James Sherr: “People governing Ukraine are not going to get it closer to Europe, and Russia is taking a full advantage of this”

Chatham House’s James Sherr speaks on Russian diplomacy and the Kremlin’s possible efforts to hamper Ukraine’s real European integration


While it has almost lost the power to dictate its policy to Central European countries, Moscow retains significant influence on the post-Soviet territory. Chatham House’s James Sherr is an expert on international security of Ukraine and Russia, as well as other post-communist countries. His insight into his subject is critical and professionally respectful, something typical of former sovietologists. Some in London claim that British politicians listen to his expert opinion, while he blames Western officials for having no “strategic thinking” when it comes to policies regarding Russia, Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.


The Ukrainian Week talks to James Sherr in London about his new book Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia’s Influence Abroad.


UW: Can you say that Russia is now a proper member of G8?


The illusion that Russia is a member of the Western club is dying a very slow death. Within the past ten years and more, Moscow has never pretended to be a member of the Western club. Russia, in its own view, is a sovereign democracy, a great power with its own specific scheme of regional and global interests. It is a country that knows its interests and pursues them. Syria is an example of the case where Russian interests and Western interests do not easily coincide. Last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry went to Moscow as not the first high-level representative trying to persuade them that these interests do coincide or could coincide. If we work together, we can overcome the most difficult problems in the world, he said, which is a comment that suggests, first, that he understands very little about Russia, its interests and its capacity. I think it also suggests that he does not really understand what has changed in the world since Russia was a superpower and there was a bipolar system. Russia has one overriding interest in Syria which is not the same as the western interests by definition. This interest is to ensure that there is no repetition of what happened in Libya and in many other places, that there is no regime change by external means. Russia is determined to preserve Assad’s regime in whole or in part. If there is to be turmoil as a result, Russia might not like it, any more than we do, but it is prepared to live with it. Russia’s also determined to ensure that, whatever the scenario is in future, it will retain as much influence as possible and be the key broker at least and the arbiter and the key player at best in determining what the outcome will actually be.

U.W.: Do you think that Western values are incompatible with the Russian ones and Russia will never be a normal state which we were hoping to see when Yeltsin was in power?


As for the first question, they are not entirely incompatible, but certainly, even before Putin came to power, Russians, even Yeltsin at times, were emphasizing repeatedly Russia’s own distinctiveness, its distinctive historical experience, its distinctive approach and equality, meaning the right to define values and standards for itself. And under Putin, this view has become backed by power and capacity. In itself, there is nothing wrong or threatening about this. The question is how Russia defines itself.


As for your second question, first of all, in Russia it has never been easy to separate the nation, the state and the empire. Imperial Russia, unlike Britain in the 19th century, did not possess an empire overseas, though it was an empire. Russia is a multiethnic state. Even after the Soviet Union broke up, there still over a hundred recognized nationalities in the Russian Federation. So Russia can be a unitary state. But Putin and the establishment in Russia are quite resolved that it cannot be a nation-state on the model of, say, Denmark, France or Germany, or even Britain. Ironically, those people in Russia today who want Russia to be a nation state have a very controversial and regressive policy. Alexei Navalny is arguably one of these people. It’s a state for ethnic Russians, rather than what Putin calls “Rossiyane” (who are not necessarily ethnic Russians). I know there is a big argument about this in Russia. Putin’s view of Russia and nationality is in fact distinctly more tolerant, more cosmopolitan, softer and certainly more traditional, and also more imperial, than the view of those who support the slogan “Russia for Russians.”


UW: Ukraine is divided in its opinion about the role of Russia towards Ukraine, whether it is supportive and friendly towards Ukraine or has only destabilizing influence. What is your opinion on the influence of Russia on Ukraine?


Russia cannot divorce friendly relations in Ukraine from brotherly relations and defines one with the other. The brotherly relations stem for the conviction that then President Medvedev put very clearly in his address to President [Viktor] Yushchenko back in 2009, in which he referred to many aspects of Ukraine’s own capacity, its energy system and economic policy, as things that should be joint. In this Russian conception, all the key features that make one country truly independent of another are seen in Russia as aspects of policy that should be worked out in coordination. And this certainly applies to the whole issue of Ukraine’s relationship with the European Union.


The Russian position is, first, that the Ukrainians are a branch of the Russian people - as are Byelorussians; that it is part of greater Russian civilization, that this entire area is tied together by history and culture; that its economies used to be interdependent and integrated, and that it’s only natural for these commonalities to be strengthened, and for integration to proceed according to this model, and that the decoupling of Ukraine from this Russian World is, first of all, artificial as there is no historical precedent for it, that it cannot possibly succeed and that it would be damaging both to Ukraine and to Russia. In my opinion, these views are held well across the entire Russian political spectrum both by people who support Putin, the current system and the current power structure and by people who deeply dislike it.


