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Ukraine and the Russian Question

Description: CIUS Shevchenko Annual Lecture audio.

Co-organized by CIUS and the Ukrainian Professional and Business Club of Edmonton, the forty- sixth Shevchenko lecture at the University of Alberta was given by James Sherr, a senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (London), who spoke on “Ukraine and the Russian Question” (9 March 2012).

Mr. Sherr analyzed the Russian factor in the current Ukrainian historical and political situation. Speaking about the legacy of Kyivan Rus' which Russians claim as the wellspring of the imperial tradition constructed by their eighteenth-century tsars, he noted that while some specifics of the Russo- Ukrainian relationship may have changed with Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991, its fundamental nature has not. He referred in particular to the complex issue of identity, which has been at the core of recurring tensions between the two nations. Citing Vladimir Putins recent article on the national question in Russia, Sherr noted its concept of a common Russian civilization with the Russian nation as its constituent core. This notion has invariably served to justify imperial expansion into neighbouring regions.

Mr. Sherr argued that there have been no significant changes in Russia’s attitude toward Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Recovering from what Putin called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” today’s Russian leadership seeks to restore Moscow’s former “sphere of influence” and recapture the proud past of the Russian imperial state. The recent war with Georgia, the territorial provocations at Tuzla, the use of energy as a political tool, and attempts to thwart Ukraine’s European aspirations are all indications of Russia’s real intentions with regard to Ukraine. Russia certainly feels threatened because of its loss of superpower status, said Mr. Sherr, but it is concerned above all to maintain its imperial legacy and identity, not least by developing an increasingly authoritarian political culture. Putin’s anti-Western attitude and traditional Soviet-era beliefs strike a responsive chord with many Russians, which allows him to advance his current political agenda while Europe and other Western countries are preoccupied with their own economic and political problems.

Mr. Sherr argued that it is in the best interest of the Euro-Atlantic democracies to preserve an independent Ukraine and promote the development of its civil society and cultural institutions. He emphasized that Ukraine’s sovereignty must be respected in accordance with international law. A democratic and European Ukraine would thus serve as a model to democratize Russia, which will otherwise remain a source of authoritarianism in the region.

Mr. Sherr concluded that the greatest threat to Ukraine is Ukraine itself. Despite ongoing attempts by the West to encourage political and economic reforms, Ukraine has largely squandered these opportunities. It failed to act on its proclaimed European aspirations, entailing a market economy and political democracy, and remained mired in post-Soviet inertia, a non-transparent business culture, and a drift toward authoritarianism.

Between 1995 and May 2008, James Sherr was a fellow of the former Conflict Studies Research Centre of the Defence Academy of the UK and is a member of the Social Studies Faculty of Oxford University. He has been a long-standing adviser to governments in the UK and the EU and to NATO, and advised Ukraine for many years on defence/security sector reform and related issues. His publications include Russia and the West A Reassessment (2008) and The Mortgaging of Ukraine’s Independence (2010).

Found in CIUS Newsletter 2012
Author: CIUS
Publisher: CIUS
Date: March 9, 2012
Contributor: James Sherr
Language: English, Ukrainian
Original Format: Digital audio recording

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CIUS, “Ukraine and the Russian Question,” CIUS-Archives, accessed July 18, 2018, http://cius-archives.ca/items/show/2101.
Unless otherwise noted, this work is subject to a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license .