Who’s right about the threat Russia poses to its neighbors—the distinguished American historian Richard Pipes or the distinguished Russian analyst Dmitri Trenin?
According to Pipes, the Russians “do pose a threat to their ex-republics. They have no problem with Central Asia, because those [states] are rather docile. But they can’t reconcile themselves to the loss of the three Baltic Republics [Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania] and Ukraine and Georgia. I feel fairly confident that if Georgia or the Ukraine were to join NATO, as they would like to, the Russians would invade and destroy their independence.”
According to Trenin, “Russia’s remarkable disinterest in its former empire has been paralleled by the other former Soviet republics distancing themselves from the former imperial center. Several have proclaimed a European vision or vocation. Others reaffirmed Muslim roots and focused on their neighborhoods. A couple have gone into isolation.”
So, who’s right—the Harvard historian or the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center? If Pipes is right, then the Ukrainians should be building a Maginot Line on their eastern frontier. If Trenin is right, they should be pulling out the corks and drinking to Mother Russia’s eternal health.
The answer is: neither. Pipes’s mistake is to suggest that Russia has the capacity to invade a country the size of Ukraine. It doesn’t. Trenin’s mistake is to suggest that Russia no longer has the desire to in-gather its former imperial lands. It does.
The reality is both simpler and more complex. Russia is a post-imperial state with post-imperial aspirations and post-imperial capacities. On the one hand, many Russian policymakers and significant segments of the Russian public continue to think of their country as unjustly robbed of their empire and would be happy to correct that perceived wrong. On the other hand, the Russian-led Soviet Union wouldn’t have fallen apart if it had been a strong state, and the post-Soviet Russian Federation, having inherited many of the USSR’s weaknesses, is as incapable of reestablishing full imperial control as the Soviet Union was capable of maintaining it.
This Janus-faced quality in contemporary Russia accounts for the continued nervousness with which non-Russians—from the Poles to the Ukrainians to the Estonians to the Georgians to the Kazakhs—have in dealing with it. The non-Russians know Moscow isn’t going to send tanks across their borders in a blitzkrieg, but they also know that some not uninfluential Russian imperialists are itching to do just that, and that many other Russians understand that Russian pipelines, investment, churches, spies, and criminals can just as easily deprive the non-Russian nations of their hard-won, and still tenuous, sovereignty.
Viktor Yanukovych and his fellow Regionnaires are a case in point. After tripping over each other in their declarations of love for Mother Russia for much of 2010 and 2011, they are now waking up to the realization that Russian political, religious, cultural, and economic elites regard their bailiwick—you know, that big, flat place called Ukraine—as, well, Little Russia, and regard them—the big, bad Regionnaires—as push-overs and nonentities. Small wonder that Yanukovych has been making overtures to the West: he has no other place to go.
Past Ukrainian presidents knew that Russia’s love for Ukraine was a mixed blessing and therefore pursued a “multi-vector” policy of balancing Russia with the West. Viktor Yushchenko was never the rabidly anti-Russian president his opponents made him out to be. He just decided to be a bit more pro-Western and immediately experienced Moscow’s wrath for his supposed betrayal of Russo-Ukrainian friendship. Leonid Kuchma claimed to be more pro-Russian initially, but quickly learned that you can suffocate in the bear’s embrace and felt impelled to write a book, Ukraine Is Not Russia. Leonid Kravchuk agreed to the Commonwealth of Independent States, while keeping Ukraine at arm’s length of the beast.
Trenin’s vision of Russia’s amity with its non-Russian neighbors will finally set in if (or when) Russia abandons all forms of imperialism—military, political, religious, cultural, and economic—and accepts its neighbors as fully sovereign states. If Trenin were president of Russia, and Pipes were his prime minister, that would happen in a jiff. With Vladimir Putin and his sidekick Dmitri Medvedev pulling the strings for the foreseeable future, the rapprochement may take a while longer.