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Is Zelenskiy’s Ukraine on the Path of Putin’s Russia?

by Gordon M. Hahn

Russia and Ukraine are more similar than different, as I have written several times. Whether one is talking about history, politics, political or economic culture, the two countries manifest more similarities than differences. In part, this explains why Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy is traversing the same path of Vladimir Putin from professed if dubious democrat to soft authoritarian. Among other explanations is the similarity of the problems they faced when coming to power.

Russia and Ukraine

In terms of history, contrary to Ukrainian nationalist historians, Russia and Ukraine were one and the same people for centuries. Medieval Kievan Rus’ was no unique feudal state separate from the other Russian principalities. Kiev’s grand princes were often natives of other Russian principalities, over which they ruled as the Kievan grand prince. They distributed their sons across the other Russian principalities located in both today’s Russia and today’s Ukraine, and they needed no translator when in the other Russian principalities because they all spoke the same old Slavic language, which is closer to today’s Russian than to today’s Ukrainian language. Among the principalities located in Russia were Novgorod, Pskov, Smolensk, Vladimir, Rostov, Suzdal, and Novgorod extended into the most distant reaches of Russian far north to Lake Ladoga and the Beloozersk (White Lake) regions. The Russians across these principalities shared a common paganism, then Orthodox Christianity, with the Kievan Rus’ grand princes spreading the new religion from Kiev across ‘all the Russias’. Kievan grand princes built the main church in Novgorod and founded Moscow.

In the ensuing centuries, there was no ‘word Ukraine’ or ‘Ukrainians’ as an ethnic or state-territorial term until the 19th century, and parts or all of the lands that are part of Ukraine today to one extent or another remained were part of a common identity and culture through the Mongol occupation until the 19th century. A Malorussian or ‘Little Russian, really a Cossack identity began to form within the Malorussian elite under Hetman Bogdan Khmelnitskii in the 17th century. But this process of identity formation played out over two centuries and largely in contradistinction to the ‘Ukrainians’ perennial bane or ‘Other.’ That ‘Other’ was the West’s Poland, not Imperial Russia. By the mid-19th century a separate Ukrainian national identity became largely formed and more broadly diffused beyond a narrow national intelligentsia, most fully under the proactive influence of Poland and Austria-Hungary as a way of weakening Russia. In the interim, the Catholic Vatican spent centuries attempting to convert Russians in Galicia, Poland, Lithuania, and Russian principalities to Catholicism, producing the Uniate Church which dominates in western Ukraine today. By virtue of their common religious, Orthodox Christian, ethno-national, and linguistic source in Kievan Rus’, Russians and Ukrainians shared a common culture for centuries, and when they did began to diverge, they did not do so all that much. The Soviet era tended to reinforce the common nature of their historical and cultural experience, with the exception of World War II, which at its end saw Soviet Ukraine incorporate the portion of Ukrainians holding to a more Polonized and Uniatized form of Ukrainian national identity.

Today, in terms of Ukrainians’ right to self-determination and an independent state these facts are irrelevant except for the last, which explains the great divisions in identity and culture within Ukraine today that enabled Putin to reunite Crimea with Russia and create major pro-Russian sentiment in the Donbass and several other regions in southeastern Ukraine. What is important today and what Putin’s and many other Russians’ memory of unity between Russians and Ukrainians must come to terms with to assist peacemaking in Ukraine is that nations can be constructed. The 19th century saw the rise of a separate Ukrainian national identity among elites in ‘Little Russia’ as Russians still called the emerging Ukraine. Ukraine used the Romanov collapse to attempt establishing an independent Ukrainian state, but the Bolsheviks defeated the effort. In his recent article on Russian and Ukrainian history, Putin wrote:

(I)n the Russian Empire there was an active process of the development of Little Russian cultural identity within the framework of the large Russian nation, which united Great Russians, Little Russians and Belarusians.

“At the same time, within the Polish elite and a certain part of the Little Russian intelligentsia, there arose and strengthened ideas about the separateness of the Ukrainian people from the Russian people. There was not and could not be any historical basis for [thse ideas], and therefore the conclusions were based on a variety of fictions. Up to the fact that Ukrainians are allegedly not at all Slavs, or, conversely, that Ukrainians are the real Slavs, and Russians, “Muscovites” are not. Such “hypotheses” were increasingly used for political purposes as an instrument of rivalry between European states.

