Viktor Kogan-Yasny: Russia and Ukraine - Some Brief Observations

posted 4 Jun 2018, 12:56 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 4 Jun 2018, 12:59 ]
5 January 2018 

By Viktor Kogan-Yasny 

Viktor Kogan-Yasny is chair of the NGO Right to Life and Civic Dignity and a political adviser to the Yabloko party

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the new Kremlin political elite spontaneously adopted as its new ideology the notion of “domination,” a notion that in practice meant militarism and imperialism. These ideas were convenient and advantageous for the elite. They were simple and easy to understand, especially against the backdrop of the collapsing monolith of the Soviet state. Adoption of these ideas required absolutely no kind of personal perestroika or creativity (a point made brilliantly in an article by Vasil Bykov immediately after the signing of the Belavezha Accords).

Back in 1992, lacking anything to do, Moscow demagogues discussed the issue of war between Russia and Ukraine, mocked the new ways of doing things adopted by the Ukrainian authorities, and proposed Crimea as “the main problem facing the world.” At the same time (this was in 1992!) Russia destroyed democracy in Tajikistan and threw that country into the abyss of the worst, indescribably bloody war, enabling the establishment there of a dictatorship of the most primitive kind; supported Niyazov in Turkmenistan; and carried out political interventions in Pridnestrovie and South Ossetia on the same model now being used to intervene in the Donbass.

As is well known, in 1993 Russia first annulled its own constitution, and then proceeded to shoot up its parliament. Even today there is no information about more than one hundred people killed by snipers in Moscow at that time. The legitimacy of the Russian state declined, and the quality of state institutions, never very high, fell even further, giving rise to public indifference. Against this background, the terrible war in Chechnya was fought, a war that made a mockery of the value of human life and of common sense. The Russian Federation, which began as an anti-Communist and pro-Western “political project,” had become, by the end of the 1990s, a country “with its own special path,” snarling at the West, and run for the benefit of its political elite, the military-industrial complex and those who had gotten rich by divvying up the spoils of Soviet property and money.

Putin’s accession to power saw a complete end to any kind of media freedom in the Russian Federation. This came abouthappened extremely quickly and hadthere was a definite logic behind it: even given the fact that most Russian citizens had muddled ideas, were unenlightened and misinformed, in conditions of media freedom Putin simply could not have become president with anything like the result he achieved in 2000. This moment also marked the effective end to free and fair elections in Russia: falsification of elections became the general norm throughout the country. At the same time, as is well known, Putin unleashed the terrible, cynical and long-drawn-out Second Chechen War which resulted, resulting in the creation of a regime based on his own personal power. Alas, this occurred with direct support from key actors in the West…

The act of terrorism at the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow was a turning point. It showed the top leadership of the country was ready not only to sacrifice the lives of hostages, but even to actually kill them for the sake of demonstrating the power of “the State” and the immutability of decisions taken, and commands given, by the leadership. Soon afterwards, this was to be repeated at Beslan.

To be wholly honest, although it is unpleasant for me to say this, I don’t believe that Putin, in political terms, can be fully categorized as part of the “world evil.” He is not an ethnic nationalist and he acts decisively in putting an end to manifestations of ethnic nationalism, something which presents an enormous danger to Russia. Nor is he inclined (for the present, at least), to murder particular individuals. He is an opportunist, as are very many people of his generation and education. If he sees an obstacle ahead of him, he is ready to stop. And it should be said that Putin is also ready to stop if people, to all appearances weak but not afraid to tell him they disagree with him to his face, put forward a position he personally finds convincing.

The most important task, both practical and intellectual, is to stop the militaristic and imperial trend in Russian politics, and thereby prevent what potentially could be innumerable deaths because of “new forces in new circumstances.” However, I fear this task cannot be successfully accomplished because of the very small number of analysts and advisers ready and equipped with the appropriate knowledge and experience, and because of the almost total absence in the realm of practical politics and officialdom of those ready to listen to them.

My very sad observation is that the demagogic and bureaucratic mindset, that is very easily consumed by hatred, can cause vast damage to people. This is distinct from the mindset of ordinary people who, in general, want peace, don’t want to kill or be killed, and desire access to education and essential health care. On the other hand, these ordinary people, when necessary, are ready to suffer and die where honour is at stake, as seen in the way numerous rank-and-file soldiers of the Ukrainian army have honestly and courageously stood up for the freedom of their country, and with whom I feel a real sense of solidarity.


In the political conditions of the USSR, which I saw in my lifetime, the regime of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, in comparison with that of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, was more severe and repressive: many more people were sentenced to death, “dissidents” were punished more severely…At the same time, even then Ukraine was attractive because of its comparatively greater civic dynamism and the “threshold of the permitted” in Ukraine was somewhat lower than in Russia. For example, there was a little more available to read, and the authorities were not so actively opposed to those who wished to visit churches or see a priest. At the same time, the centralised system was configured in such a way that education and research, with rare exceptions, were concentrated in Moscow and in the RSFSR, while the wonderful Ukrainian national culture was neglected and became something of a backwater, failing to fulfil its potential.