So today there is an argument in Russia as to whether the Eurasian Union should go forward and Russia should be getting closer, say, to the Central Asia countries and countries of the South Caucasus. There is no real argument as to whether Russia and Ukraine belong together. The overwhelming majority of people from all the parts of the political spectrum believe that they do belong together.


The challenge presented by the Orange Revolution to Moscow when it occurred was well understood to Moscow. If Ukraine actually succeeded in adopting according to a completely different European conception in the 21st-century sense of that - the sense of the EU-based norms, standards, system of governance, system of law, business culture, and all the rest of it - this would have to raise the most radical and fundamental questions inside Russia itself about why Russia should not be doing the same.


Much of the entire basis of legitimacy of the current system in Russia would have been undermined because the current system in Russia is based on the principle that it is distinctive, meets Russian needs, arises out of civilizational experience and Ukraine is part of this experience. If Ukraine can live in some other way as a normal European state, why Russia can’t?


This is why, for Russia’s governing elite the idea of Ukraine joining the European Union or having a privileged relationship with it, such as by means of an Association Agreement, is very threatening, because it affects the security of the regime at home. To make a bigger point, the overarching objective of Russian policy today, in my view, is to create the conditions in Russia’s neighbourhood and in the world that are most conducive to maintaining and prolonging the system of governance in Russia itself.


If a country like Ukraine, which is so central to Russia’s own sense of itself and its identity, were to adopt a different model and path, and succeed at it, that would have very profound and possibly revolutionary consequences for Russia. Therefore, in my view, Russia will exercise all means at its disposal to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

UW: Do Western policymakers understand what policy they should be exercising towards Ukraine in view of the Russian factor?


One qualification first: Russia today has a clearer understanding of what it does not want than of what it does want. If you take the example of Syria, I’ll just tell you what Russia does not want. But if you ask people, what is their broader conception if they achieve this, what is going to happen in that region and in that space, you might find that they haven’t thought very seriously about this.


As for Ukraine, they know they don’t want the country to join the West. They know that they want Ukraine to integrate with Russia in some way, first through the Customs Union and then through the Eurasian Union. But they don’t invest the same degree of thinking or energy in working out how that is actually to take place and what form it will take. These are secondary considerations. But when the Russians do want something or they decide they don’t want something, they approach that objective in a very focused, disciplined and strategic way.


The West is a very broad notion. The EU and the European Commission are very methodical in achieving certain things. There is a mechanism for association and integration, there is an almost automaticity in its approach to integration and relations. There is an integrationist bias in all the EU’s relations with foreign states. You can even say in some respects that the European Commission, once it’s on its tracks, runs on autopilot. So it is a formidable machine, once it gets going, but the people who empower that machine - the national governments of the EU and the European Council - do not necessarily think strategically about what motivates Russia’s policy, what Russia might do if Ukraine does not get the Association Agreement signed in Vilnius in November or if it does get the Association Agreement signed in November.


These are subjects that some people discuss and some people do not. There is no unified view about these things. So it’s very hard, beyond the mechanics of this process of integration to get you to think strategically about what is happening in what we call the common neighbourhood between the EU and Russia.


So if you were to raise the question, who in Brussels or in the EU is thinking about how Russia will react if the Association Agreement with Ukraine, or for that matter Moldova, is signed in Vilnius in November, my answer would be: “Possibly, nobody.”


UW: Štefan Füle? This is his job…


Yes, but he is not a political figure and I’m not sure to what extent he is thinking about it. This has not been a big subject of discussion. But I believe we need to think about this.


Let me give you an ominous analogy. In April 2008, NATO had a summit in Bucharest and came up with the formula that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. This had a major effect on Russia’s whole cycle of thinking and planning. Our recognition of Kosovo’s independence was clearly a factor in repelling Russia on the course which led to war in Georgia in August that year.


If the EU signs an Association Agreement with Ukraine, the Russians will interpret this as the beginning of Ukraine’s integration into the EU ending with membership. Because of the huge stakes attached to Ukraine not moving into the EU’s orbit, which would mean Russia losing influence and losing the ability to guide Ukraine, its policy, trajectory, and economy, there will almost inescapably be pressure in Moscow to respond and try to derail this process. The worry that should exist in Kyiv and Brussels is how they might derail it particularly given the present condition of Ukraine, its vulnerabilities, its strained internal situation, its divisions, the presence and influence of economic interests in the country closely bound to Russia, intelligence services, the Black Sea fleet in Crimea, and so on and so forth. If some people imagine that from the day the Association Agreement is signed, Ukraine’s position becomes progressively more secure and better, they might have a very rude shock.


