The Interpreter

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A Divorce, the Eurasian Way

Deteriorating relations between Russia and Ukraine are based in irrational hysterics.

Vladimir Pastukhov writes this saucy analogy for the liberal newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. In it he compares Russia’s reaction to Ukraine’s attempts to join the European Union to the actions of a scorned wife as her husband leaves her for a better offer. For more information, see our analysis of the Customs Union and our newest assessment of how Russia’s trade war with Ukraine is just another example of Russia’s growing isolation from the West. – Ed.


What is going on today in terms of relations between Russia and Ukraine, has less to do with politics than with psychology. It is a drama of a classic love triangle where Ukraine is a cheating husband, Russia has the role of a bitchy wife, and the European Union is a pretty mistress.

The Wife (Russia), as expected, takes care of the entire house — most importantly heating it, and scolding her Husband for not appreciating her and looking to the left (i.e. westward). The Mistress (EU) so far does nothing special, not even anything useful, just flashes her charms from afar, making the man lose his mind. Meanwhile the Husband (Ukraine) is torn between the comfort of hearth and erotic fantasies and cannot choose what is more important to him.

Any family psychologist can easily predict how the relations between the characters in this drama will develop. Just recently in Paris I met my old friend who told me that when she studied at the Moscow State University, she attended courses on female seduction. In disbelief I asked her, what could they teach at those courses? It turned it was precisely that – the behavioral strategies within a love triangle.

According to my friend, in an odd-person-out situation, the loser is always the one who is the first to lose his (her) temper. If the wife gives her husband a lob by throwing a fit, waving the stump of a pipe as a symbol of male infidelity, the husband will run away in the buff to his mistress, without thinking about the consequences. If the mistress tries to rush things, instead of following their normal course, it will scare the man away, and he will prefer the convenient comfort of the much-hated home. If the husband starts to fuss, bustling in and out, the two women will make such a deal behind his back that he will have it “up to here”.

All these years, Russia had no time to attend the seduction courses – she was busy rising from her knees. So she was the first to lose her temper and started to throw fits. First she refused chocolates (in this situation, sweets could be the last thing on your mind), and then locked up the border. Well, doesn’t this whole situation look like a wife defiantly refusing to perform her marital duties until the guilty “dog” crawls back on his knees asking for forgiveness. After all, it’s easier to get up from your knees when someone else is crawling on his – at least you have someone to lean on. This is an all-female riot, aimless and hopeless, but no less merciless.

The irony of this whole history of relationship is that there’s never been any serious reason for things to go sour. Then again, no real reasons are normally needed to throw a tantrum, because such a tantrum is a reaction to an offense, not to a real threat. It’s not that Russia needs Ukraine so much as it feels wounded, like a rejected woman. And just like a rejected woman, Russia is ready to take revenge, at any cost, regardless of any losses. Therefore, it is meaningless to reason about the economics of the conflict. Does a woman ever care how much the revenge might cost?

This is the most difficult of all types of conflicts, because it is based on irrational motives, phobias and complexes that you cannot get rid of in a rational way. Such a brawl can last for decades, until both sides are completely exhausted. In this case of Russia and Ukraine, we, unfortunately, are most likely only at the beginning of a very long journey. So far it’s totally impossible to predict where it will lead the two countries that are so close spiritually.

But if you think about it, nothing out of the ordinary has happened in relations between Russia and Ukraine. The Customs Union, because of which, in fact, all these tempers flared up, is a totally artificial and unsustainable political formation. This is not a real union, but a phantom, an ideological toy for Russian domestic consumption, that Russia wants its neighbors to play with as well. Some take it up to a point, and some, like Ukraine, make their position clear and declare that they have their own sandbox and their own toys.

All this elaborate Eurasian scheme exists only insofar as it is sponsored and supported by Russia. However, to rephrase an old saying (“give the wolf the best food, but he would hanker for the wood”), give Eurasians the best (whatever), but they would hanker for the West. This experiment could be made viable, perhaps, only in one case – if the Customs Union was joined by China. But that would be a totally different story, in which Russia would be in the position of Ukraine, not knowing which way to run away from this union.

But even if we set aside the question of viability of the Customs Union and take it for granted as today’s reality, whether or not Ukraine participates is not a matter of life and death for Russia. It’s just something to lock horns over, not to mention how unlikely it is that in the coming decade it will ever come to any practical steps for Ukraine to join the EU.

Signing of the agreement between Ukraine and the EU is still a kind of political fetish, a purely symbolic act. And the point is not that they can’t live without Ukraine. It’s just that Kiev’s European zigzag is perceived by Moscow as a loss of a square on the chessboard of global confrontation between Russia and the West. Russia still dreams of imperial grandeur, and a loss of each such square is painful.

Ukraine has become a bargaining chip in the Kremlin’s revanchist policy, that is built not so much on the existing political (including geo-political) realities, as on some illusions, nostalgic feelings and phantom pains of that marginal part of the Russian elite, that by a twist of a fate ended up to be Putin’s support base.

It’s not by accident that the forever yesterday’s Sergei Glazyev, an ideologist, specializing in finishing hopelessly lost historical games, suddenly popped up as one of the strategists of the new policy towards Ukraine. This suggests that, at least in the near future, practicality will not be the principle upon which the Russian-Ukrainian relations will be built.

It could be in the long-term interests of Russia to give Ukraine the maximum freedom today to choose the vector of its foreign policy, and to get in return just a little – a possibility of cultural influence (I cannot but recall once again the concept of the British Commonwealth). Because if that intense cultural interaction is preserved and the very word “Russia” doesn’t trigger allergic reaction in the national consciousness of the Ukrainian elites, the time will put everything in its place. Love comes and goes, but rich neighbors remain.

But today Russia is not able to play “long”. That’s why Putin and Medvedev personally, almost every day, take part in the show, staged to return the prodigal Ukraine into the family of “Eurasian nations”. However, their lengthy arguments about the benefits of the Customs Union ring hollow. While the political chorus on stage is singing serenades of love, from the orchestra pit, where Onishchenko entrenched, we hear the chords of the “Blockade Symphony” by Shostakovich. It is not surprising that the Ukrainian spectator, for whom all this show is staged, has an irresistible urge to get out of the room before the intermission starts.

Even if we assume (and for me personally it’s hard to believe) that a cornered [Ukrainian President Viktor Fedorovych] Yanukovych surrenders to this outright blackmail, it is more likely to have an impact not on the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations, but on the political fortunes of Yanukovych, who won’t stand a chance in the next presidential election. As to the relations, after a while they will suffer such a setback that even their current level will be unattainable for several generations to come.

The price of the current mistake Kremlin is making in its relations with Ukraine will be an acceleration of international isolation of Russia. This artificially and hastily put together Customs Union will start coming apart at the seams. An attempt to squeeze Ukraine into it will have its consequences. Methods by which this is done, discredit the very idea of any union. Russia’s neighbors have eyes, and each of them tries to imagine themselves in such a situation. At the same time, for Ukraine such a conflict could serve as a powerful incentive for development. In this sense, Russia makes it a truly royal gift. She gives Ukraine hope to get off the needle injecting Russian oil and gas into her ​​bloodstream. Whether Ukraine will be able to take advantage of this opportunity is a separate issue. Russia, at least, is doing everything in her power to give Ukraine very strong incentives for this.