Authors: Rusif Huseynov, Abbas Zeynalli*
On February 8, Armenian Defense Ministry spread the news informing that 83 Armenian specialists – doctors, deminers and security officers– will be dispatched to the Syrian city of Aleppo. According to the information, this group was to provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. Severe humanitarian conditions, UN Security Council’s Resolutions 2393 (2017) and 2401 (2018), Syria`s formal requests, as well as Aleppo`s big Armenian community have been referred to as the main reasons for the deployment of the so-called non-combat team, which is supposed to work in those areas which are not engaged in any military operations (Mil.am, February 8).
This action is actually not the first engagement of Armenia in the Syrian civil war. Since the outbreak of the conflict, thousands of Syrian refugees, mainly of Armenian origin, were accepted by the South Caucasian nation (OC-Media, February 19). However, some of refugees were illegally settled in Nagorno Karabakh, a conflict area which is internationally recognized as part of neighboring Azerbaijan (Al Jazeera, December 17, 2017).
While some questioned the legality of the action, as Armenian law has no provisions for protecting civilians or involving its military service people in such humanitarian activities, several politicians spoke out against the government’s decision. For instance, Hovsep Khurshudyan believes that Russia dragged Armenia into the Syrian conflict, which will have unpredictable consequences for Armenia, which has not received and will not receive anything in return (OC-Media, February 19).
The first international reaction on the formed Armenian team naturally came from Bashar Assad`s key ally Russia that covered the trip`s logistics and security issues.On the same day, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu thanked his Armenian counterpart David Tonoyan by stating that “You were the first to respond to our call to provide assistance to the Syrian people” (Al Jazeera, February 9).
For a long time, at least since 2012 the Kremlin had been seeking support in Syria from its military allies (Eurasianet, June 1, 2012). Although some news on a CSTO peacekeeping mission circulated in the following years (Eurasianet, October 5, 2016), with Russia being especially interested to involve Central Asian Muslim countries, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (Eurasianet, June 23, 2017), those speculations never materialized as other CSTO members seemed less enthusiastic to get engaged in the bloody conflict.
The negotiations on possible Armenian participation in the Syrian war started a few years earlier. In 2016, Russian and Armenian foreign ministers discussed the deployment of army sappers to the Syrian town of Palmyra (Azatutyun, August 28, 2017). These discussions took place during the presidency of Serzh Sargsyan, openly pro-Russian, who stepped down as a result of the Armenian revolution in spring 2018. The protests were led by Nikol Pashinyan, who had long criticized his predecessors` foreign policies, opposing Armenia’s joining the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and calling it a “serious threat” to Armenia (Euractiv, October 23, 2018).
Therefore, Armenia`s teaming up with Russia in Syria now should raise some questions to Yerevan`s post-revolution government; Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his team have already worsened their relations with Moscow but could not make any dramatic U-turn westward either despite the expectations both from within and outside of Armenia.
In fact, the current government`s Syria deal with Russia was announced at least back in summer 2018, when Pashinyan disclosed on August 17, 2018, that Yerevan and Moscow were to undertake an “unprecedented humanitarian initiative” in the Middle East (Jamestown, September 17, 2018). Later in September both Pashinyan and Defense Minister Tonoyan confirmed Armenia`s plans of dispatching troops to Syria (Panarmenian, September 12, 2018).
The negative reaction by the United States also arrived immediately in September 2018, during the visit of U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton to Yerevan. The top official warned Armenia against sending its troops to Syria to back up government forces or their allies. “It would be a mistake for anybody else to get involved militarily in the Syrian conflict at the moment… There are already … seven or eight different combatant sides. To get involved with anyone of them for any other country would be a mistake,” he noted (Azatutyun, October 25, 2018).
In February 2019, the U.S. Embassy to Armenia issued a special statement of the State Department, which “did not welcome” the initiative: “We do not support any interaction with the Syrian Armed Forces, regardless of whether it is about providing assistance to civilians or is of a military nature” (Ritm Eurasia, February 16).
This action was claimed to be the reason whythe planned visit of Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan to Washington was canceled by a decision of the U.S. State Department, which followed a conversation between Mnatsakanyan and John Bolton (Regnum, February 22).
Interestingly enough, Armenian plans were announced and then realized amidst and despite the tensions between Yerevan and Moscow, as well as within the CSTO. Having not heavily interfered with the revolution and post-revolution processes in Armenia, the Russian authorities did not still welcome Armenia`s new officials warmly. Moscow seemed particularly upset with Pashinyan`s policies and attempts to bring to court his pro-Russian predecessors.
