'Without Ukraine; no Russian Empire’

World famous military strategist Martin van Creveld is formal: from a strategic point of view Ukraine is invaluable for Russia. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former advisor of National Security in the US even claimed ‘without Ukraine nu Russian Empire’. Why is Ukraine so important for the Cremlin? Kristof Clerix asked two leading thinktanks.

Military: buffer state and the Black Fleet

Valeriy Chaly, vice-director of the Razumkov Centre: ‘Russia wants to control Ukraine as a bufferzone between two collective security blocks: the Nato and the - by Russia created - Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).  After all Ukraine has a large border with Russia and since a couple of years also a direct border with Nato and EU member states.  For Ukraine this situation is unacceptable: we can’t remain a gray zone between two blocks for ever.’

Oleg Soskin, director of the Institute of Society Transformation in Kiev: ‘Another element is the presence of the Russian Black Fleet, which lies anchor in the port town Sebastopol on the Ukrainian Krim.  If the fleet has to dissappear there, it would bring huge damage to Russia.’

Valeriy Chaly: ‘According to the recent agreement with Russia the Black Fleet may stay in Sebastopol till 2017.  The Cremlin tries to convince the Ukrainian government to prolong the agreement, for now unsuccesfully. It hopes that a change of power in Kiev makes such a prolongation possible.’

Historically: cradle of the tsar empire and the issue of minorities

Oleg Soskin: ‘In the middle ages Kiev was the capital of the Kievskaya Rus, the origin of Ukraine but also the cradle of what would become later the tsar empire.  For 800 years already Russia tries to control Ukraine, because it has always been a gateway to Europe. Without Ukraine Russia remains an Asian country.’

Valeriy Chaly: ‘After Russia, Ukraine is the second Slavic country in the world. Both countries also share the history of the Soviet period.  Furthermore Ukraine counts 8 million ethnic Russians out of 46 million inhabitants. President Poetin sometimes talks about seventeen million Russians, but that figure is not right.  We talk about seventeen percent of the population which is originally Russian. They mainly live on the Krim. On the one hand  we have Russians from origin, but at the same time they are Ukrainian citizens who work here and are protected by the Ukrainian government.  In the recent Georgia crisis, Russia used the argument that it had to protect the Russian minority in Georgia.  This way of thinking is threatening. The problem is that some Ukrainian politicians play with this, out of self-interest.  But I cannot imagine that the issue of minorities would lead to a military conflict. Still however you see another mechanism of influence: the information war, propaganda and destabilisation based on a historic-linguistic-religious discourse.’

Economical: energy transport and export market

Valeriy Chaly: ‘About eighty percent of the Russian gas for Europe is passing through Ukraine. That is the best and cheapest transport route. The stability of the country is therefore important for both Russia and the EU. At the border with Europe Ukraine possesses gas stockages. And finally Ukraine is an important market for Russian gas with its 46 million inhabitants. A few years ago Ukraine has changed from a cooperation model with Soviet appearance and privileges to a model of market prices.’

Oleg Soskin: ‘Russia is not depending anymore on the Ukrainian industry, but on the world market we are a strong competitor for the Russian industry for weaponry, aviation and metal. For food import Russia is dependent on Ukraine.’ 

Political: democratic experiment

Oleg Soskin: ‘Ukraine has chosen for a democratic path. The power is not concentrated in the hands of one group or one person but is divided. The example of Ukraine can be threatening for Russian politicians.’
Valeriy Chaly: ‘After the implosion of the Soviet Union, Russia hasn’t offered Ukraine an interesting development model. The Orange revolution was not so much about the election of a new president but more about a protest against the developments after independance. Ukraine has chosen for a European style, a democratic, pluralistic model. With all difficulties of this. But if the democracy in Ukraine, without the help of earning from energy, would develop into a success story, this would be a problem for the Russian elite. The public will ask: why isn’t this possible for us?’

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