In the West, the current standoff between Ukraine and Russia has typically been presented as one in which a righteous Ukraine is standing up to bullying by a scheming, even Machiavellian Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin may indeed like to see himself as Machiavellian, but otherwise this characterization is only one point of view.
During a recent visit to Kyiv, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly reaffirmed Canada’s solidarity with Ukraine over the Russian-dominated separatist territories in the east. She also reiterated her government’s desire to see Ukraine join NATO.
But Ukraine is arguably not an ideal candidate for portrayal as a righteous victim by Joly or anyone else. While it has made some progress in terms of democratization, Ukraine is not a bastion of democracy and the rule of law in a part of the world otherwise lacking in those qualities.
Low rating on democratic progress
The U.S.-based non-governmental organization, Freedom House, gave Ukraine a paltry 39 out of 100 for its 2021 democracy rating, describing the country as “transitional or hybrid” in terms of democratic progress. Even Joly has had to acknowledge that Ukraine has some way to go in both of these regards.
What’s more, Ukraine hasn’t been an honest broker in negotiations with Russia over the future of the predominately Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainian territories. Ukraine has done very little to provide the citizens of those territories with the autonomy negotiated back in 2014 and 2015 under the Minsk Protocols. Moscow has hardly gone out of its way to look for compromise and good will, but then neither has Kyiv.
It’s also important to remember that this swath of Russian-speaking Ukrainian territory did not end up as part of an independent Ukraine through some sort of popular revolution. Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev believed, likely with some justification, that the U.S.S.R. collapsed and an independent Ukraine was born thanks to the machinations of a power-hungry Boris Yeltsin and other Soviet republican leaders, including Ukraine’s Leonid Kravchuk.
By getting rid of the U.S.S.R., these Soviet leaders removed their principal political rival, Gorbachev, in what seemed more a power grab than a reflection of popular sentiment.
Back in December 1991, Yeltsin and Kravchuk certainly didn’t have a popular mandate to sign the U.S.S.R. out of existence. In early 1991, a significant majority of the Soviet population made it quite clear in a Soviet Union-wide referendum that it favoured the preservation of the U.S.S.R. in at least some form.
Had the U.S.S.R. survived, having a large Russian population in eastern Ukraine would not have been a cause for concern. Many Soviet citizens saw themselves as Soviet as well as another nationality. But of course that didn’t happen, and the U.S.S.R. was brought to what Putin certainly sees as having been a premature end.
It is worthwhile trying to see current events from a Russian perspective. Putin’s show of force can be seen as a move to defend a Russian minority in Ukraine — and a local majority — from an anti-Russian government in Kyiv that has not kept its side of the bargain.
More broadly, Russian moves can also be seen as an attempt to ward off the encroachment of a hostile military bloc — NATO — into territory that has historically been dominated by Russia.
There is also probably some truth to German Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach’s recent suggestion that Putin is looking for international respect — both for himself and Russia. If the West treats Russia like a pariah, it is more likely to act like one.
In what’s now an intensely polarized situation, diplomats and politicians on all sides of the current crisis in the Ukraine would do well to remember that their cause represents only one point of view. If a peaceful resolution to the crisis is to be found, then a Russian perspective cannot simply be ignored.