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The Ukrainian Threat to Russia

Blogging at the New York Review of Books, Timothy Snyder has a very interesting piece on the tectonic shift taking place in Ukraine ever since the government of Viktor Yanukovych took over, including a return to past tactics of intimidation by the secret service, as well as the agreement, signed on May 19, allowing the Russian FSB to operate freely on Ukrainian sovereign territory.  Snyder speculates that this Frankenstein experiment could end up actually hurting Russia.

All of this represents a step backward for Ukraine, but the biggest loser–ironically–is probably Russia. Moscow will pay for basing rights in Crimea by subsidizing natural gas in Ukraine, a gain for the Ukrainian but a loss for the Russian budget. Moscow gets little of significance in return but the certainty of decades of headaches. The Black Sea Fleet is an important political presence in southern Ukraine, and that is precisely the problem for Russia. The very last thing Russia needs is to be drawn into imperial competition for Ukraine. Russian statebuilding (whether democratic or not) depends precisely on the ability of Russian politicians to attend to the obvious problems within their own country, rather than creating permanent distractions for themselves and their successors abroad.

Russian civil society is also threatened by endorsement of Stalin from beyond Russia’s borders. The plane crash that killed Poland’s president and ninety-five other Poles in April provoked a Russian conversation not only about the shootings of Poles at Katyn, which Polish dignitaries were coming to commemorate, but about Stalinist killing in general. Both Putin and Medvedev have encouraged not only political commemoration of the tragedy of Katyn, but also these broader discussions. At just such a moment, it is to be rued that viewers of Russian television watch a monument to Stalin erected in Ukraine, a land that suffered under Stalin even more than Russia itself.