Five years after the annexation of Crimea, one senses deep frustration throughout the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. From taxi drivers to government officials, people are anxious to know who will win the forthcoming presidential race, and what the next move of their unpredictable and frightening neighbor, Russia, will be. But most of all, as I learned on a recent visit, they are frustrated because the outside world doesn’t seem to understand the pivotal role that Ukraine—if it can retain its democracy—will play in determining the winner of what has already become a new Cold War.
The Kremlin’s prominent ideologist, Vladislav Surkov, recently stated that Russia has returned to “its natural and the only possible state of a great, expanding, and lands-gathering union of nations.” But if Ukraine succeeds in creating a viable, inclusive, and well-functioning democratic state, Russia will stop expanding and likely fall apart, just as the Soviet Union did in 1991. The reason is straightforward: if the Russian people witness the creation of a successful Slavic nation in a country which many of them view as part of Russia, then they will question the effectiveness and legitimacy of their own political system. Ironically, the fact that the Kremlin reinforces the definition of Russia by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who believed that Ukraine was part of Russia, may backfire. If Ukraine succeeds, then why can’t Russia do the same? According to Putin, are Russians and Ukrainians not the same people?
Taking this into consideration, the West, or whatever is left of the West, needs to help Ukraine, not by encouraging Ukrainians to bring back the Donbass and Crimea by means of war, but through a broad spectrum of economic and political measures. Under the Kremlin’s current regime, there is no military solution. The military help should be limited to countering any further attempts by Russia to deepen its territorial gains in Ukraine. Assistance in the strengthening of the Ukrainian army and supplies of lethal weapons are certainly helpful.
Yet more importantly, the United States and its closest European allies need to come up with a Ukrainian version of a Marshall Plan. This means that for the time being Ukraine should forget about the Donbass and Crimea. One could even build a Soviet-type border around the annexed territories, and instead focus on Ukraine’s internal issues: good governance, ethno-linguistic inclusiveness, and, most importantly, corruption. The lost territories will return to Ukraine after Russia’s next and final downfall.
War is a crucial factor in shaping national identity. The overwhelming majority of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians made their unequivocal choice in 2014. They have become loyal and patriotic Ukrainian citizens, who see the Russian state as a blatant aggressor. The Kremlin consolidated the Ukrainian nation, setting it on the way of creating a national identity, which is not ethnically or linguistically circumscribed. If it succeeds in this endeavor, then Ukraine will become the first state in the former USSR, where all of its ethnic minorities are considered equal citizens with a common national name—an accomplishment that Russia has not achieved, either under the Czars, the Bolsheviks, or the present regime.