Nearly twenty years ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski famously said, “Russia can be either an empire or a democracy, but it cannot be both. . . . Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” Uninterested in becoming a democracy, today’s Kremlin has not given up the hope of regaining a facsimile of its old empire, with Ukraine at its core. To be sure, the Kremlin today is pragmatic enough to understand that it can’t revive the corpse of the USSR (though Georgians may beg to differ), but it would like to create the Eurasian Union—a new version of “satellites along its periphery.”
Russia’s leaders sure have a strange way of pursuing this agenda, as illustrated by the most recent meeting in July between the leaders of Russia and Ukraine. Vladimir Putin kept his host, Viktor Yanukovych, waiting three hours—not due to any dramatic circumstances but out of sheer rudeness. Putin left Moscow late, but then, to add insult to injury, after arriving in Crimea he stopped first to meet with a bunch of bikers. Only after that did he make time for an official visit. Such appalling lack of diplomatic etiquette was a direct slap in Yanukovych’s face, an intentional gesture of both impudence and intimidation (albeit one Putin has made to other foreign leaders and CEOs). Big Russia was teaching Yanukovich and Ukraine a lesson—or so the Russian leaders thought!
This incident demonstrated not only the personal animosity between the two leaders but also the mutual suspicion and distrust that plagues the relationship between the two states. Russia’s leaders never hesitate to remind Ukraine who the big boy on the block is—a strange way, to say the least, to win over friends and allies. Indeed, one should not underestimate Moscow’s ability to alienate potential partners through its arrogant, aggressive approach to foreign policy, especially when its immediate neighbors are involved.
Of all the states in Eurasia, Ukraine is the most important test of the Kremlin’s neo-imperialistic longings and of Russia’s readiness (or not) to be a modern state. It is also is a test of the West’s interest in expanding its normative principles eastward, which can best be advanced if Ukraine itself demonstrates a desire for deeper integration based on a democratic path. ...