Foundations of Russian and Ukrainian Statehood ‘Incompatible,’ Shevtsova Says

Maidan Square in Kiev, Ukraine

(Paul Goble – Window On Eurasia – Staunton, April 9, 2021)

Most discussions about increasing tensions between Moscow and Kyiv are focusing on short-term phenomena, but it is far more important to recognize that these reflect “the incompatibility of the structural foundations of Ukrainian statehood, on the one hand, and those of Russian statehood, on the other,” Liliya Shevtsova says.

“Ukraine can be a sovereign state only by distancing itself from Russia,” the Russian analyst says. “Sovereignty Ukraine’s movement toward Europe. A‘hybrid’ variant of statehood in which a Donbass controlled by Moscow would be integrated into Ukraine would convert it into ‘a failed state’ on a Russian leash” (

Russia in contrast which retains its “imperial attitudes” cannot tolerate such Ukrainian independence. “This deprives Russia of the status of being the core of the Eurasian space.” Worse, given that many in the Russian elite follow Putin in believing that “’Russians and Ukrainians are one people,’” it threatens Russian statehood as such, Shevtsova says.

A settlement would be possible only if one or the other of these countries gave up one of its founding principles, and neither is prepared to do that. But the situation is complicated by the fact that Ukraine can only exist integrated in Europe, but “Europe is not ready for this.” Europe’s support for Kyiv is “insufficient” to ensure Ukraine’s security.

At the same time, she continues, the amount of assistance Europe does provide for Ukraine is sufficient to generate hostility in Russia “which views the sovereignty of Ukraine as a threat and Ukraine as a place for restraining the expansion of Western influence.” In this situation, Moscow feels compelled to continue to blackmail Ukraine.

But this “blackmail” must be dosed out on the basis of a consideration of the balance between risks and rewards because “the strategic loss from transforming Ukraine into an antagonist exists the temporary reward which Moscow receives by freezing the development of sovereign Ukraine.”

In the short term, an intensification of the conflict works for Kyiv by increasing Western sympathy for its position and “forcing the US to confirm its readiness to help Kyiv.” But at the same time, this intensification works against Russia which may gain some psychological reward from threatening Ukraine but loses far more.

That is because Russia’s aggressiveness toward Ukraine causes both Russia’s immediate neighbors and the West to view Moscow in far more negative tones and to be unwilling to cooperate with it, something that is the sine qua non of Russia’s own future development, Shevtsova says.

And Russia faces the additional risk that the separatist regimes it created in the Donbass will begin “to blackmail Moscow” and use the possibility of more open conflict for their own ends. “The tail wagging the dog is no rare thing in politics,” she suggests.

The West doesn’t know what to do or at least is not prepared to get involved to the point that Ukraine would clearly win, but “Ukraine has become for Russia a trap: it can’t be ignored, but it can’t achieve its favored outcome either.” Thus, the conflict is acquiring many of the characteristics of “a delayed action mine” that will eventually explode.

Under these circumstances, the best that can be hoped for is “freezing the conflict not achieving a political settlement.” But as long as the incompatibility in the statehood of the two countries most directly involved is at odd, “people on both sides will continue to pay for it with their lives.”

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