Some myths concerning Ukraine’s relations with Russia

Kari Liuhto,
Professor, Director,
Pan-European Institute, University of Turku,

Myth 1 – The conflict between Ukraine and Russia began in 2014: The conflict between Ukraine and Russia attracted international attention when Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula and war broke out in eastern Ukraine in spring 2014. In reality, the conflict began 10 years earlier after an attempt to poison pro-western presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko. The attempted poisoning sparked widespread protests and a repeat of the second round of the presidential election, in which Yushchenko defeated the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych. 

Myth 2 – Economic interdependence guarantees peace: The EU is built on the principle of interdependence between the countries, and many westerners believe that this principle also works with Russia. However, Russia’s Ukraine operation in 2014 shows that Russia is prepared to sacrifice its economic interests in order to achieve its geopolitical goals. One indication of this is the fact that Russia began its Ukraine operation in spring 2014 even though Ukraine was its fourth most important import country. Only China, Germany and the USA ranked higher than Ukraine in 2013.

Myth 3 – The entire Ukraine is at war: A surprising number of people in the west believe that the whole Ukraine is at war and all parts of this country – which is nearly the size of France – are unsafe due to military actions. This illusion has reduced foreign tourism and the flow of foreign investments to Ukraine. At this time, there is reason to emphasise that the war is only taking place in eastern Ukraine (Donbass), which accounts for three percent of Ukraine’s total land area. In addition to these military actions, Russia has occupied the Crimean Peninsula, which constitutes approximately four per cent of Ukrainian area. It should also be noted that the war is at a stand-still: less than 100 Ukrainian soldiers were lost in military action last year. In comparison, coronavirus killed some 100 people in Ukraine each day during late January and early February. The corresponding figures were 3,000 in the USA and 500 in Russia.

Myth 4 – Ukraine cut off its economic relations with Russia after the war began: Although Russia’s share of Ukraine’s foreign trade, foreign tourism and foreign direct investments has decreased since the start of the Ukrainian War, Russia still has a visible role in Ukraine’s foreign economic relations. Russia accounts for one tenth of Ukraine’s foreign trade and foreign tourism. However, Russia’s share of Ukraine’s inward FDI stock had dipped to just a few per cent at the beginning of last year. Despite the 7th year of the Ukrainian War, Ukraine’s economic ties with Russia are still surprisingly strong.

Myth 5 – Ukraine has not consumed Russian natural gas since November 2015: Ukraine stopped importing natural gas from Russia in November 2015. However, the majority of natural gas consumed in Ukraine still originates from Russia, because gas is transported to Ukraine via Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. It is worth noting that in practice Slovakia and Hungary import all their natural gas from Russia while half of Poland’s natural gas comes from Russia. It is also important to remember that, prior to completion of Nord Stream 2, around a quarter of the gas piped from Russia to the European Union travels through Ukraine. When finished, Nord Stream 2 may undermine Ukraine’s geopolitical position.

Myth 6 – A Russian ethnic minority is a security concern for Ukraine: Ukrainians with a Russian ethnic background made up one-sixth of the Ukrainian population at the beginning of the millennium. At that time, the majority of ethnic Russians lived in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. Unfortunately, being an ethnic Russian is too often associated with being pro-Russian. It is important to remember that national spirit lives in a person’s mind rather than their tongue. The oligarchs, regardless of their ethnic background, who engage in activities with Russia that conflict with the interests of the Ukrainian State are a much greater risk to Ukraine than its ethnic Russians.

Myth 7 – NATO membership would guarantee Ukrainian security: As long as the conflict in eastern Ukraine remains unresolved, Ukraine’s possibilities to join NATO are non-existent. In fact, the hasty agitation surrounding NATO membership may cause an expansion of the Ukrainian War because the reason for a problem rarely becomes its solution. The fundamental reason for the Ukrainian War is Russia’s fear that Ukraine will join NATO. Regardless of whether that fear is justified or not, Russia acts on the basis of its own beliefs. The war in eastern Ukraine makes Ukraine a hostage of Russia’s foreign policy. A solution to this frozen conflict will only be found after Russia accepts the idea that Ukraine does not belong to its sphere of influence.  Hopefully, completion of Nord Stream 2 – perhaps even this year – will not encourage Russia to escalate the war in Ukraine.

Myth 8 – Ukraine is a failed state: Many of the Russian professors I know have told me that “Ukraine is a failed state”. These words can be dismissed as Kremlin propaganda because, despite its many weaknesses, Ukraine has a healthier democratic foundation than its eastern neighbour. If the Ukrainian people – and the country’s politicians and oligarchs in particular – continue to stand together, it will be impossible to stop Ukraine’s journey to becoming a European state.

More on Ukraine’s economic relations with Russia.

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