Q&A September 3, 2020

Ukraine - Then and Now

Steven Pifer, William J. Perry fellow at CISAC, former Foreign Service officer and Ukraine's Ambassador from 1998 to 2000, talks to Fordham's "Vital Interests" about Ukraine.
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Vital Interests: Steven, thanks for talking to us about Ukraine in the Vital Interests Forum . As a former Foreign Service officer you have expertise in this region and served as its Ambassador from 1998 to 2000 - a time when Ukraine was emerging as an independent nation. For our readers who aren't necessarily knowledgeable about Ukrainian history and geopolitics, can you provide some background?

Steven Pifer: Sure. I'd say the starting point actually goes back about 1,000 years. With Ukraine and Russia you have two countries whose history, culture, language, and religion are really intertwined. They both go back to the 10th Century, they both claim Kievan Rus’ as their founding state. Really,  from 1654 until 1991, with the exception of a couple of very chaotic years after the end of World War I, Ukraine was part of the Russian empire.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the part that the Russians missed most was Ukraine. Russians referred to Ukrainians as “little Russians,” which  was never very popular with Ukrainians, but many in Russia saw the two as a single country.

I remember a conversation I had with a Russian deputy foreign minister, probably in 1994 or 1995. This was a pretty modern guy. He understood things had changed, but said to me, "Up here in my head, I understand and I acknowledge that Ukraine is an independent country. Here in my heart, it's going to take a long time." I think that reflects the attitude of a lot of Russians, most importantly Vladimir Putin.

The last time Mr. Putin was in Kviv was in July 2013. That was four months before the Maiden Revolution began. He was there to mark the 1025th anniversary of Kievan Rus’ accepting Christianity, which of course, had a huge impact on the Orthodox Church, both in Ukraine and in Russia. He gave a speech in which he said, "We are one people, we Russians and Ukrainians." That was really tone deaf; many Ukrainians heard that as denying their culture, their history, their language. 

Part of this Russian approach is emotional for Mr. Putin and Russians - they didn't want to lose Ukraine. Part is a reflection of what we've seen particularly over the last 10 to 12 years: Russia actively trying to assert a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. I don't believe that Vladimir Putin wants to rebuild the Soviet Union, because Russia does not want to subsidize these other countries.

What Mr. Putin does want is a sphere of influence, or as Dmitry Medvedev, who was President back in 2008, called it, "A sphere of privileged interests in the post-Soviet space.” That means countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and others in Central Asia should defer to Moscow on issues that Moscow considers key to Russian interests. That certainly means, how close you can get to institutions such as the European Union and NATO.

The tension that you now see between Russia and Ukraine is Russia trying to assert that sphere of influence and trying to pull Ukraine back into its orbit, whereas it's clear since the Maidan Revolution that the majority of Ukrainians see their future as a fully integrated European state.

Read the rest of the interview at Fordham's Vital Interests Forum