A pattern exists in Ukrainian politics about attitudes to Vladimir Putin and Russian military aggression against its neighbours. This pattern first raised its head in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia and de facto annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It has re-surfaced since 2014 when Putin invaded and annexed the Crimea and launched hybrid military aggression against eastern Ukraine.
The division of Ukrainian political forces over Russian aggression was first raised by University of Ottawa Chair of Ukrainian Studies Dominique Arel in his article “Ukraine Since the War in Georgia” published in Survival (volume 50, no. 6, December 2008–January 2009), the quarterly journal of the prestigious London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies. Although he developed this framework for the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia it continues to be true today for Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Of the three main political forces in Ukraine, the Party of Regions (2008) and Opposition Bloc (since 2014) adopted a pro-Russian stance. In 2008, the Party of Regions, Communist Party and Crimean Russian nationalist-separatists were the only political forces in the CIS (outside of Russia) who supported the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Not even staunch Russian allies Belarus and Kakazkhstan did so.
The Party of Regions expelled National Security and Defense Council (NRBO) Secretary Raisa Bohatyryova after her response to my question in Washington DC when she criticised party leader Viktor Yanukovych for supporting Russia over Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The second group – the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko (BYuT) in 2008 and Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) since 2014 – are neutralists towards Russian military aggression.
Arel wrote that BYuT’s support for neutrality was obvious in a statement by its parliamentary leader Ivan Kyrylenko on 2 September 2008. BYuT parliamentary leader said the war in Georgia is “not our war” and “we don’t need to involve ourselves in a foreign war.”
Since 2014, Yulia Tymoshenko has never once condemned Putin for his annexation of the Crimea and military aggression against eastern Ukraine. Putin’s name was not mentioned during her recent “New Deal” congress. Tymoshenko surprisingly did not attend the January vote on the new law on the Donbas war and has never visited the front line.
The third group of Ukrainian political parties – Our Ukraine-People’s Self Defence (NUNS) in 2008 and Petro Poroshenko Bloc and Popular Front since 2014 – are the major critics of Russian military aggression.
Arel wrote in the journal Survival that, “Yushchenko did not waver in his response to the events in Georgia.” On Tymoshenko, Arel wrote about her “lack of reaction” and, “During the entire crisis in August, the Ukrainian prime minister did not express an opinion on the war, let alone publicly criticize Russia…”
Arel notes that the neutral (or pro-Russian) Tymoshenko in 2008 was very different to the anti-Russian Tymoshenko in the Orange Revolution. Something had changed in her attitudes to Putin and Russia between 2005-2008.
“Tymoshenko’s silence on the war in Georgia was so deafening that no official statement was to be found on the website of her parliamentary party, the Tymoshenko Bloc. A statement finally appeared in a raucous parliamentary session on 2 September, when each parliamentary faction submitted at least one resolution on the war, and none were adopted. The Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine, Yushchenko’s faction, although still officially united in a governing coalition, were unable to agree on a common resolution.”
“The Tymoshenko Bloc, as a matter of fact, did not even want the question on the agenda. When its parliamentary leader finally submitted the bloc’s proposition, Tymoshenko’s stance became clear. By condemning the use of force, disproportionate or otherwise, by ‘all sides’ and calling for the unconditional implementation of the European Union–Russia agreement, without expressing an opinion on Russia’s interpretation of key clauses of this agreement, Tymoshenko essentially adopted a neutral stance.”
President Victor Yushchenko and NUNS’s positions were far closer to that of the EU than BYuT. Arel writes that, “Substantively, however, it is the resolution presented by Our Ukraine parliamentary leader Viacheslav Kyrylenko that resembled most closely the official EU position that condemned the Russian Army’s ‘disproportionate’ response and calling for its withdrawal from Georgian territory ‘without delay’.”
Tymoshenko in 2008 and since 2014 has not been clear cut in defense of Ukrainian territorial integrity.
Arel writes, “Even on the cardinal question of the territorial integrity of the Georgian state, the Tymoshenko Bloc’s support was kept in general terms (‘all sides must abide by principles of independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity’), while the EU called the recognition by Russia of South Ossetia and Abkhazia ‘unacceptable’.” In contrast, NUNS called Russia’s military aggression “absolute violations of fundamental norms of international law.”
BYuT’s U.S. political consultant and Heorhiy Nemyrya drafted a critical response to the Russian invasion. But Tymoshenko squashed the statement the following day.
Tymoshenko and BYuT’s neutral stance is ironic because there is a clear line from Russia’s military aggression in 2008 to that in 2014.
The weak Western response to Russian military aggression in 2008 and the desire of newly elected President Barack Obama (backed by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul) to re-set relations sent Putin a completely wrong message of appeasement. Putin believed that if he repeated this type of military aggression against a Russian neighbor, as he did against Ukraine in 2014, there would also be a weak Western response. Thankfully, Putin badly miscalculated.
There was no united Ukrainian patriotic stance against Russian military aggression against Georgia. Today – sadly – there also is not a united patriotic stance among Ukrainian political parties because some continue to play at resetting relations with Putin, who is a sociopath who only understands resets as capitulation by the other side.
Taras Kuzio is a professor in the Department of Political Science at National University Kyiv Mohyla Academy and author of Putin’s War Against Ukraine: Revolution, Nationalism, and Crime (2017) and co-author with Paul D’Anieri of The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order (2018).