Neighborhood or brotherhood. Pogrebinsky and Trenin on the reassessment of the proximity of Russia and Ukraine

Mikhail Pogrebinsky / Dmitry Trenin

Mikhail Pogrebinsky: There are many interesting and correct thoughts in your article . However, I will allow myself to focus only on those positions with which I cannot agree.

About the people. “… It is argued that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, which was divided as a result of the anti-Russian policy of the Kiev authorities.” You think this is not the case.

I already had to talk about the inconsistency of the concept “Russians and Ukrainians are one people”, I will not engage in self-citation. On the other hand, I, like you, believe that there is also no “single Ukrainian people”. However, most of the inhabitants of the South-East of Ukraine and the Russians of Russia may well be considered one people (in religion, language, historical memory, a pantheon of heroes and villains, and so on). And of course, this one nation was divided through the fault of the policy of the Kiev authorities.

For millions of relatives and close friends (not only from the South-East – from all over Ukraine), obstacles have been created for communication, to come to the graves of their loved ones or to visit sick relatives is often a colossal problem. I’m not even talking about the deprivation of these people of the Russian information and cultural product and so on. Isn’t it a “divided people”? I will add to this the results of the annual polls of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, according to which the number of Ukrainian citizens who have good or very good attitude to Russia exceeds 40%.

You use the thesis about the falsity of the ideology of the “divided people” in order to draw the conclusion: “Integration is possible and even desirable, but at the individual level, and not on an increased territorial basis.” But this means that you actually support Zelensky’s slogan, addressed to the residents of Donbass: if you feel like Russian – “suitcase, station, Russia.” That is, leave the graves of your ancestors, your “small homeland” and move to Russia.

In the current situation, the problem for the Ukrainian political leadership remains a pro-Russian (which in today’s Ukrainian conditions means, at least, not anti-Russian) oriented part of the population (primarily in the South-East, but not only). The sane Ukrainian government would try to find a common language with this very impressive part of Ukrainian citizens; the current one seeks only to find a “final solution” approximately in the sense that is now understood by such words. Should Russia support this “final decision”?

Dmitry Trenin: I do not argue, Mikhail: residents of the South-East of Ukraine and Russians in Russia and even wider – Russians have a lot in common. Nevertheless, the situation is mobile. Citizens of Ukraine and Russia have been living in different states for 30 years, which in the past seven years have been in hostile relations. Practice shows that the preservation of Russian identity requires Russian statehood.

Russian people outside the Russian state do not form a close-knit community actively fighting for autonomy or acting as a lobby for their ancestral home, like ethnic groups in the United States or other countries. As a rule, they are assimilated. For the most part, they are indifferent to Russia as a state, and sometimes they are critical, even hostile. Look at the millions of Russians in the US and Germany; look at the Baltics and Kazakhstan. This is on the one hand. On the other hand, the slogan of the divided Russian people is a powerful call to the Russian state to end this division and, if necessary, to unite all Russians within the borders of Russia by force. Such an attempt, from my point of view, would lead to disastrous consequences.

Striving to reason from the point of view of Russia’s interests, I do not particularly care about whether the implementation of certain proposed steps will help the positions of the current Ukrainian government or not. In my opinion, Moscow has not been playing on the Ukrainian political field for a long time, and there is no point in continuing it. “Sane”, to use your expression, power will not appear in Ukraine soon. In such conditions, in my opinion, Russia will only benefit from the influx of immigrants from Ukraine.

If this influx – no matter how modest it may be – leads to a weakening of the latently pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, then this virtual negativity will be blocked by the benefits for the Russian economy, science, education, healthcare, and so on. Those Russian Ukrainians who do not want to Ukrainianize on an anti-Russian basis should be given the choice of continuing their professional career, education, and so on in the Russian Federation. This is not about Donbass, but about Ukraine as a whole.

As for memory, the historical policy of the Ukrainian authorities will, over time, significantly change the perception of Ukrainians about the past of the region. The pantheon of historical heroes and the underworld of villains have already officially swapped places. Religion, of course, will remain, but Orthodoxy in its essence stands above interstate contradictions and quarrels. Even while remaining in canonical connection with the ROC, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will become more and more Ukrainian.

MP:  Another point that raises questions concerns the prospects for neighborhood relations. If we agree with your theses, the deployment of NATO military bases on the eastern border of Ukraine does not pose a threat to Russia. That is, you consider it possible to rely on the caution or at least the sanity of American politicians. I do not think so.

Relying on American politicians is generally a dead thing: fleeing Afghanistan is a good illustration of this thesis. But the point is not that the Americans can leave the people who have trusted them to the mercy of fate (from the point of view of Russia’s interests, this is not so important, since it is not going to trust the Americans), but that it cannot be ruled out that the Americans just after the collapse in Afghanistan want to show “how cool they are.”

Not to mention the fact that we cannot predict what new types of weapons will replace modern ones. Perhaps, it will be critical for them to be close to the borders of the Russian Federation.

DT: The deployment of foreign bases in close proximity to Russian borders, especially when it comes to states that view Russia as a potential adversary, of course, is a threat. My reasoning boils down to the following. First, Moscow cannot prevent the creation of such bases in Ukraine if the United States decides to take such a step (Kiev, of course, will be delighted). Second, Moscow has ample opportunity to compensate for the consequences of such an approach of the US military infrastructure to its borders by creating a similar (most likely asymmetric) threat to facilities on US territory. Thus, the situation will become more complicated, but containment as such will continue.

Thus, I rely not on the caution or sanity of the US leadership, but solely on the instinct of self-preservation. This, of course, is not a 100% guarantee, but it is on this – and only on this – that security in relations between the nuclear powers has been based over the past seven decades.

As for modern types of weapons, the trend is now the opposite: distance is playing an ever smaller role (the emergence of hypersonic weapons, the development of military cyber weapons, the possibility of placing weapons in space, and so on). Summary: I do not consider the possible deployment of US bases in Ukraine insignificant for the military security of Russia, but I am not obsessed with this threat, as well as the threat of the recent or possible further expansion of NATO.

MP: Reading your article, I wondered if you consider the Russian identity of the majority of the inhabitants of the South-East as a value?

You admit the possibility of sometime in the future (not close) to move to a policy of neighborhood with Ukraine, in which it will become possible to rethink the concept of the Russian World as a Russian Orthodox civilization with an emphasis on cultural and linguistic aspects, leaving it out of brackets or at least minimizing the geopolitical component. But if the transition to such a neighborhood policy is already impossible, then in the future, given the current trends, with the growing hostility of the West and Ukraine (related things) to Russia, nothing of the kind can be expected. Rather the opposite.

D.T .: In my reflections on gathering people instead of gathering lands, I, as it seems to me, just took into account the tendencies in the development of the political situation in Ukraine. I suppose that the further building of the Ukrainian nation will, unfortunately, take place on a clear anti-Russian and anti-Russian basis. The fight against “Russian aggression” will remain the main raison d’être of the Ukrainian state.

I also view the Russian-Western confrontation and confrontation, especially the confrontation with the United States, as systemic processes. Ukraine will be at the forefront of this confrontation for an indefinitely long time. And even if some mitigation of contradictions occurs in Russian-European and Russian-American relations, Ukraine will remain the most anti-Russian country in Europe. Kiev, like Warsaw or Vilnius today, will be extremely suspicious of any positive changes in Moscow’s relations with Washington, Berlin, Brussels.

At the same time, you need to see the perspective in politics. It is enough to turn 40, 80, 120 years ago to notice the scale of changes in world politics and relations between powers. History is not only the past, but also the key to understanding the future. Nothing in the world is eternal, and nothing is ruled out in advance.

Preserving bad relationships cannot be a foreign policy goal. Neighborhood is the minimum degree of interaction based on unchanging geographic realities. If we assume that Ukraine and Russia will exist as two different states, then in some distant future relations of neighborhood may develop between them – not necessarily good at first, but at least not unequivocally hostile. In a neighborhood, the factors of proximity that you are talking about (language, religion, culture, common past) can become drivers of the normalization of Ukrainian-Russian relations – already on a neighborly basis, and not on a “brotherly” basis.

MP: It was not by chance that I asked a question about the value for you of preserving the identity of “Russian Ukraine”. The idea that without a state it is possible to preserve this very identity for a long time, as historical examples and my personal experience of communicating with Russians in the United States and Europe show, is wrong. I will give an excerpt from the articlemy colleague A. Popov: “Following the war of 1654-1667, Russia regains Smolensk, the heroic defense of which is well known from the Time of Troubles. Nevertheless, for several decades a special identity has already formed in the Smolensk region, not Polish, not Ukrainian or Belarusian, but not Russian either. And even in the middle of the 18th century, representatives of the Smolensk gentry avoid marriages with Russians, and Catherine II in 1764 in a letter to Prosecutor General Vyazemsky names Smolensk together with Little Russia, Livonia and Finland among the provinces that “should be became Russified and would stop looking like wolves to the forest ””.

DT: Here I absolutely agree with you, as I have already said, reacting to one of the previous remarks. I’m glad you support my argument. Russian Ukraine is possible only as part of a single all-Russian state. In my opinion, the creation of such a state is unlikely. There can be no Russian Ukraine outside this single political community.

MP: Your statement about the “futility of hopes for a pro-Russian Maidan” in Ukraine looks a little naive, since, they say, there were no mass protests in connection with the policy of forced Ukrainization and so on. It seems that you do not realize that the Maidan is a large-scale infrastructure system that includes opinion leaders, political and economic elites, media systems, international support, and so on. The system that the West has been building in Ukraine for decades.

You are right that Russia should not adhere to the policy of “augmenting Ukraine” or initiating a split, since such scenarios are unacceptable primarily because of the extremely high costs, including human lives. But I cannot agree with you that Russia should take a defensive stance against the serious threats that Ukraine actually poses to Russia and deal with domestic affairs. Willy-nilly, you reproduce the Western attitude that the whole problem is that Russia wants something from Ukraine, interferes in its affairs, and so on.

