get back this territory. The question is how it will happen, on what terms. As long as Putin and his circle remain in the Kremlin, I do not think that the terms may be acceptable for Ukraine. So, I do not see any other solution but a diplomatic one, but it cannot come soon. This complicates the situation, because with each year the Donbas and Ukraine go further and further apart.

N.M. I would like to discuss another important question with you. What do you think we can do for Ukraine - the people of the West, and particularly in the diaspora? In other words, what should we do and what should we not do?

S.P. It seems to me that the trend which began in the late 1980s – when each visitor from the diaspora would begin to teach people in Ukraine some “basic wisdoms” – is now phased out.  Today we have people in Ukraine who are competent in economics, business, and governance. So, the initial mission of integrating the Ukrainian elites into the Western world - which was extremely important – is now accomplished and no longer needed.  Also, there were times when material support from the Ukrainian diaspora could play an important role in politics. For example, the diaspora could raise money for the Rukh - say, $10,000 - to buy some critically important equipment or supplies and thus make a big impact. But today, there is a lot more money in Ukraine’s politics and economy, so that page has been turned as well.

With both of those pages turned, what remains?  There is still the matter of representing Ukraine and helping with the so-called soft power. But the whole model needs to be changed, and it is already changing; that is, not only Ukraine needs the help of the diaspora, but likewise, the diaspora needs the help of Ukraine. This is an important point that needs to be changed in the diaspora’s perception.

N.M. You know, it has taken a united community here to stand up for the idea of Ukraine throughout the decades and on a variety of issues -- whether that was the Holodomor, or the Captive Nations resolution, the Shevchenko monument, and much more. We were representing the concept of a Ukraine, I guess. So now that there’s an independent Ukraine with its own government, there’s been an adjustment of the fact that we no longer speak on behalf of what we think Ukraine is, we can now just speak as citizens of the United States or whatever country we find ourselves in. And yes, I recall there was that tendency to patronize, that there was great resentment on the Ukrainian side sometimes, you know, and there was a love-hate relationship with those of us from the diaspora. They loved us, but at times, were not very happy with how we dealt with them.

S.P. What we need now is joint projects, truly mutual. It is very positive that Ukraine understands that. I can see it, for example, in the establishment of the Ukrainian Institute, which is now headed by Volodymyr Sheiko. There is not much money there, but it shows that Ukraine is an active player. I think the task for the diaspora today is to develop an effective partnership with Ukraine. First of all, in regard to humanitarian matters, and also to Ukraine's international image. This is where the diaspora can really help and contribute something useful. But fundamentally, these relations must change from patronage and paternalism to partnership. And they are changing already. I'm not saying anything revolutionary; I'm talking about the trends that are already here, and I think they show the future.

N.M. We’ve talked about whether there will come a time when Russia or the Kremlin will accept the idea of Ukraine as a sovereign country that has the right to choose its own path. How do we see that perception change in other countries? It seems to me that some countries are still looking at Ukraine through the lens of Moscow, and Ukraine sometimes may look like a pawn that gets sacrificed on the altar of geopolitics. How do you see things, let’s say, in Germany and in France, developing more to truly understand and support Ukraine as an independent state?

S.P. Each state, first and foremost, acts in its own interests. Governments are elected for that, presidents are elected for that, and if they don’t take care of the country’s interests, they are voted out in elections. Therefore, we cannot expect that the United States, or France, or Germany would act for the sake of Ukraine against their own interests. We don’t see that today, we didn’t see that 30 years ago, and we surely won’t see that in 30 years from now. So, the issue here is for Ukraine to develop a capability to survive, at least to some extent, with its own resources. Others can help if it is in their interests, but no one will do the job that Ukraine’s s got to do. In this sense, Ukraine’s international situation has generally been very favorable for 30 years, and this did facilitate the independence. It has been much more favorable than during the liberation struggle or after World War II. That favorable situation remains at present. The United States is involved in one way or another, and Europe is involved. I don't think it's worth hoping for more. The question is how to use these favorable conditions to build up the Ukrainian state, the democracy, and the economy. That’s what we should hope for. And this applies to any country just as well. The expectations that someone would do certain things for us, give support, or fight for us: they are not only naive, but also very harmful.