UW: What should be done then?


I will restate about the EU what I stated a long time ago about Ukraine and NATO. The time for Ukraine to have an Association Agreement with the EU (and it certainly would apply to Ukraine ultimately joining the EU) is when such a step actually strengthens Ukraine and the EU, and not before. That presupposes that Ukraine should already be transforming itself successfully to be able to profitably benefit very quickly from the advantages of closer integration. Today, Ukraine’s economy is not going to benefit from having EU norms and rules applied to it, because it works on very different and in some ways opposite principles in Ukraine. This is a rent-seeking economy, in which property rights are minimal and fleeting; in which the relationship between money and power is not properly demarcated; the relationship between state and business is opaque; contracts are very provisional; the legal system has no independence and integrity. All of these factors describe a system that is opposite to that which exists inside the EU. Under the current political dispensation in Kyiv, there is no serious effect to alter these practices, change these institutions and transform the system so far. Instead, people are making the worst mistakes possible assuming that the mere act of signing up to integration with the EU will do this automatically. It will not.


UW: Isn’t the Association Agreement a program of reforms that Ukraine would have implement?


Who is going to make Ukraine implement it? The past 20 years of relations between the West as a whole and the former Soviet world should persuade anyone that it is simply not possible to micromanage another country from outside it. If Ukraine had in power a government, a group of people, a group of decision makers and a group of people running the economy who really understand how the EU works, are determined to make these transformations and do all these things, then the Association Agreement would be very helpful. But today the political and economic elite of Ukraine do not want to see these changes take place because their power would be threatened by them. They want to maintain the powers they have over economic life, they want maintain the covert and opaque cash flows and rent-seeking.


UW: But Ukrainians want that…


But Ukrainians are not in power. The Association Agreement is not going to determine who exercises power in Ukraine. Of course, they would pay lip service to it, they would pass all kinds of laws that look very good, but that doesn’t mean any of these laws would become reality or would be turned into practice. In countries that want to simply play a game of reform, passing laws, having programs and signing documents is a very easy substitute for actually changing the way institutions and economies work.


There are Ukrainians, who want to do these things, but they are neither in power in the state, nor are they pressing the key buttons as far as the economy is concerned. I have no doubts that if they were, everything that is being discussed today would be very beneficial for Ukraine. But the Association Agreement in itself is not going to have these effects. Somebody has to implement that and there is no mechanism which would allow the EU to do so.


I’ll give you an example. Ukraine joining the WTO was not nearly as ambitious as joining the EU, but at the time the same set of people in Ukraine and the West were saying that if Ukraine joins the WTO, then whether the people in power want or not, the economy will change in ways that are beneficial. Ukraine joined the WTO, and there is no qualitative difference at all. In some ways, there is even more rent-seeking, more raider attacks, more arbitrary behaviour in economic life than there was before Ukraine joined the WTO.


You cannot manage a country from outside, Ukraine is a sovereign state. Whether its reformers and pro-European people would like it to be or not, it is a sovereign state with a government in power. Its economy is controlled by a very small group of interests. As far as possible, they will support any reform that does not impinge upon their ability to exercise the power and maintain the wealth which they do. One of the basic frustrations that has existed with regard to Ukraine, not just under President Yanukovych, but over the past 20 years, has been the fact that even when serious reforms did take place, they always had stopped at the point where they threatened the prerogatives and privileges of people in power, and many of them were then sent into reverse.


If you look at the countries that are successful members of the EU – such as Poland and Estonia - you’ll see that this only happened because those countries were run by elites that absolutely understood these principles identified with them and wanted to implement them. They were not forced to or pushed to, they wanted it themselves. These were broad national elites that understood this and there was elite consensus in these countries to do this. In Ukraine, you don’t have this elite consensus. Those people who are similar to the Polish elites have very little power and influence today. This is where we are starting from, whether we like it or not.


I am raising two questions. First, what will the internal consequences be if Ukraine succeeds in Vilnius. If I’m right, the internal consequences in Ukraine will be disillusionment because people will be expecting big and positive change and there won’t be any significant change. The external consequences will also be negative. The EU will be disillusioned and expecting big changes in Ukraine, which will not come about. Russia will fear that Ukraine is now leaving its orbit, entering the orbit of Europe and it will feel under pressure to take action to stop it.


James Sherr is Senior Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London, expert on international security of Ukraine, Russia and post-communist states. His fields also include the EU and NATO expansion, as well as energy relations between Kyiv, Moscow and the EU. He is the author of the book Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia’s Influence Abroad out in 2013.



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