In fact, the current Ukrainian regime is expansionist (and as such is actively exploited by the West), which, it seems, is not understood in the Russian expert community. In other words, the Ukrainian regime will not leave Russia alone anyway.

DT: I, of course, am not an expert on Maidans, but I know in general terms about the technologies of promoting democracy, forming pro-Western elites and teaching street protests that lead to a change of power. My observations of the processes in Ukraine, however, testify precisely to the passivity of the conventionally pro-Russian elements against the background of the obvious passionarity of the pro-Western and ultranationalist forces. In 2014, Crimea and, in part, Donbass became a clear exception to this picture.

My observations of Moscow’s attempts to support the pro-Russian elites in Ukraine also testify not only to the weakness and ineffectiveness of the efforts undertaken, but also to the insufficient attractiveness of the pro-Russian choice. To attract outsiders in competition with the West, Russia will have to become not only richer, but also more dynamic and promising. I hope that over time it will succeed as a result of internal work, the use of the enormous resources and talents that the country and people possess.

Focusing on internal development, including as a way to ensure Russia’s dignified position in the world, I do not call for ignoring Ukraine. It is a large and for the foreseeable future hostile, and therefore dangerous neighbor. Russia must secure itself against possible actions on the part of Kiev – for example, from attempts by force to return the uncontrolled Donbass or create provocations around Crimea. At the same time, I consider Moscow’s attempts to play on the internal Ukrainian field unpromising. I do not see genuinely pro-Russian forces in Ukraine; there are only forces that would like to use Russia in their own interests.

MP: And the last thing . Obviously unspoken conclusion from your text: everything will somehow normalize (dissolve) over time, albeit not entirely satisfactory for Russia, you just don’t even need to think about some more active position in relation to Ukraine. In essence, what you are proposing is no different from the current policy of Moscow.

Meanwhile, the situation is rapidly deteriorating. You are arguing with those who demand “decisiveness”, but so far the Kremlin has not undertaken anything “decisive”, and it does not seem that it is preparing to undertake anything. All the “decisiveness” is focused on the talk show venues.

I don’t want to say that I have a recipe for how Russia should behave in the Ukrainian, as they say now, “case”, and this is not my business. But it is obvious to me that the preservation of the current policy does not bode well for either the Russians in Ukraine or the Russian Federation.

And yet I will allow myself not so much a recipe or recommendation as a look at the problem from the outside. It seems to me that the only more or less realistic strategy for Russia would not be attempts to “reunite” with Ukraine or the desire to destroy the latter, but to promote the transformation of the regime in Ukraine. Moreover, he has many problems, and the West, here you are right, is already pretty tired of Ukrainian thieves and idiots. This can be done only indirectly, helping to ensure that it is the West that gradually comes to the realization that the current Ukrainian aggressively anti-Russian regime brings it more problems than benefits (it seems that certain shifts towards this understanding in Europe are already beginning to form).

However, given that Russia’s relations with the West are in a very contradictory phase of growing hostility, this scenario also does not look very realistic.

D.T .: The pathos of my article is the need for Moscow to get rid of its obvious obsession with Ukraine. Remember, as in the old song: “If the bride leaves for another, then it is not known who is lucky.” I think that in this case Russia was lucky. She freed herself from an unreliable partner who had long used her as a cash cow.

Less responsive to various sounds, groans and verbal threats that constantly emanate from Kiev against Russia. Less sympathy for the difficult fate of the Ukrainian people, who lost their independence and ended up under the rule of the “comprador regime.” Leave words about the brotherhood and unity of Ukrainians and Russians. Stop regretting the sad fate of the Ukrainian industry and so on. Let this concern the Ukrainians themselves. Ukraine is no longer just another state, as it has been since 1991, but a foreign state for Russia, moreover, hostile.

Historically, Russia has always been better able to build relations with foreign states – no matter friendly or hostile – than with those whom it considered its wards, “brotherly” countries. Treating Ukraine as a foreign state allows Russia to act from a firmer position and better defend its interests. I am also confused by the situation in which Moscow is actually helping Kiev to solve energy and other problems, completely abstracting from the fact that the Ukrainian authorities call Russia an enemy, aggressor and occupier.

There is no need for decisive actions in the Ukrainian direction – unless Moscow is provoked, for example, by attempts to return Donbass or Crimea. On the contrary, in simple terms, it is necessary to get cold. Fortunately for Russians, the internal situation in Ukraine is not our concern. At one time, we invested in full in the development of Ukraine by the whole world – imperial and Soviet – now let them take care of themselves. Respect is not for those who are ready to endure insults in the hope of a future fraternal reconciliation, but those who themselves are strong enough, independent and prosperous. Hence the best policy towards Ukraine is Russia’s self-reinforcement. And it is enough just to watch Ukraine closely from the sidelines.

Courtesy: (Carnegie)