As for the CSTO, during the Khachaturov case, when the post of Secretary General of the organization became vacant and the Armenian authorities tried to fill in the position with its another representative, they faced the resistance of other member-states, especially Belarus and Kazakhstan. The situation has fully exposed Armenia’s vulnerable position in the organization (New Eastern Europe, November 28, 2018).
Among the main factors of Armenia`s decision to enter Syria could be Pashinyan`s desire to appease Putin who may consider a threat any revolutions and democracy attempts in Russia`s near abroad (Jamestown, September 17, 2018). Moscow could have especially been interested in such a serious move in order to demonstrate the Western community Armenia`s alliance with Russia despite the increase of pro-Western sentiments in Armenian society, the cooling of Armenian-Russian relations and inner problems within the CSTO.
It is not the first time when Armenia openly sided with Russia against the West. After the incorporation of Crimea into Russia, an event condemned by many countries, especially Western community, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan was the first person to congratulate Vladimir Putin on a happy annexation (Eurasianet, March 28, 2014). No surprise that Armenia was also one of the 11 states which voted against the United Nations Resolution calling upon the states not to recognize changes in status of the Crimean region (UN, March 27, 2014).
A humanitarian mission sent by the new government is said to either appease Putin or to acquire some concessions (e.g. non-interference in Armenia`s domestic policy) from the Kremlin.
No matter what could be the calculations of the post-revolution Armenian authorities that replaced a pro-Russian government, it is obvious that they cannot turn to the West or even balance between Russia and the West. Russia`s omnipresence in Armenia (Russian military base, dominance of Russian companies) leaves little or no room for maneuver for Yerevan, making it virtually impossible to shift its domestic and foreign policies.
It will be too difficult for Armenia to get rid of Russian umbrella and diversify its foreign and security policies, given that the landlocked and resource-short nation has problems and sealed borders simultaneously with two of its neighbors – Turkey and Azerbaijan. Moscow`s relatively calm attitude towards the Armenian Maidan (unlike the cases of other color revolutions in the post-Soviet space) may also stem from the fact that the Russian authorities are fully aware of their strong positions in Armenia and realize that this country cannot unanchor from Russian sphere of influence.
*Abbas Zeynalli is the Research Fellow from Topchubashov Center, Azerbaijan. His areas of interest cover Middle East, Chinese foreign policy, South Caucasus and European integration.
President Zelensky at the MSC 2020: An Epistemological Shift toward Reconciliation
On Saturday February 15, Ukrainian President Zelensky reiterated his pledge to end the conflict in the Donbas during his tenure, in a speech that contrasts with his predecessor. President Zelensky’s priority has shifted towards the “mental return of Donbas and Crimea” an expression he coined to characterise his new policy.
A new storyline:
Former President Poroshenko repeated ad nauseam that Ukraine was containing a Russian invasion of Europe. Years of counter-productive rhetoric contributed to a standstill in the negotiations and reinforced the quasi-independent status of the self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk (LNR and DNR) whose reliance on Russia only increased, as Petro Poroshenko isolated them further.
In April 2018, authorities in Kyiv renamed the anti-terrorist operation in the Donbas region, calling it an operation to deter Russian aggression. Designating Russia as an aggressor state barely altered Russian position and its relation with Ukraine, yet the most important consequence of rewording the operation in the Donbas is the indirect acknowledgement that LNR and DNR authorities are not terrorists. As a matter of fact, the LNR and DNR have never been listed on any list of terrorist organisations, be it in Ukraine, Europe or the United States.
Already in April 2018, the peace organisation based in the Netherlands, Pax highlighted the opportunity of the Donbas Reintegration Bill as a way “to direct the process of conflict resolution in Ukraine towards peace-building instead of further escalation of violence.” This assumption was somehow ascertained by a July 2019 poll conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation. According to this poll, only 17% of Ukrainians support establishing peace in the Donbas by means of force, and 49% believes that some compromises should be made for the sake of peace. The door was opened for President Zelensky.
A change of characters
President Zelensky opted for an approach that radically contrasts with his predecessor who abused of his anti-russian stance to hide the lack of socio-economic improvement in Ukraine. The May 2019 presidential election, followed by parliamentarian elections constituted a reminder of the root causes that drove Ukrainians to revolt several times since 2004, namely the thirst for functional institutions. A recent NDI study confirms that:“Ukrainians remain united in the desire that their country becomes a fully functioning democracy.“
During the election campaign, Volodymir Zelensky promised to resolve the conflict, understanding that there is no development without peace. Consequently, authorities engaged in an epistemological change readjusting state priorities by first winning back the Donbas. After years of war, it is obviously taking colossal efforts to overcome doubts and reticence, as some hardliners still constitute potential spoilers towards reconciliation. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the population, including in the security forces and voluntary battalions are inclined to explore new options, as their daily problems are now listened to. For example, turning words into practice, new authorities decided to extend the provision of public services to Ukrainians living in the Donbas and Crimea. Equally, the Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs, Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons provides aid to those who have fought and those who are suffering from the conflict.
