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‘Hugging It Out’ With Russia

The situation in Ukraine is riddled with tensions between historical myths and geopolitical realities.

In October 2014, I journeyed to the far-southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. This forlorn coastal metropolis of half a million was acting as “provisional capital” for the Donetsk region, whose actual capital had been under the control of Russian-backed separatists for over six months. While in Mariupol, I met Ukrainian volunteer troops, all belonging to some ad hoc “battalion” or other, and each proudly sporting his unit’s self-designed patch on the sleeve of his fatigues.

The meeting was not a jolly one. An angry soldier asked me why the U.S. wasn’t supplying Ukraine with the weapons it needed to defend itself. He and his comrades seemed particularly enamored of Javelin anti-tank missiles, which they felt could solve a lot of immediate problems. In an accusatory tone, he said Americans were behaving as if we were expected to donate weaponry to Ukraine.

“We can buy them,” he insisted. “Just sell them to us.”

The Obama administration steadfastly refused to sell weapons to Ukraine’s government. It took the advent of Trump for the Ukrainians to get their Javelins, and Trump made sure they paid for them too. The Ukrainian army has grown from about 6,000 combat-ready troops in 2014 to maybe 150,000 in June 2021. Add to that the National Guard and other forces, and estimates are much higher.

That U.S. military support has gone about as far as it’s going to go, however, is self-evident to Russia’s leadership, whatever Putin says. To justify continued saber-rattling and force build-ups on Ukraine’s borders, Putin says he’s worried about NATO “encirclement.” Yet as he well knows, the increasingly moribund NATO club has never inducted a single member that didn’t enjoy both full control of its borders and peaceful recognition by everyone else, especially immediate neighbors. Even if Russia’s “hybrid invasion” of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region ended, its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula—still recognized as part of Ukraine by all but a handful of states including North Korea, Cuba, Syria, and other charmers—would keep NATO membership out of Kyiv’s reach.

Russian behavior toward Ukraine is best analyzed from two angles. One is the annexation of Crimea, a paranoid-yet-resolute action motivated by the vulnerability of both the Russian Black Sea Fleet, headquartered in Sevastopol, and choice real estate on the peninsula, a favorite holiday hotspot for Russia’s wealthy (including Putin, who has a palatial residence there).

Sevastopol used to enjoy a special status in the USSR. Although small, it was on a legal par with Moscow and Leningrad, also “federal cities” of the Soviet Russian Federation. In practice, this meant Sevastopol was controlled directly by the central government authorities in Moscow. After Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, the peninsula became an “autonomous republic” and Sevastopol a city of “republic significance” in Soviet Ukraine, i.e., on a par with Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv (Kiev to Russians). Then the Soviet break-up made Sevastopol’s status suddenly precarious. The relatively large Russian military presence there still guaranteed it de facto independence from the new Ukrainian state, but Ukrainian ultra-nationalists bristled about it for over two decades.

Finally, Ukraine’s “Maidan Revolution” of 2014 proved a zenith of international exposure for the ultra-nationalists, and a spooked Kremlin took no chances. A sign of the importance of Sevastopol in Moscow’s eyes was the fact that Russia forewent a third route: recognizing Crimea as a puppet “independent republic,” as it had elsewhere in the ex-USSR (i.e., Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia). After all, while Sevastopol is authentically Russian, Crimea is not. In the end, though, fearing for Sevastopol’s vulnerability and waving the scepter of religious piety (the Slav ruler who introduced Eastern Orthodoxy to the lands of the later Russian Empire converted to Christianity in Sevastopol), Russia’s regime opted for full annexation of Crimea—and international sanctions. Sevastopol is again a “federal city,” on a par with Moscow and St. Petersburg in the federation.

The other prism through which Russian actions in Ukraine have to be viewed is, simply, gas (a.k.a. “follow the money”). Moscow is desperate to open the taps on the Nordstream-2 gas pipeline running directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing pesky intermediate countries like Poland and Ukraine. By threatening a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, longtime Germanophile Putin believes he is pressing on a German nerve. As he attempts to blackmail the European Union’s leading nation into abandoning Western objections to his country having dismembered its neighbor, Putin is betting that Berlin will follow the money too. He may be right: Historic trade ties between Germany and Russia could trump formal national sovereignty and internationally recognized borders. Germany, after all, has run roughshod over these concerns in the past. Moscow is banking on a German return to form of sorts.

Nobody likes a bully though, and while some Western conservatives see Putin as a kind of mascot for traditional Christian values (meaning the Kremlin’s propagated myth has gained traction in our own civilization), the “secular” component of his “secular tsardom” betrays the true character of his office. Putin himself is visibly uncomfortable about reconciling reverence for the glory of Russia’s pre-Soviet past with his country’s Stalinist legacy, but he pushes ahead nonetheless. Moscow justifies ongoing rehabilitation of Stalin (not least in annexed Crimea) in part by the Soviet tyrant’s alliance with the U.S. and Britain in the Second World War. The argument that we only allied with the evil of Stalinism to defeat a more immediately dangerous evil fails to resonate in the Kremlin’s corridors. Meanwhile, as Stalin gains renewed respectability in Russia, the polarization between Russia and Ukraine grows more acute.

America poured unprecedented taxpayer dollars into promoting “civil society” and democracy in Ukraine ($5 billion according to the designated assistant secretary of state at the height of the 2014 upheaval), resulting in the removal of the democratically elected president through lethally violent street riots. When Russia cried “coup!” and pointed to “fascism” among the new leaders in Kyiv, some of whom publicly idolized Nazi-allied Ukrainian historical figures, the U.S. stood by and watched as Russia’s military seized Crimea and absorbed it into the Russian Federation in the space of three weeks before invading the Donbas. In retrospect (barring sadism as a motivator), Washington showed neither foresight nor circumspection. America shares culpability for the dismemberment of the Ukrainian state.

To borrow from JFK on Vietnam, “it’s their war; they’re the ones who have to win it or lose it.” We can light candles for the Ukrainians and intensify sanctions, but much beyond that is a bridge too far. Russia will hang on to Sevastopol, the “City of Russian Glory,” and Berlin will decide whether to play Putin’s negative-sum game and certify the gas deal, supposedly preventing renewed Russian aggression in Ukraine. Most likely, enduring sanctions will create a dreary new “mini-version” of the Cold War, which was itself a form of international sanctions, and we won’t formally confer legitimacy on Crimea as a subject of the Russian Federation any more than we formally recognized Soviet sovereignty over the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Within those parameters, life and business will go on. “Hugging it out” with Russia will be like one of those hugs that fails because some kid suddenly gets in the way, derailing a proper embrace. We’ll still work with Russia and talk to Putin, just not as friends.

Chad Nagle is an attorney and communications consultant based in the Washington, D.C., area.