All of us who dreamed in the 1980s of democratising life in the USSR are in debt to the people of Ukraine for the fact that it happened. Without the dynamism of Ukraine, the possibilities that arose under Gorbachev, including in terms of elections, would never have been realized.

Since then, the habit has developed in Russia of looking at Ukraine as a kind of model, in the vanguard of transformations and achievements – as well as possible mistakes. We can never escape from this habit, although among young people there is already a feeling that Russians and Ukrainians are simply two different peoples living in different worlds, peoples who do not want to have anything to do with one another.

…Ukraine gave Russia a multicultural wealth and the equivalent of a cultural bridge. It was similar with Belarus and the Baltic countries, but in relation to the Ukraine the scale was more significant.


Over the 22 years of peace, from 1992 to 2013, influential circles in Russia, and a part of the general population, tended to view independent Ukraine with disdain and as an object of expansion, on the basis of imperial thinking and a focus on particular features of Ukrainian public life such as the high level of corruption at all levels of society. At the same time, another and important part of Russian public opinion had more sympathy with independent Ukraine and the European vector of its policies. Many strove, as much as they could, to help Ukraine (and thereby Russia).

Among Russian political elites and oligarchs, as I have written on a previous occasion, plans to harm Ukraine were being put forward all the time. This was for straightforward imperialist motives, as well as, importantly, in order not to give Ukraine the chance to have a positive influence on Russia.

Russia’s interest in maintaining relations with the West, and in the stability of the Ukrainian bureaucracy, prevented her from taking any major steps against Ukraine. This was expressed first in the relations with Kuchma, and then, for example, in the “good relations” between Putin and Yulia Timoshenko, and later still in the “Yanukovich factor.” Indeed, Yushchenko was also quite good at “maintaining the balance,” and conflicts in the short period when he was directing diplomacy were, in general, of a purely ritual nature.

After Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012 he began to hint at a desire to recreate so far as possible – via a Customs Union – something similar to the USSR. This was to be assisted by the myth of the (in Putin’s sense) pro-Russian and pro-Putin Ukraine which, in its turn, was supported for a long time by the myth of the “pro-Russian” Yanukovich. But, as so often happens, it turned out that things were not so simple and in fact were very different. The European Union began to oppose, insofar as it could, these neo-imperial ideas, and Yanukovich wanted to be closer to the EU than to the Kremlin. The USA at that time interfered relatively little, but, of course, supported the approach developed by Brussels.

As it turned out, the model that was developed, the “Eastern Partnership,” excluded extremes. The Eastern Partnership model served to calm that section of the Russian political elite and general public that has tended to panic over NATO. It satisfied them since it excluded any marked military or political measures and was based on the idea of “civilized development.” Alas, this did not last long! The Kremlin suddenly changed its mind, rather late but aggressively…Because what “works” for the Kremlin is not the phobia about NATO, but a view of the existential enemy – the West…


If we look a little more closely at 2013, we should add that the EU bureaucracy, with a characteristic lack of definition in its political views, of political will and of psychological nous, made at least two serious mistakes. First, the EU did not move rapidly to sign the Association Agreement with Ukraine, but set a mix of very different conditions, including a fixation on the Timoshenko imprisonment. And this was against the background, obvious as it would seem, that the roots of the political problems lay not in Kiev, but in Moscow. Second, the EU had nothing to say to Putin about Ukraine, and nothing to say to Russian public opinion. European officials monotonously repeated the mantra about the sovereignty of Ukraine, and either simply ignored Putin and his “view on things” or did not pay him sufficient attention. Insofar as negotiations were concerned, the EU took the view that Putin did not have full control of the situation, which he undoubtedly did, all the more so at that time. Putin-2013, when he was ignored, or when he thought he was being ignored, gave a predictably brutal “symmetrical response”: he began to ignore the EU and to act in the way he wanted…

The card he played was to forbid Yanukovich to sign the European Association Agreement. Yanukovich was frightened and put on a “short leash.” Alas, even then the EU they did not fully understand who they were in fact dealing with…

At that moment, in a way no one expected, the Ukrainian people entered the stage and Euromaidan took place. However, the political leaders of the Ukrainian opposition turned out to be of a highly provincial mindset and were unable to put together a responsible political agenda that suited the times. (I should point out that, more recently, concerning these events, the Russian propaganda machine has begun flirting with these leaders to counterbalance the European intentions of Yanukovich.)