In October, the Cabinet of Ministers decided to recognize birth certificates issued by the self-proclaimed authorities in the Donbas. Such symbolic inclusive gesture is a statement to welcome back its newborn citizens, granting them basic rights under Ukrainian Law. According to a September report, UNICEF estimates that 750 schools were damaged, affecting the education of 700’000 children since 2014. Therefore, new authorities pay special attention to education, understanding that the young generation is central in building peace.
At the end of October, the city of Mariupol hosted a Unity Forum, attended by the highest instances of the country. Participants, including diplomats from the US and UK openly discussed unity and reconciliation. Interestingly, an entire session was devoted to transitional justice and basic principles for post-conflict settlement. Authorities are resolutely engaged in efforts to reducing human rights violation and restoring the rule of law all over Ukraine. All of this does not go unnoticed; the UN human rights watchdog, the UNOHCHR welcomed the positive changes in the country in its latest report, and endorsed governmental support towards transitional justice.
Today, transitional justice is increasingly debated tanks to the top-down policy to engage in a unity dialogue. Professor Senatorova, member of the Legal Reform Commission under the President of Ukraine, has recently launched a Centre for International Humanitarian Law and Transitional Justice. According to her: “It is today, and not after the conflict is over, that we have to formulate our vision for tomorrow. People living in the occupied territories and all those who suffered because of this war should get clear answers on post-conflict rebuilding and transitional justice measures. Unfortunately, mistrust remains high due to the presence of proxy elements, mistakes made by Ukrainian authorities, but also due to the lack of expertise in formulating clear social, legal and humanitarian response. The task of the experts working in the Centre for International Humanitarian Law and Transitional Justice is to build such expertise and overcome hindrances towards peace and reconciliation. We stand for the elimination of discrimination of the people living in the occupied territories, IDPs and all those, who became the victims of this conflict. Our objective is also to create mechanisms for establishing the responsibility of both sides for crimes committed since 2014. Among these mechanisms we advocate for a truth commission. People on both sides have suffered enough, and they deserve to get reparations, satisfaction, transparency and peace.”
Prior to the 2019 elections, the international community was perplexed about Ukraine’s lack of reform and the general stagnation. Recently, the EU has praised the implementation of reforms and the fight against anti-corruption. In a virtuous circle, Ukraine and Russia settled their gas dispute, agreed on gas transit, prisoners are exchanged and talks under the Normandy format have resumed. At the Munich Conference, President Zelensky voiced his intention to organise elections across Ukraine, including in the Donbas. Surely, no major breakthrough or peace deal is to be expected in the near future because trust, pardon and justice will take time. Yet, as authorities understand that there is no violent resolution to the situation in the Donbas, they are focusing on the solution rather than the problems.
“If in five years, we will end the war, bring our people back, then I did (became president) for a reason”, concluded the President Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference.
Russia’s Changing Economic Attitude towards Abkhazia & Tskhinvali Regions
Looking at the arc of separatist states on the Russian borders, there have recently been interesting developments which might signal a new approach in Moscow’s policies.
Ukraine’s Lugansk and Donetsk, Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions, Moldova’s Transdnistria region – all these territories were helped and maintained in one way or another by Moscow. In some cases, Moscow recognized independence (Georgia’s territories); in others, it pursues a federalization model (for example, in Ukraine and previously in Moldova).
Models of support differ, but the geopolitical agenda remains the same for all territories: preventing Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine from becoming fully-fledged members of NATO and the EU.
If so far this policy has been successful, its long-term prospects, however, are doubtful. Preventing the NATO/EU membership of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine does not prevent deeper cooperation between these states and the West. In fact, this approach has resulted in the creation of an arc of states geopolitically hostile to Russia. This increases instability and serves as a constant diplomatic pressure on Moscow’s foreign policy.
Moscow’s control of those separatist states has been based on direct financial and military aid. But the Russians were also interested in the economic benefits those regions could bring to Moscow. Decades have passed since the end of the Soviet Union, and the separatist regions have transformed into veritable appendages to Russia, with Russian money serving as the only economic lifeline. Though there were at times genuine measures taken in Moscow to raise economic and social conditions in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali, the policy has largely failed. Abkhazia and Tskhinvali have become predatory entities which pin their survival on Moscow’s money and military might.
A decade or two ago, when Russia was on the rise economically, this state of affairs was still acceptable to the Kremlin. However, the Ukraine crisis of 2014 resulted in large economic sanctions with Russia’s GDP having experienced a sharp decline. As a result, control over expenses became stricter.
Vladislav Surkov’s resignation in January 2020 from his curating position in the Kremlin, over the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region and eastern Ukraine, came as a result of this changing attitude within the Russian political elite. This is the case not only with Georgia’s territories, but also with eastern Ukraine. There too expenses are high, while economic benefits are not.
There is also a question of the political elites of the separatist entities in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which failed to provide Moscow with clear ideas on how they are willing to raise the economic and social conditions in their territories.
These changes in attitude are not only dictated by immediate economic concerns. True, the expenses the Russian budget bears should not be overestimated, as spending tens of millions of US dollars does not represent a big fraction of the Russian budget.
What we are seeing here is more about those deeper developments in the thinking of the Russian political elite, which span the entire period since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Russian political elites have grown increasingly unwilling to spend money abroad if there are no benefits on the ground. And it is not only about winning in a geopolitical sense, as was the case in the 1990s or 2000s: Moscow is now increasingly tending to seek a mixture of both economic and geopolitical benefits.
We are then likely to see in the coming years Moscow’s stricter approach to spending in the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions. This could further complicate an already difficult economic and social situation in these two Georgian territories, as well as causing deep reverberations in the structures of politics classes in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali. However, even these measures are not set to improve the internal situation. For Moscow, Abkhazia and Tskhinvali are adjacent territories and despite some hopes in Tskhinvali, there is little chance that Russia will be looking to annex those lands.
Thus, in the long run, Russia’s policies towards Abkhazia and Tskhinvali have reached a certain deadlock. Those territories now only serve a geopolitical purpose: preventing Tbilisi from NATO/EU membership, but not full-scale cooperation between Georgia and the West.
Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today
Ukraine: Geopolitical View of the Interested International Actors
The geopolitical position of Ukraine at the current stage of development of international order is complicated and somewhat challenging. The country is in the zone of interest of the USA and the Russian Federation, as well as Europe. This makes it a point of contention between powerful international actors.
The first question is — why it is so difficult to find a shared vision for the solution of the conflict? In the discourse of all the sides of the conflict, we see intent on finding and realising a solution. The main problem is the lack of trust between all parties, lack of trust between Russia and western countries. Trust between the Ukrainian and western elite is higher, but also contains some elements of alertness. Trust was destroyed from all the sides, both Russian and western. The situation is complicated by misunderstandings regarding intentions and proposals.
When we are in the situation of crisis — it means a lack of trust between the parties of the conflict. The question is how we can rebuild trust and further negotiations. The discourse in official media and official government statements show the intention to continue the dialogue, but at the same time, we see that the dialogue is quite difficult.
What is it trust? — It is a opportunity to predict the behavior of the trusted partner . The previous behaviour of the partners is not a good base for trust in the situation of the current Ukrainian crisis. Even during peaceful times, each agreement passed through a long and complicated process of negotiations. For example, regular gas crisis’s between Russia and Ukraine.
At the same time, common values present an opportunity to rebuild trust. How can Russia, Ukraine and western partners understand that they have shared values? — the negotiation platforms, on the base of international institutions, such as Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), etc. In this article, I aim to look at the global structure and the roots of the Ukrainian conflict, in the context of historical, socio-cultural and political aspects.
The typology of international actors and the structure of their interests
The Ukrainian case shows different examples of strategies and frames  of external politics, used by different types of international actors toward the other state. I will name three types of actors that exist (not taking into account international organizations, global terrorist networks, criminal networks, etc.). In this article, I will discuss the goals and strategies of the Nation-State, Quasi Empire, and Nationalizing State. Each of these actors has certain peculiarities in creating international politics and agenda. All of them are engaged in the Ukrainian situation.
The Nation-State model is most common in the world. It is a phenomenon of the modern period and is considered to be the only variant of state. The borders of a Nation-State are strictly defined and protected by the political regime of the country. State unity is based on a common nation (state language, citizenship). The Nation-State “looks inside” itself and tend to protect the borders and the inside unity of the country .
Then quasi-Empire elements on the post-soviet space (after the collapse of USSR) the Russian Federation still have not constructed the national state in the classical view. Or the same elements of the quasi-empire project we can observe in the behaviour of the USA. Nowadays, we cannot speak about empires in the full sense of the word, but some elements can still be found. Some previous empires are on the transition way towards Nation-State, but the empire legacy still has its’ impact .
The borders of the nation empire are not finally defined and political elites look at the opportunity to enlarge the territory or to influence somehow on the other states and communities. Before the Ukrainian crisis, such ideas were rather marginal, but the political crisis in Ukraine moved the issue into the official discourse.
This approach is typical for quasi-empire and unacceptable by the Nation-States. — Here is the first point of misunderstanding and lack of trust. Why do empire nations believe they have the right to other states? — Because it still does not have a common understanding of its nation. Usually, it is a multinational and multi-confessional state and needs institutions different from those of the Nation-State.
Nationalizing State 
The territories, which were under the empires usually, become nationalizing states. Nationalizing state is a kind of transition situation (but it can be so for a rather long period). Such states emerge after the collapse of big empires or other countries. The nationalizing state usually moves towards the Nation-State: so the task is to create a nation and to define the borders.
The nation is also in the process of creation, but usually, it is created on ethnic base. The same situation is in Ukraine now; the current political elites tend to support the idea of the Ukrainian nation (Ukrainian language, certain historical myths), at the same time most of the people who live in the East and South of the country are automatically excluded from this nation criteria. The nationalizing states usually became the sphere of interest of quasi-empires.
Society without a State
After 2014 we also can see the marginal area of Donbasss, on which some unique social and political processes are developing, described by James Scott . These societies try to escape hierarchy of any kind. Based on cultural flexibility, pragmatism and self-reliance of autonomous communities. Once this kind of society is formed — it will be a difficult task to reintegrate it back to a Nation-State.
Why is it important to know the type of actor when we speak about external politics and conflicts? The case is that the behaviour and expectations of a Nation-State will radically different from the ones of a quasi-Empire. The main aim of a Nation-State is to protect the borders, which were defined and legitimized. Quasi-Empire aims to have potential territorial or cultural growth. That is why the idea of soft power was created in the USA and is so prevalent in the Russian Federation now — these states would like to influence the territories much outside their borders. In this case, the external politics of nationalizing states are reactive — they can only react on the impulses from quasi-empires, and struggle for their national identity and diffused borders. Donbasss is in a unique situation as it is not much needed in Europe or Russia. It is more likely that we can find institutes created to avoid any form of state and obedience.
That is why Europe blames Russia for annexing new territories; at the same time, it is seen in Russia as the historically logical process of state-building. And Russia blames the EU and the USA for the violation of regional security. Both of them blame each other for making Ukraine dependent.
The Ukrainian National Identity and Europeanization
Ukraine first embraced the European path during the 2004 revolution. Institutionally, this path implies the country’s aspiration to join the EU and NATO. Recent amendments to the Ukrainian constitution legitimize this drive.
The European identity is historically a superstructure above the national identity. Ukraine’s main problem is its aim not to follow the traditional procedure and therefore try to skip the phase of forming its own national identity in its desire to join the European family.
Essentially, Ukraine is replacing the notion of Ukrainism with that of Europeanism. Democratic institutions are paramount for European countries as they are the integrating base of the rule of law that makes up the Union. However, Ukraine does not give value to the institutions’ content and operation, but to their own existence.
As for Ukraine, the very idea of Eurointegration resulted in an escalation and subsequent loss of part of the country’s territorial integrity in 2014. Historically, European institutions have only been partially effective in heterogeneous societies with contrasting socio-cultural backgrounds. For the population of eastern Ukraine, Soviet values have proven to be even more important than they are for Russian citizens. In his research on national construction in post-Soviet territories, Vladimir Lapkin determines the post-Soviet secession phenomenon, in a process backed not only by a classic nationalist impulse but also by the nostalgia of the Soviet past. Lapkin asserts: “These ‘special separatists’, unlike ‘classical separatists’ who attempt to oppose their ethnonational project to the dominating ethnic nation (or its simulacrum), promoted ideas that were absolutely impossible within the political prevailing of the imperial universality of the 1990s and 2000s. In the absence of a better example, an ‘idealised USSR’ or a ‘revived Russian state’ is often appealed.” 
Consequently, Ukraine’s European path towards the EU and NATO easily turns into a semiotic myth because it embraces the idea of a universal solution for many problems Ukraine faces today, including those concerning the economy, social sphere, territorial integrity, and government’s legitimacy. The underlying idea towards European integration and the subsequent introduction of European institutions may actually create the potential and necessary motivation for action. Perhaps, the myth existence regarding the future integration with the EU and NATO may bring about prosperity, nonetheless completely negates any initiative or attempt to actually achieve anything.
None of the presidential frontrunners deny that the drive towards Europe could be difficult or even fatal. The approach of Ukraine needing to become part of the EU and NATO due to Russian aggression is a temporary one. It only aims to secure the current regime legitimacy and will be no longer useful once Russia has begun restoring its relations with the West afterwards the enduring crisis. That is when Ukraine will once again be faced with the great problem of rebuilding its sovereignty statehood.
Russian vision of the Conflict
The global perception of the crisis in Russia is based on the post-soviet legacy. It is closely related to the process of creating a Russian identity, defining the borders and strengthening positions as a global actor.