“From the end of the 19th century, the Austro-Hungarian authorities took up this topic – in opposition to both the Polish national movement and pro-Muscovite sentiments in Galicia. During the First World War, Vienna contributed to the formation of the so-called Legion of Ukrainian Sich Riflemen. Galicians, suspected of sympathizing with Orthodoxy and Russia, were subjected to severe repression and thrown into the Talerhof and Terezin concentration camps”(http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181).

This is all true. However, it is irrelevant for today. Nations can form and separate from within other nations. They can even be intentionally constructed and .yes, even for purposes of geopolitical struggle. However, reprehensible that can be and however unpleasant for Russia then and now the construction of Ukrainian identity might be, it remains a fact of life today. Indeed, the Soviet Russians had considerable success in constructing new nations. There was no national Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Turkmen, Tajik, Azeri, or Moldovan national identities before Soviet power created them, and the USSR contributed to the survival of Ukrainian identity even as it tried to delimit it and added considerable territory to what Ukrainian came to see as their national heritage at Russia’s expense. Another cruel irony of history in addition to this one is that Ukrainians now contest Crimea as their own and reject the right of Russian Ukrainians to be educated abd broadly use their own language or influence national policies.

The USSR’s formation of a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic helped consolidate and deepen a sense of Ukrainian identity, despite the repression of the Ukrainian language and some of the recent history of Ukrainian identity formation. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian SSR Stalin built was a mix of Russian and Ukrainian self-identifying lands, leading, along with new divisions created by World War II, to a badly divided Ukrainian state and the Russian loyalties in Crimea, Donbass, and other parts of southeastern Ukraine. None of this is meant to deny the formation of a Ukrainian national identity, which was clearly in evidence during Imperial Russia’s revolutionary era; hence Lenin’s and Stalin’s nod to it by creating the Soviet union republic of Ukraine. So those Russians, whether Putin or others, who consider Russia and Ukraine (and Belarus for that matter) to be ‘one nation’ are behind the game. Nations can be ‘constructed’ — as the American case demonstrates — Ukrainian national identity formation has taken place. It will take a major reconstruction to bring Ukrainians on board with the idea that they are more Russian than a separate Ukrainian nation. That is certainly possibly but would take decades and a very different political and cultural environment than the one extant today in the region.

In political culture, both peoples have experienced authoritarian and totalitarian forms of rule and are more conflictive than cooperative and comity-based than Western populations but less than most other societies. Throughout the post-Soviet era Ukraine has shown a preference equal to or greater than Russia’s for a strong leader rather than a republican form of government (See Ivan Katchanovski, http://www.researchgate.net/publication/321503071_The_%27Euromaidan%27_Democracy_and_Political_Values_in_Ukraine, p. 29). However, Ukrainians have less a need for political unity and obedience to authority. Thus, Russian citizens were twice as likely to claim the need for greater respect for authority than Ukrainians, according to the 2017-2020 World Values Survey (“WVS Results, 1917-1920, v2 0.pdf,” World Values Survey, www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSDocumentationWV7.jsp, p. 244). This reflects the more anarchic, perhaps, a Cossack-rooted anarchic strain in some Ukrainian sub-cultures. Ukraine showed a greater preference, 58.3 percent (22.4 ‘very good’ and 35.9 ‘good’) than Russia’s 50.2 percent (18.4 ‘very good’ and 31.8 ‘good’) for “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections” (“WVS Results, 1917-1920, v2 0.pdf,” p. 477). Although both populations were far more distrustful than trustful of government and other political institutions, Russians tended to be twice as trustful of political institutions such as the courts, parties, and parliament (“WVS Results, 1917-1920, v2 0.pdf,” pp. 269 and 270-2). The two countries’ populations have almost identical levels of trust/distrust in their elections, mostly distrust (“WVS Results, 1917-1920, v2 0.pdf,” p. 275).