After the bloody showdown in February 2014, these Ukrainian leaders had nowhere else to go and they declared that the terrible and strange tragedy that had happened, and for which they shared responsibility, marked a revolution in human dignity…

Those who died under the snipers’ bullets (snipers who remain to this day unidentified) have indeed set an example of human dignity for all eternity. Their families and friends have exemplified human dignity…But no revolution took place because there was no change in the organisation of society (and none could have taken place). No new, vital dream appeared that could have been implemented during the lifetimes of those who were killed…

In those days the political victors in Kiev were confronted by a great deal of scepticism among politicians and experts who set them serious questions, while at the same time de facto recognising their authority.

If Putin and those close to him had simply been neo-imperialist politicians, striving for political domination, they would have perceived the situation at that time as a political “gift of fate” to themselves and would either have simply waited, or would have put pressure on the new regime with significant chances of “success.” But at that moment they already had another, new task: to make a demonstrative response to the West and Russian liberals of various tendencies…

Some argue that Putin and his closest associates fear “the street,” especially after what happened in Moscow in 2011. According to this view, this explains their fear of Ukraine. While this is possible, I think the problem is much deeper. Putin and his associates had decided that the time had come to make a public and demonstrative anti-Gorbachev counter-coup, rejecting any kind of collaborative relationship with the country’s pro-Western citizens (for all the lack of definition of this category) and the Western political community as such with its pan-European political civilisation that annoys them.

Russia’s next step was the refusal to recognize the departure of Yanukovich from the post of president, which had in fact been his resignation, and to make very big demands of the new authorities in Kiev, demands that were completely impossible to carry out.

Based on this continued recognition of Yanukovich as president, and on the pretext of the provisions of the Treaty on the Black Sea fleet that allow very large military units to be moved to Crimea on grounds of Russian security concerns, the occupation of Crimea went ahead. This was followed by the declaration of independence of Crimea, allegedly “justified” in terms of international law by the precedent of Kosovo, and by its subsequent immediate annexation. Until a political resolution to the Crimea issue is found, Russia will continue to be accused of an act of direct aggression. (And many people will add, an act of aggression that, from the point of view of international law, has not been seen in Europe since the Second World War). The fact that mass bloodshed was avoided successfully in Crimea is in many ways thanks to the decisionmakers in Ukraine. They acted on the basis of humanity and common sense to prevent the powder keg exploding, although it was close to this. If such an explosion had happened, it is hard to say what the situation in the world would be like today…

Nonetheless, thereafter things began to develop rapidly and extremely tragically, leading to a very great number of victims, and an irreparable moral crisis …


As a result of the adventuristic decisions and excesses in the first months of 2014, a new stage in Ukrainian, Russian and, in general, world history began, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of people, and poisoning the hearts and minds of millions. There was a spontaneous demand for the heroism of boys summoned to military conscription commissions, because one’s own land must be defended, even if it has been attacked by one’s own brother... There were quite unexpected instances of civic courage, openly or anonymously, where an individual, at their own risk, sought to secure truth and peace, albeit at a local level. And at the same time some of those considered to be respected public figures, speakers, intellectuals, bearers of goodness and enlightenment, began to spread hatred in various forms and “formats”… People who came together in herds to do evil, sought to justify evil, lies, and cruelty in terms of their own conceptions of “the public good.” It is extremely difficult to write about this. These events are fresh, terrible, not always understood, and are on-going. And anything said at a wrong moment, anything that is misunderstood, can result in the opposite of what is desired. For that reason, I shall stop my chronicle for the time being. I shall leave a large gap, and turn to my concluding thoughts.


How many people in Russia support Putin’s expansionism? It is impossible to answer this question because of the nature of the regime. I would point out that, although there are many incidental factors to be considered here, no referendum in Russia about Crimea was held …And it would be interesting to see the result after a campaign not only “for” but also “against,” in conditions of a free and fair vote, to find out the spread of voting in the regions…After all, a concert on Red Square and a nationwide referendum are not one and the same thing… But of course, this is all just fantasy on my part. If it were possible to actually imagine such a free and fair vote in the Russian Federation, that would mean freedom of expression, independent influential media, free elections: things that would mean the political course adopted by Putin would in principle be impossible.


The general question concerning the political regime in Russia, a regime built on neo-Bolshevik patrimonial relations, and the specific political line adopted by this regime (a question that concerns the whole inheritance of Bolshevik patrimonial relations throughout the former USSR) is this: how to defeat the dragon and at the same time not turn into a dragon? How to transform these societies and their institutions in such a way that militarism and vendetta (whether personal or “socio-historical” in nature) give way to efforts to achieve peaceful development, to a future society of responsible, creatively striving people, a society in which freedom and justice are the most important social values, values which people are ready to defend with great strength of character…and not merely seek to display? Let’s dream that is still possible.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove