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What Russia Wants in Ukraine

Russia’s position has been remarkably consistent for nearly three decades, especially when compared to the West's.

A first-time visitor to Lviv in Western Ukraine, knowing nothing of national borders or the city’s history, might be forgiven for thinking he was still in Poland. From the elaborately coiffed opera house to the open-air cafes to the cobblestoned market square, the city’s charming downtown is a pastiche of Mitteleuropa influences. At least superficially, Lviv has far more in common with Krakow or Budapest than Moscow or even Kyiv.

The striking resemblance Lviv bears to its Central European counterparts is rooted in the city’s complicated history. Lviv thrived as a regional entrepôt under the Poles and the Habsburgs. Until the 20th century, most people would have known the city as Lwów or Lemberg, Polish and German names that reflected these historical ties. Joseph Roth, eulogist for the Habsburg Dynasty and one-time resident of the city, called Lviv a place of “blurred borders.” 

Today, the connection between Western Ukraine and Europe has been enthusiastically renewed. Many locals have friends or relatives who work just across the Polish border in Krakow. The city hosts international festivals and boasts of its green public transportation system. It is not hard to see why so many residents look to the West, to NATO and the E.U., for their future.   

Maybe the famed political scientist Francis Fukuyama was thinking of Lviv when he wrote his recent cri de coeur on Ukraine’s future. Responding to questions about the United States’ interest in the region, Fukuyama writes: 

It is reasonable to ask whether it is worthwhile investing time and effort in protecting such a flawed democracy. I personally have no reservations whatsoever about this. My view has been shaped by the young Ukrainians I have met and worked with over the past few years. There is a younger generation coming up that does not want to be part of the old corrupt system, that believes in European values, and that wants nothing more than for Ukraine to become part of Europe.

One sympathizes with the aspirations of young Ukrainians, but some skepticism is in order. When it comes to Ukraine, Samuel Huntington, Fukuyama’s one-time intellectual rival, has a far better predictive track record. Travel east from Lviv and the cultural and political landscape changes. Onion domes replace the baroque imprint of the Habsburgs. The city’s distinct local dialect recedes and Russian becomes more common. These changes point to an enduring rift in Ukrainian politics, identified in 1996 by Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations, that should caution against deeper American involvement in the region. 

Huntington placed Ukraine in the category of “cleft countries,” nations caught between rival civilizational poles. Lviv and its environs, connected to Central Europe by Catholicism and culture, gravitate towards the West. Eastern Ukraine and Crimea are bound by history, religion, and ethnicity to Russia. Persistent divisions within Ukrainian society and Russia’s obvious security interests in the region make Ukraine a poor candidate for NATO and E.U. membership. The young Ukrainians who look West for their country’s future are not the only ones who count.   

The citizens of Lviv who seek closer ties with the West find themselves in a familiar dilemma. For centuries, Ukraine has paid a price for its awkward geographic position and overlapping cultural identities. Look beyond the charming architecture and civic pride in Lviv’s multicultural heritage and there are darker reminders of the city’s “blurred borders.” Western Ukraine has enthusiastically renewed its economic and cultural links with Poland since the 1990s, but Lviv’s indigenous Polish community was almost completely eradicated during the Second World War. The Jewish haute-bourgeoisie who built so many of the city’s grand old apartment buildings have also disappeared. There is a reason the word “genocide” was coined by the Lviv-educated jurist Raphael Lemkin. The scale of wartime atrocities in the city was so shocking that it necessitated the invention of new terminology. 

Much of Ukraine’s troubled history can be explained by looking at a map. To the east, Russia still exerts a powerful gravitational pull. Westerners may dismiss the patriotic histories that emphasize the link between Kievan Rus and Muscovy, but national myths matter. So too do more recent connections. Soviet leaders Nikita Krushchev and Leonid Brezhnev were both born in Eastern Ukraine. Leonid Kuchma, president of the country for over a decade, had to take remedial Ukrainian lessons during his 1994 campaign. His first language, naturally, was Russian.

Westerners often ask what Russia wants in the region. Kay-Achim Schönbach, the former head of the German navy, was just fired for answering this question. Schönbach said that what Putin wants is “respect,” meaning deference to Russian interests in its near abroad, and that the West should accommodate this desire. Coming from a conservative military officer, Schönbach’s assessment was treated with considerable skepticism, if not outright disdain. But this was also the judgment of the eminently liberal historian Tony Judt, who noted in 2005 that “the wish to recover some international ‘respect’ drove much of Moscow’s post-Soviet foreign policy and accounts for the nature of the presidency of Vladimir Putin and the broad support on which Putin could draw.”  

Indeed, Russia’s position has been remarkably consistent for nearly three decades, especially when compared to the West’s vacillations on the issue of Ukraine joining NATO. In 1993, Boris Yeltsin implored Europe and the United States to “grant Russia special powers as a guarantor of peace and stability in the former regions of the USSR.” Such a statement, made by a figure feted in the West as the great hope for Russian liberalism, could easily be made today by Putin. If the United States had been more sensitive to Russia’s desire for “respect” in the 1990s and early 2000s, relations between the two countries may have never reached their current nadir.  

It is tragic that the aspirations of many Ukrainians are secondary to Russian prerogatives, but these are the realities of international politics. Our current leadership, reared in the warm glow of the post-Cold War era, seems to have trouble accepting this. In 2014, then-Secretary of State John Kerry responded to Russia’s annexation of Crimea by fuming indignantly that “you just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text.” But the realities of geography and power have not changed appreciably since the time of the Romanovs. Big countries usually exert disproportionate influence in their near abroad. Whatever their ideological sympathies, American policymakers must make allowances for this.    

From the Yalta Conference in the Second World War to the 1956 Hungarian uprising to the 1968 Prague Spring, the United States—and the West more broadly—has often yielded to the demands of realpolitik in Central and Eastern Europe. Although the Western sphere of influence has steadily expanded in recent decades, the idea that this expansion should continue indefinitely is a fantasy. The incorporation of former Warsaw Pact states from the Baltics to the Black Sea into a Western political, economic, and security framework is a genuine achievement. Overreach, hubris, and ignorance of facts on the ground threaten to undo this work and draw the United States into conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia. Ukraine, a country beset by internal divisions, victimized by geography, and unconnected to vital American interests, is simply not worth the trouble. It would be better if American policymakers accepted this fact and moved on.

Will Collins is a teacher in Budapest, Hungary.