The interest towards the situation in Ukraine is high among Russians. Therefore, the Russian population is keenly following the Ukrainian elections, given the close economic and other personal ties (likelihood of having family between the two countries). Analysis conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center explored popular opinions within Russia regarding the Ukrainian elections, and the results were quite interesting. “The Russian populations’ awareness of the upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections is rather high: 79% of Russians have heard of the election campaign including 18% who are following the campaign closely”. At the same time, fears of possible manipulations are widespread among Russians, with 68% of those polled believing that the election results will be falsified by the Ukrainian authorities and thus won’t be representative of the will of the people. More than one and every ten respondents (12%) believes that while there might be certain violations, but they will not influence the overall results. Altogether, the elections do not inspire much credibility in Russian society, doubting even about their legitimacy.
If we consider general attitudes towards Ukraine in Russian society, the radical positions have not changed much. On the one hand, one of them is that Ukraine is an example of fair and transparent elections. On the other — Ukraine is a “historical fault”.
On Russia’s side, Crimea is not an issue for discussion anymore, after Russia feels it has settled questions concerning security in the Black Sea and, more broadly, security for the Russian speaking community in the region. That is why now Russia’s main goal is to move towards a peaceful resolution of the current conflict with Ukraine, excluding the Crimea issue from the future negotiation process. Based on my research and observations, I believe Russian interests in Ukraine can be summarized in three key points:
First, Russia is highly interested in the implementation of the Minsk agreements and reintegration of Donbasss in Ukraine. In this respect, the Russian Federation is concerned about the rights of the Russian-speaking population in addition to their safety, and this issue will rank high on Russia’s agenda.
Secondly, Russia aims at rebuilding its economic ties with Ukraine, since Moscow is still Kiev’s largest trade partner: according to World Bank data, in 2017 Ukrainian export to Russia was 3 943 217.84 $ (9.08%), by comparison — Poland is the second (6.28%) and import — 7 196 562.10 (14.56%), China is the third (11.41%).
Third, despite the conflict, labour migration from Ukraine to Russia remains a reality. Russia is interested in qualified workers and students coming to study. Ukraine remains the main country of origin of migrants to Russia, even if the number has decreased (137,700 in 2018 as opposed to 150,100 in 2017) and there is a trend of more Ukrainian citizens to leave Russia.
I would like to attract your attention to one citation from Russian President speech to the Federal Assembly in 2014:
“It was an event of special significance for the country and the people, because Crimea is where our people live, and the peninsula is a place of strategic importance for Russia as the spiritual source of the development of a multifaceted but solid Russian nation and a centralised Russian state. It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptised before bringing Christianity to Rus”.
He speaks about strategic importance, development of the Russian nation, and a centralized Russian state. And all of these things are now connected to Crimea. Each country has to have a historical heartland. For the Russian Empire, it should be the Kievskaya Rus, which is now situated in Ukraine. In fact, Russia and Ukraine struggle for the same territories to be their heartland. This citation shows us a new ideological reality in Russia.
Accordingly, Crimea became the centre of civilization for Russian identity. It is a new ideological reality of internal Russian politics, which should be considered as crucial in policymaking decisions. In this sense, we can argue that putting the Crimean issue in the negotiation agenda will lead to a more radical Russian position.
Russian and Ukrainian Struggle for History
In the current situation, we find not only the negotiation of an attempted settlement to the East Ukraine armed conflict, a new stage of information and ideological confrontation also seems to be developing a rivalry between Russia and Ukraine over the interpretation of their past. In fact, the fabric of the history of the Kievan Rus looks very much like a blanket, with each country trying to pull all of it to their side.
What we have seen so far has been sluggish but definitely intensified by the media struggle, textbooks, movies and other cultural areas for the exclusive right to interpret the same historical facts. Why can’t these two states share a common history, and why is it so important to possess a unique past?
In his address to the Federal Assembly (December 2014), President Vladimir Putin mentioned Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev in the Crimean context, which was perceived by a large part of the society as a legitimation of the peninsula´s affiliation through the myth of restoration, the historical truth and the preservation of continuity in traditions, culture and statehood. To this end, Moscow will erect a memorial to Vladimir on Vorobyovy Hills to honour the 1000th anniversary of his death. In his turn, Ukrainian President Poroshenko released an executive order to commemorate Grand Prince Vladimir as the “founder of medieval state Rus-Ukraine,” while the Russian State Duma responded by accusing Kiev of attempting to privatize the memory of Russia’s Baptizer.
Having made history as the ruler who baptized Rus and bolstered its statehood (the key features attributed to him by history textbooks), Grand Prince Vladimir has recently emerged as a substantial stumbling obstacle of Russian and Ukrainian politicians’ mutual comprehension.
