Some of the world’s problems are, in fact, as difficult and unresolvable as they seem to be. Some, however, are even worse.
Despite a more optimistic appraisal in Washington and some European capitals, the current crisis in Russo-Ukrainian and Russo-European relations falls into the latter category.
On the face of it, this crisis would seem a straight-forward one to resolve. Ukraine does not pose a military threat to Russia. No member state of NATO desires war with Russia. None has territorial claims against Russia or significant economic grievances against it. NATO forces are not designed or deployed to effectively undertake offensive military action. Looking to the long term, public opinion in the major European member-states of NATO would not support the development of the substantially greater military capability that would be necessary for any offensive military action against Russia.
Because of its dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, Europe benefits from Russian stability and prosperity – and Europeans are fully aware of this. Because of the range of global problems that can only be solved, or can more easily be solved, with Russo-European and Russo-American cooperation, both Europe and America prefer (and have been actively seeking) a positive relationship with Russia.
Conversely, Russia’s short-term economic well-being (and because of that, quite probably its domestic stability) is strongly linked to, if not absolutely dependent on, preserving a positive, non-adversarial relationship with the nations of Europe. In the longer term, the ability of Russia both to maintain its hydrocarbon production and to transition away from its economic dependence on it will, at least to a very substantial degree, depend on access to Western capital and technology.
Based on these facts, one might assume a wide range of diplomatic resolutions to the current crisis. NATO does not have aggressive intentions toward Russia, and Russia benefits from peace with the West. The diplomatic task, therefore, would seem simply to be to find a way to reassure Russia of its security without jeopardizing the West’s commitment to national sovereignty and self-determination. Indeed, a large number of American academics are busy dreaming up agreements to resolve the crisis – agreements that generally presume a deal between Russia and the United States (or between Russia and Ukraine, presumably with “encouragement” from the United States) to “neutralize” Ukraine.
Happily for all of us, the crazy things that American academics believe are usually not a problem, because no one pays much attention to them anyway. Unfortunately, however, in this case a substantial portion of the American decision-making community shares the same misunderstanding and reaches the same over-optimistic appraisal of the situation. And that is a problem.
The crisis, American academics and policy makers are inclined to believe, is caused by a “fateful collision: NATO’s drive to the East versus Russia’s sphere of influence.” What we need to understand that this appraisal is fundamentally wrong.
What we are witnessing is not the collision between two security zones. What we are witnessing is the collision of two fundamentally incompatible narratives about the nature of the national groups that live along the western borders of Russia – most importantly, at the moment, Ukrainians, but also Belarusians, Latvians, Estonians, and Finns.
To understand what the current crisis is about and why it defies negotiated settlement it is necessary to take seriously what Russian President Vladimir Putin is saying, and to pay attention to the narrative that appears to have become dominant in Russian national discourse.
In this narrative, Ukrainians are not a nation living on territory within a legitimate Russian sphere of influence. In this narrative, Ukrainians are Russians. Any “Ukrainian” identity they may feel is a false consciousness. It is a false consciousness deliberately created and manipulated by the West in the West’s centuries-long effort to divide Russians and to keep them weak. Poles and Germans in the past, and Americans and Western Europeans collectively now: they have sought to create or impose a “false” identity of the inhabitants of Ukraine, one that pits these people against the rest of the Russian nation.
In support of this claim of shared “Russianness,” Russians can point to the history of the Kievan period, to a shared literary history, and, possibly most importantly, to a shared Orthodoxy (a shared Orthodoxy shattered only by the Western-backed emergence of a separate Ukrainian Orthodox church and by the colonial imposition of Catholicism in parts of Ukraine).
The false consciousness of “Ukrainian-ness” has, Russians are now arguing, been devastating for the people of Ukraine. The scientific, technological, and economic progress achieved during the Soviet period has been squandered, as corruption of every sort, including the deep moral corruption of the West, has flourished in an independent Ukraine. The people who live in Ukraine are, in this narrative, the biggest losers from the false division in the Russian nation, and would gain most from defying the West and rejoining the Russian family.
Obviously, this Russian narrative about Ukraine and the Ukrainian nation is fundamentally inconsistent with the one that is dominant in the Ukraine and in the West. The Ukrainian/Western narrative starts with the assumption of a distinct Ukrainian national identity, and it therefore views the existence of a fully sovereign Ukrainian state with the right to determine its own future as healthy and natural. From a Western perspective, there is nothing inherently inconceivable about eventual Ukrainian membership in NATO or the EU. From the current Russian perspective, however, these would represent a perhaps final triumph in the West’s long-term efforts to artificially divide the Russian nation.
It is absolutely true, as more optimistic observers will protest, that as late as 2014 the Russian government seemed willing to accept the concept of a separate Ukrainian nation (so long as territories like Crimea that were more arguably “Russian” were not included, and so long as the Ukrainian nation was kept weak and economically disadvantaged). The interesting thing about national narratives, though, is that they are not fixed. They evolve. What Russians were saying in 2014 is interesting, but irrelevant. To understand the current crisis, one must understand what Russians are saying and thinking now.
The “nationhood” of its neighbors
The current Russo-Ukrainian crisis has also led to increased tensions between Russia and other immediate neighbors to the west. How do we make sense of this increased Russian belligerence toward its Baltic neighbors – and why does this belligerence make sense in terms of the stories Russia tells about these neighbors?
Finns, Estonians, and Latvians are obviously not Russians. They are not analogous to Ukrainians in the Russian narrative. But the fact that these peoples are not Russians does not imply they are actual nations, nor that their claims to state sovereignty should be regarded very seriously. Russia has a long history of absorbing what it regards as small ethnographic groups. Think of the experience of other Finno-Ugric groups, like the Komi, Mari, and Udmurt people.
The survival of distinct Finnish, Estonian, and Latvian peoples, and their continued claim to nationhood and national independence, is from this perspective merely a result of their geographic location on the western periphery of the Russian nation. This location has left them vulnerable to becoming pawns in the long-standing efforts by the West to contain the natural expansion of the Russian nation and has delayed their natural absorption, like other small ethnographic groups, into the Russian state.
Like the current Ukrainian crisis, the growing Russian belligerence toward its Baltic Sea neighbors is not due to some hypothetical Russian fear of a NATO military threat. Given their inherent geographical vulnerability and their limited military capability, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia pose no danger to Russia, whether they are inside NATO or outside of it. The increasingly hostile Russian rhetoric directed at its northwestern neighbors, like the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, is a reflection of a Russian narrative that denies the “nationhood” of its neighbors.
This is a problem not easily or quickly solved, nor is it one that is amenable to being solved by Western actions. It is a far more difficult problem than Washington and some European capitals have been acknowledging. While negotiation and diplomacy aimed at resolving today’s threat of war are certainly necessary, we need to understand that they will not resolve the underlying cause. Until the Russian narrative acknowledges the independent nationhood of its neighbors, Russia’s western border will remain a perpetual problem for European peace.
Edward Rhodes is a professor of Government and International Affairs at George Mason University. Rhodes is best known for his research into the philosophical and cultural roots of American foreign and national security policy. Rhodes served for six years on the U.S. State Department’s Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation, the Congressionally mandated, nonpartisan body that reviews and certifies the official, published account of American foreign policy for completeness and accuracy.