Tolerance of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural differences is approximately equally prevalent, limited compared to Western populations but exceeds that in most non-Western societies. Nationalist views are significantly widespread (though our own society is devolving in these directions as well). Russian and Ukrainian citizens proved to be approximately equally tolerant/intolerant and for the most part more tolerant than intolerant of various ‘others’ or minorities in the 1917-1920 World Values Survey, in which respondents were asked to mention any groups, members of which the respondent would not want to have as neighbors. Both Russian and Ukrainian citizens proved significantly tolerant of members of other religions, but Russia citizens more so with 11 percent mentioning them as undesirable as neighbors compared to 22 percent of Ukrainian citizens expressing them (“WVS Results, 1917-1920, v2 0.pdf,” p. 219). In regard to members of different races or linguistic groups, 15.7 and 12.6 percent of Russians, respectively, and 24.8 and 25.9 percent of Ukrainian citizens, respectively, mentioned these as undesirable as neighbors (“WVS Results, 1917-1920, v2 0.pdf,” pp. 215 and 222, see also p. 262). In regard to homosexuals, 66.2 percent of Russians and 44.8 percent of Ukrainians mentioned them (“WVS Results, 1917-1920, v2 0.pdf p. 218). Immigrants/foreign workers were mentioned by 32.3 percent of Russian citizens and 27.1 of Ukrainian citizens (“WVS Results, 1917-1920, v2 0.pdf,”p. 217). On a series of gender-related issues, Ukraine and Russia scored similarly (“WVS Results, 1917-1920, v2 0.pdf,” pp. 224-30).

In economic culture, suspicions regarding the rich, private ownership, and the shop-keeper’s lifestyle (bourgeois culture) are more widespread than in the West (though here the West is beginning to ‘catch up’). Recall the massive opposition to the bill (eventually passed) legalizing private land ownership in Ukraine last year. With strong state involvement in the economy, it is no coincidence that corruption has been as rampant in post-Soviet Ukraine as it has been in post-Soviet Russia (and in post-Soviet and post-communist countries in general). Ukraine is now ranked little less corrupt than Russia by Transparency International: 120th versus 132nd (www.transparency.org/files/content/pages/2018_CPI_Executive_Summary.pdf, p. 3).  

Putin and Zelenskiy

In terms of the similarities between Zelenskiy and Putin, let’s take a look. When they came to power, each faced problems of a somewhat similar nature. Both inherited a state apparatus corrupted and deeply penetrated or ‘captured’ by powerful oligarchs. Both inherited ‘stateness’ problems: the risk or unaccepted fact of separatism in several regions. Putin had his Chechnya, Tatarstan, and several hyper-autonomous regions, then jihadi separatism and terrorism throughout the North Caucasus and in parts of Tatarstan, with terrorist attacks being visited upon Moscow, St. Petersburg, Volgograd, and other cities. Zelenskiy inherited an annexed Crimea and a breakaway Donbass, whose partisan fighters and separatist governments are supported by Moscow. In response to these challenges,

In response both have sought to crush oligarchs, who refuse to play ball with them, while protecting those who do. Putin dismantled his predecessors’ hyper-decentralized, unofficial, often unconstitutional, ‘asymmetrical’ federalism, including confederative features and even federacy (special autonomy for one or a few of many regions, states, provinces). he did so to the extent that there no longer any features of a truly federative system. Russia is now far more a unitary than a federative state. Zelenskiy (and his predecessor) has rejected any autonomy or federalism for any regions. He has also done so for Donbass, even thought the Minsk peace talk accords require an autonomous Donbass to be hammered out in direct talks between Kiev and the DNR-LNR; talks Zelenskiy has refused to engage in.

Both have repressed the opposition; examples: Putin – Alexei Navalnyi, Zelenskiy – Viktor Medvedchuk, who has been charged with treason (https://hvylya.net/news/225016-zelenskiy-prokommentiroval-zakrytie-telekanalov-medvedchuka). In Putin’s case, although Navalnyi has been repressed for his ties to, including financing from the West, he was not charged with treason. In Zelenskiy’s case, Medvedchuk was charged with treason but no solid evidence has been forthcoming.

Both have violated the constitution. Putin did so in amending the constitution, which according to law can only be amended an article at a time, but Putin amended numerous articles in one swoop in April 2020. In mid-March 2021, Zelenskiy unconstitutionally fired the chairman of Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, a power the constitution does not grant the Ukrainian president (www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2021/03/27/7288051/).