In Russia, the deep-rooted historical legitimacy and continuity of historical epochs have not practically undergone any revisions, with all projects to interpret and describe history (Sergey Solovyov, Vassily Klyuchevsky, Sergey Uvarov’s triad of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality) working to build a single, non-contradictory historical model of development. With some slight variations, this scheme was taught both in the Soviet period and following the disintegration of the USSR. Nobody questions the Kievan Rus as the source of statehood and the Moscow Princedom and later the Russian Empire as its successor.
However, the political decision to annex Crimea had been perceived ambiguously both in Russia and abroad and hence has required additional legitimization. The new mythologem is intended to smoothly integrate the current political reality into the existing legitimization model and provide it with additional fixtures.
As far as Ukraine is concerned, the legitimization of its statehood is a much more complicated affair. The executive order of the former president, Poroshenko, to honour Grand Prince Vladimir was meant as a reminder that this relevant period is an inherent part of Ukraine’s history. Within the current quagmire of problems over the legitimacy of borders, Ukrainian national identity and diminishing political support, this order was designed to preserve available structures and the legitimacy model. Because of this, the political effect appears quite questionable.
Compared to Russia, historical legitimization is a much more complicated endeavour for Ukraine. En route to statehood, Ukraine felt the impact of the powerful state and ideological machines of the neighbouring Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. And it was Mikhail Grushevsky who launched the construction of the model for a unique Ukrainian history when Nation-States emerged after the breakup of these empires. His project primarily reflected the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was briefly implemented during the revolutionary reforms in the Russian Empire. The scheme was revived in 2004 by the instigators of the Orange Revolution and the former president, Pyotr Poroshenko.
In 1898, Mr Grushevsky released the first volume of History of Ukraine-Rus that contained a compilation of facts intended to substantiate the historical independence of the Ukrainian people by tracing an alternative succession of historical stages. He rejected the unity of eastern Slavs, drawing a line between the Ukrainian-Russian people and Great Russians. Before Mr Grushevsky, Ukrainian history had one way or another been integrated into the history of Russia and Poland, the neighbour powers which controlled Ukrainian territories. Accordingly, his innovation suggested an alternative model of historical development and a new succession in the continuity of state entities seen as the forerunners of modern Ukraine.
Mr Grushevsky discarded the Muscovite version of history, insisting that although the Kievan Rus transferred some forms of the socio-political order to the Great Russia lands, there was no full-fledged continuity between the Kievan Rus and Moscow Princedom. The Tatar invasion undermined the socio-political basis of the Kievan Rus. East of the Dnieper River, these traditions were practically ruined, with only some of them preserved on the right-hand side and advanced in the Galitsk-Volyn Princedom and later under the rule of Lithuania and Poland. The history’ version developed by Moscow was also unfit for legitimizing Ukrainian statehood because the emergence of the Ukrainians as a separate people was dated to the 14th-15th centuries, thus something absolutely unsuitable for Mr Grushevsky as the ideologue of the Ukrainian statehood.
As before, the key issue still lies in establishing the successor of the Kievan Rus. Prior to the appearance of Mr Grushevsky’s interpretation, the succession of the Kievan Rus and Tsarist Russia had been universally recognized (see V.M. Solovyov, V.O. Klyuchevsky). The incorporation of the Kievan Rus period into the historical roots of a state proceeds from the establishment of a certain state entity through a certain ethnic groups. Proponents of the unity of the three eastern Slavic peoples agree that the Kievan Rus was set up by the Slavs, who later gave rise to the Russians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians. In his History of Ukraine-Rus, Mr Grushevsky not only substantiated the autochthony of the Ukrainian ethnos’ origin but also firmly insisted that the Kievan Rus belonged to the tradition of the Ukrainian statehood.
This concept smoothly resonates again in the current official Ukrainian debate because it provides grounds for the logical construction of national identity. Ukrainians assert that Moscow was built on its own, borrowing practically nothing from the Kievan Rus under immense Tatar influence.
Although this is ancient history, the two historical paradigms are popular in modern politics, with the described myths being only a fracture of the entire mythology arsenal employed in the debate. The history of the Great Patriotic War actually plays the same role, the most cited issues being the dichotomy of the Soviet troops and collaborationists on occupied Ukraine territory, the odious Stepan Bandera, Golodomor, etc. The interpretation of concrete events and the formation of myths (as semiotic systems) helps to assign friends and foes and additionally validate political decisions.
Although Russian and Ukrainian leaders use the same historical facts surrounding the Kievan Rus, their motivation differs. While Russia wants to add additional legitimacy to its political decision over the voluntary entry of Crimea into the Russian Federation, Ukraine is trying to restore the shattering legitimacy of its state borders and the national identity of its population.
