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.

Fateful collision?

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.

Russian narrative

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.