Both have shut down or through intermediaries seized control of independent and opposition media; examples: Putin – all major television channels and several newspapers; Zelenskiy – closure just in 2021 of three of Medvedchuk’s television channels, the popular news site Strana.ua, and indirectly perhaps even the Western-financed, pro-Maidan Kyiv Post. At the same time, the SBU opened a case against a journalist who interviewed Medvedchuk after Zelenskiy’s sanctions against Medvedchuk (https://vesti.ua/strana/vopros-zhurnalistki-medvedchuku-vyzval-reaktsiyu-sbu).

Both tolerate political violence and corruption by certain actors and subgroups within the population; examples: Putin – Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov, Zelenskiy – various ultranationalist and neofascist groups (https://rauhanpuolustajat.org/ukrainian-civil-society-people-are-trying-to-warn-against-ignoring-far-right-groups/).

Both have given preference to their own and the majority nationality; examples: Putin’s reducing the autonomy of the national republics and the use of minority languages in favor of the Russian language. Zelenskiy reneged on his promise to soften the Poroshenko administrations’ harsh language law, which seeks to drive the Russian language out of Ukrainian life, though half the population speaks Russian as its main language and many others also speak it (https://gordonhahn.com/2018/10/18/report-post-soviet-language-wars-in-comparative-and-geopolitical-perspective-parts-1-and-2-complete/).

Both tolerate supportive corrupt and/or criminal ‘oligarchs’ and punish oppositionist or would-be independent corrupt and/or criminal ‘oligarchs’. Putin punished Alexander Gusinskii, Boris Berezovskii, Mikhail Khodorkovskii, and Sergei Petrov for refusing to cooperate with his government but has allowed Roman Abramovich, Oleg Deripaska, and Vladimir Potanin and raised former Petersburg associates such as the Gennadii Timchenkos, Arkadii Rotenberg, Yurii Kovalchuk to state oligarch status. Zelenskiy has sent the SBU against Medvedchuk and oligarch and former President Petro Poroshenko but continues to protect Igor Kolomoiskii, having received $40 million from him, according to the recently published Pandora Papers (https://vesti.ua/politika/sluga-ofshorov-kak-udarit-po-zelenskomu-skandal-s-pandoroj and http://www.icij.org/investigations/pandora-papers/power-players/).  Kolomoiskii was banned from entry into the U.S. for his criminal behavior – a ban that was lifted after then US VP Joe Biden requested this and his son Hunter joined the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma – is reported to have had murdered a competitor for leadership in Ukraine’s Jewish community, stolen tens of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance funds, threatened Rudolph Giuliani, and remains under investigation by the FBI.

Both maintain offshore accounts along with their cronies. Putin’s wealth has not been documented, but odds are he, like many Russian politicians and oligarchs, he has stored tens of millions of dollars in offshore accounts. Joint offshore account activity by Zelenskiy, his chief of staff, and the SBU chief were revealed in the Pandora Papers (https://vesti.ua/politika/sluga-ofshorov-kak-udarit-po-zelenskomu-skandal-s-pandoroj and www.icij.org/investigations/pandora-papers/power-players/).

None of this is to say that Ukraine is no more democratic than Russia, which is clearly the more authoritarian of the two. However, the difference is not as great as some would have you believe. The limited nature of the difference is crucial for U.S. foreign policy. Should Americans be developing a trip wire defense relationship with Kiev, if it is little more democratic than Russia? Does it make much sense to be pouring billions of dollars in various forms of assistance to a country that is massively corrupt and whose leading oligarch, Kolomoiskii, remains under the protection of the current president and played a role in the disappearance of tens of millions of U.S. assistance dollars previously? What does it say about our domestic and foreign policy values that we have elected a president with close ties to Zelenskiy’s paymaster and supports a policy of escalating our and NATO’s military support for and presence in Ukraine and along Russia’s western border in support of Ukraine? Now that we have signaled and pledged support what will the neofascists’ reaction be to a cooling off of our support for Kiev, especially if it comes in the form of a more accommodating position with regard to the positions of Russia and the Donbass rebels under Minsk 2.0? Remember the Russia that Ukraine tends to approximate to some degree has been authoritarianizing and has experienced numerous palace coups in its history. And if today’s Kiev looks to Kievan Rus’ as only its history, its golden age, its ‘usable past’ to model, then will it imitate the interminable infighting that brought about its ancient ancestor’s collapse, making it an even unwieldy and dangerous ally?



About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021) He has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.


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