The use of historical facts is a long applied instrument for fueling an entire political context, usually with quite material consequences. In fact, turning the status of Crimea into the historical centre of Russian statehood may create a stumbling block during zero-sum international negotiations. If the partners opt for a more constructive approach to handle other issues, Crimea should be off the agenda. Ukrainian legitimacy appears more threatening. Independent for over 20 years, Kiev has failed to generate a state-wide identity and is now trying to revitalize older models, which have regrettably demonstrated their ineffectiveness after Maidan 2004. The country will face the irreparable loss of its legitimate borders and government, as well as the identity of its population.
In a situation like this, Russia and the West appear to have coinciding interests in handling the issue of Ukraine’s legitimacy because neither would like to see a Somalia-style failed state at their borders. This move should be affirmative, shedding the extremes a la “Ukraine is not a state,” etc. since this is a field for determined efforts to establish a constructive myth for a state on the verge of a breakdown.
Speaking on the possible steps towards the successful Nation-State for Ukraine:
First, Ukrainian politicians need to come up with a uniform set of values and legitimacy that would be relevant to most of the country’s population. We could hypothetically suggest the idea of the country’s independent economic development. With its favourable geography, Ukraine may well become an economic hub, a target for effective investment, and a growth point for innovative projects. For this to happen, however, the country first needs to shed its dependence on any single strong external actor, be it Russia, Europe, the U.S., or, in the longer term, China. It would be fairly possible to create effective, law-governed economic institutions without joining the EU and NATO.
Second, Ukraine needs to mould its youth in a way that would facilitate negotiating practices and an ability to achieve a compromise. No matter how skilful the Western European advisors may be, Ukraine will have a hard time introducing democratic institutions unless society revises its long-standing habits. Introducing brand new institutions is always a complicated process that involves breaking established behavioural patterns. This is primarily the mission of educational establishments. The mere drive towards Europe is not going to unite the nation in any significant way.
Ukraine should also stop picturing Russia, or any other country, as its nemesis because this only works as a short-term solution. Seeking out external enemies is only good as an interim method of legitimising a government and securing public unity. The method has a number of disadvantages. First, consolidating against an external enemy requires a particular exertion of forces; no system is capable of holding out for long under stress. Second, the external enemy’s environment may change radically. Third, a country that is defending itself expends much of its strength on defence, not on development.
Russia is a significant international actor for Ukraine, and Kyiv will need to come up with some new kind of format for relations with Moscow sooner or later. This will happen after the frozen conflict has ceased to suit the key decision-making political actors. Prior to the inevitable talks, both parties will have to establish a negotiating position. It would be wise to start the talks with the less painful issues, but searching for such issues poses a special intellectual problem for conflict mediators. It is fairly possible that one of these steps will involve establishing a dialogue along the lines of Track II expert diplomacy.
A possible conflict solution for Donbass — giving Crimea back — will entail a significant transactional cost and a very high price for Russian elites. It is impossible in the current political situation, as we see the new nation and state legitimacy model. The connection of Donbass and Crimea issues will lead to more confrontation. If we put the Crimean issue outside the agenda, we can look at the following possible variants for the regulation of the conflict.
-Donbass as separate state — the variant of Transnistria.
-Donbass as part of Ukraine. Possible only on the basis of wide autonomy. At the same time, there is needed a process of economic reconstruction, without ethnic or language issues.
-Donbass as the part of Russia, the less possible one.
The second variant is considered to be the most peaceful for the international community. Nonetheless, we still have the army of Donetsk and Lugansk which are interested in their own profit. So for Russia and Europe, it will be very important to change the official discourse and start to see not the enemies, but rather strategic partners.
First published in “Geopolitical Challenges of European Security in the South Caucasus and Ukraine 19th Workshop of the Regional Stability in the South Caucasus Study Group, 16/2019 Vienna, October, 2019”. From our partner RIAC
 Uslaner, Eric: The Moral Foundation of Trust. Cambridge University Press 2002.
 Uslaner For Nation-State see: Habermas, Yurgen: The European Nation-State And The Pressures Of Globalization. In: New Left Review. 235/1999.
 Uslaner Kaspe, Svyatoslav: Imperii I Modernizatsiya. Obshaya Model I Rossiyskaya Specifika. Moskva, 2001.
 Uslaner Brubaker, Rogers: National Minorities, Nationalizing States, and External National Homelands in the New Europe. In: Daedalus. 124/1995, pp. 107-132
 Uslaner Scott, James C.: The Art of Not Being Governed. An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press 2009.
 Uslaner Lapkin, Vladimir: Problems of Nation Building in Multi-ethnic Post-Soviet Societies: Ukrainian Case in Comparative Perspective. In: Polis. 4/2016, pp. 54–64.
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