By KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON
August 1, 2021
Putin doesn’t think so.
In mid July, Russian caudillo Vladimir Putin published a remarkable essay in which he argued that Ukraine does not, in some important sense, exist. Later this month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will visit Washington to remind President Joe Biden that it does.
Putin’s essay is, in its redundant way, a declaration of war. He insists that there is no such thing as a Ukrainian people (“We are one people,” he writes — in fact, a “triune people,” with the Belarusians also thrown into the mix), that the Ukrainian state is illegitimate and acts against the interests of its citizens because it is dominated by foreign actors, and that, to the extent that there is such a thing as Ukraine, it is a bandit state occupying “territorial gifts” of land that is legitimately Russia’s.
He insists that modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era. “We know and remember well that it was shaped—for a significant part—on the lands of historical Russia. We can disagree about minor details, background and logics behind certain decisions. One fact is crystal clear: Russia was robbed, indeed.”
Continuing in the Orwellian mode natural to a man in his position, Putin proposes to obliterate Ukraine’s actual sovereignty in order to save its “true sovereignty,” which, he insists, the Ukrainian people may possess “only in partnership with Russia. For we are one people.”
Putin dwells at length on the situation of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Most Ukrainians speak Russian, largely as the result of a brutal program of “Russification” undertaken during the Soviet era. Estimates vary, but the Kyiv Post puts the number of Ukrainians who consider Russian their native language at 14 percent. For context, that is almost exactly the same share of Americans who are native Spanish speakers. There were some left-wing crackpots who had a moment in the 1990s arguing that the southwestern United States and Mexico were in effect a single nation — the “bronze people” — that should be unified politically. But Vladimir Putin is not a dopey UCLA student radical. He is a superabundantly well-armed dictator who already has annexed parts of Ukraine.
President Biden comes into the picture after a period during which U.S.–Ukraine relations could hardly have been worse: One Ukrainian foreign-policy intellectual describes President Trump’s attitude toward Ukraine as that of a domestic abuser toward his victim. But President Biden’s record here is not exactly one of shining success, either: He was the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine in 2014, when the Putin junta annexed Crimea. There were sanctions and a lot of big talk about their likely effect, but
the Russians weathered them. And, of course, the Bidens have enjoyed some peculiar business relationships with Ukrainian oligarchs.
As president, Biden has talked a good game, declaring that “the United States does not and will never recognize Russia’s purported annexation of the peninsula, and we will stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggressive acts.” But, as a practical matter, President Biden also sometimes seems to forget that Ukraine exists: Though NATO in theory maintains an “open door” policy toward Ukraine, there has been no progress toward bringing the country into the alliance, and the Ukrainians were surprised and dismayed that they were not invited to the most recent NATO summit. Biden refuses to say whether he supports Ukrainian membership in NATO, while NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg says that Ukrainian membership is “not the focus” at this time.
Recently, the U.S.–Ukraine relationship has been effectively paralyzed by the question of the Nord Stream 2 project, which would connect consumers in Germany with natural-gas producers in Russia via a new pipeline that, unlike the current one, does not go through Ukraine. There are geopolitical aspects to the Nord Stream 2 question, but much of the political debate is camouflage for more parochial financial interests: German firms have a financial interest in the pipeline, while Ukraine derives a substantial income from middleman’s fees on the current pipeline and Washington would prefer that Europeans import liquefied natural gas from the United States rather than pipe in gas from Russia. The Biden administration still notionally opposes Nord Stream 2 but has waived sanctions related to the project — a decision that was greeted in the Ukrainian press as a “betrayal.”
The pipeline also is opposed by some EU members, notably Poland, which, like Ukraine, will be cut out of the deal; but it was never likely that the EU would find a way to overrule the initiative of its most powerful member state in the interests of a country that is not a member. The best hope for Nord Stream 2 opponents is that the outgoing conservative government of Angela Merkel will be replaced by a Green-led government that opposes this pipeline and all others.
In reality, there is more going on in Ukraine than methane transit. President Zelensky currently is involved in a campaign against Ukraine’s oligarchs, which may have a hygienic effect on corruption in the country but which also brings out his own “tendency towards governance through informal means,” as Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations puts it: He has relied on executive authority and national-security pretexts to take on the oligarchs while frequently circumventing parliament. He is struggling politically at home, and both domestic reformers and Ukraine’s Western allies have been frustrated by his apparent lack of progress. Because Ukraine’s internal dysfunction undermines its relationships with allies and would-be allies in NATO and the European Union, Kyiv is paying an overall price for corruption that is much higher than the merely economic one. “Today, unblocking key transformations in the face of the new wave of Russian aggression is an existential matter for Ukraine,” writes Olena Prokopenko of the German Marshall Fund.
Ukraine, then, is in a kind of catch-22: Russian interference prevents it from dealing with corruption, and corruption keeps it from accessing the resources it needs to deal with Russian interference.
Vladimir Putin has made his own vision for Ukraine as clear as can be. The Biden administration has, for its part, sent mixed messages. And so Kyiv faces a reliable enemy with an unreliable ally.