Jakub Mielnik, journalist: At what stage is Ukraine now? Has it finally left the Russian sphere of influence or not?
Serhii Plokhii: Annexation of Crimea and the beginning of Donbas war became the turning point. These events have set a lasting trajectory of the movement: the Ukrainians have formed a new picture of their country and the people, based on a protest against Russian aggression. Meanwhile, in the short term, we can still expect for various steps backward. In this regard, the current year will be especially important, since Ukraine will hold presidential and parliamentary elections.
They can reverse the changes that have occurred in Ukraine over the past four years, right?
Of course, there are such fears, although I personally believe that in a country whose residents decided to take up arms in order to protect it from Russian aggression, this is unlikely to happen. It will be difficult for Russia too.
After four years of active anti-Ukrainian propaganda, it would not be easy for the Russians to return to the model, proposed by Putin at the beginning of the conflict. He said that Russians and Ukrainians were essentially one people. Moscow’s steps in its foreign policy show that there has been a sharp reversal in its approach to Kyiv. Of course, it is trying to interfere in Ukrainian politics, sow chaos, but Ukraine belongs to a new category for it: this is not a typical category of the post-Soviet states, but of the Baltic countries, Poland or Hungary.
Do you think the Russians have accepted the fact that Ukraine is an independent state?
Any official statements on this topic have been voiced, so I cannot quote them. Perhaps Moscow has not verbalized this idea, but if we analyze Russian stocks, we can see that the approach to Ukraine has changed. There is no strong pro-Russian candidate in the Ukrainian presidential race, there are no politicians who would be openly supported by Putin, as it happened in the past. I cannot say how deliberate is this step and is it a result of a practical approach to the current political games, but the changes are obvious.
It’s hard to believe because Ukraine is of great importance for the Russian national identity. Has Moscow refused from referring to Kyivan Rus, which have been served as the foundation of the empire?
This is a two-level process. At a practical level, Russia is trying to build a nation-state. Operation "Russian World," where the Russian Federation acted as a defender of the Russian language and cultural community, has lost its significance, and ethnic origin came to the fore. This was corroborated by Crimean case, with its predominantly Russian population: the peninsula was annexed, and its inhabitants were quickly integrated. Those who are culturally Russians (not ethnically), such as Donbas citizens, have been suspended: Russia does not really want to incorporate their lands.
And what about the second level?
This is about changing the concept of the entire Russian history, but this is a very long process. The myth of the origin of the Russian state, closely related to the history of Kyiv, has been forming for several centuries. Its transformation during the digital age could be done faster, but it still takes time. There are some signs that Russians are considering different options, moving away from linking Russia exclusively with Kyivan Rus. Some Russian historians are increasingly emphasizing the importance of Novgorod as a source from which the modern Russian state emerged.
Everyone is now wondering what would happen with Belarus when Alexander Lukashenko is gone. The fate of this country is sealed, will Russia incorporate it?
…I think the Russians will not turn Belarus into one of their regions, it will retain formal independence, remaining in the Russian sphere of influence. Only a large-scale geopolitical event can change the course of events, for example, the collapse of the modern Russian state. Nothing, however, augur it.
Would some changes happen in Belarus itself?
The basis of Belarus’s existence is the rejection of those steps taken by the other post-Soviet countries. It has refused not only from the free market (it appeared in the entire post-Soviet space in one form or another) but also from nationalism, which has become an important element of self-awareness in many countries that have arisen on the ruins of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine and Russia. Now Lukashenko has begun to promote certain elements of national mythology, but his country is very different from the Russian or Ukrainian state. Belarus remains a conserved part of the Soviet Union, which stubbornly refuses to realize that it has ceased to exist.
Let us go back to Ukraine now. Ukrainian church has gained independence from the Moscow Patriarchate; was it a great blow to Russia?
The concept, which calls Kyiv the mother of Russian cities, appeared at about the same time as the thesis about the necessity of subordinating the Kyiv church to the Moscow Patriarchate. The history of Moscow was first recorded by monks from Kyiv monasteries, thus trying to enlist the support of the Moscow kings and guarantee their protection from the Polish Catholic kings. They should not have done this, because they thus laid the foundation for the empire, which now claims to have control over Kyiv. It is not surprising that these two mythologies (unity of nations and unity of religion) have cracked simultaneously. This was especially painful for the church because conservative religious organizations do not tolerate change.
The question is whether the Ukrainian autocephalous church will survive.
The transformation of the church is a difficult process, but if the changes have already taken place, they can determine the destinies of countries and peoples for many years. Now the majority of church parishes in Ukraine are subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate, but for the first time since the seventeenth century, Ukrainians received an independent, internationally recognized church. Given what is happening with the Ukrainian state and society in the context of the war with Russia, Moscow can easily imagine that a new small church organization will very soon become the church for the majority of Ukrainians. It would be much more difficult for the Moscow Patriarchate to spread its influence.
It has to be admitted that this was a very clever move: Moscow quarreled with its traditional allies because of the Ukrainian autocephaly, in particular, with the Greeks, who supported Ukraine, not Russia. How did it happen?
Ukrainian Church has made several attempts to gain autocephaly, but each time they ended in failure. President Poroshenko has achieved success, which would certainly help his election campaign. Although, if you look at the situation from a western perspective, you can say that we have witnessed an unimaginable situation: literally a barbarous violation of the principle of separation of church and state, which operates in developed democracies. After all, how else to describe the president’s personal presence at the Council of Churches, which made decisions on the key church issues?
At the same time, this is a very Western approach: in the countries with developed democracies, politicians are often engaged in affairs, which are of particular importance for the society, and then use them for their own political purposes. Ukrainians are also greatly helped by the fact that Russia is rapidly creating enemies on all fronts – from the political to the cultural or religious. Only because of this, Ukraine, as a victim of Russian aggression, receives such outside assistance, which Ukrainian diplomats or political elites failed to provide.