First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

There is little yearning for reunification with Russia...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

There is little yearning for reunification with Russia in Ukraine — it is more pro-West today than ever before

mm

Dr Alexander O’Riordan is an independent foreign policy analyst. He has a PhD in Economics from the University of Cape Town and has worked on international cooperation policy in over 30 countries, including on Palestine, in the past three years.

Russia’s satellites are in a frozen state, not recognised by the West and politically and economically expensive to the Russian fiscus. In contrast, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine continue moving on, largely saying good riddance to bad rubbish, a fact that Russia is struggling to digest.

While Ukraine is foremost in the headlines, it is important to note that Crimea is not the first of Russia’s forays into taking back portions of former Soviet satellites. In neighbouring Moldova, Russia has supported pro-Russian secessionists who established a self-governing region in Transnistria. Across the Black Sea, Russia has carved out South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia.

The Soviet Union’s playbook involved transferring ethnic Russian populations to countries across the union. These ethnic Russian populations were the tip of the spear in the Soviet Union’s industrialisation and economic modernisation plans.

It is important to emphasise the extent to which Russia’s identity is intertwined with a sense of superiority based on the belief that Russians get things built and get things done. In contrast, much of the West is painted as lazy, obese, and too easily seduced by shallow socialising and fashion.

In July 2021, I participated in a research exercise on the justice sector in Moldova: my local interlocutor explained to me that Moldova is a mistake. That in reality, Moldovans are mostly ethnic Romanians, and the country only exists because the Russian population accepts that fact.

Indeed, the difference between the ethnically Romanian and ethnically Russian cultures are plainly visible: a visit to a court in an ethnically Romanian town meant conversations with soft-spoken, patient, fashionably dressed Moldovans sipping their lattes. In contrast, my visit to a court in an ethnic-Russian town involved forced marches around the courthouse, meetings in which court officials barked out the communication points all rounded up with hard-drinking in a local café.

But after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, rapid liberalisation and unfettered market access in the former Soviet Union exposed how vulnerable the Soviet economies were. And with this, the veneer of Russian efficiency and superiority was corroded.

A drive from Armenia to Georgia, for example, is a stark contradiction between the staggering beauty of the mountain landscape and the fields of rusting and disintegrating obsolete industrial parks.

In Moldova, the post-Soviet economy is so bad that almost a third of the workforce has migrated to Russia or Europe for work opportunities. Similarly, Georgia and Ukraine are trying to reinvent their economies away from the large-scale industrial plans of the past.

In all this wrenching change, ethnic Russians have a lot to lose. The once-proud and venerated Russian engineer is largely transformed into an elderly, unemployed man whose status has faded only as rapidly as the town or village in which they used to reign. This loss of status and the shame that accompanies it is potent political capital — capital that Russia has used to mobilise these communities in support of secession in the three countries.

It is also the same capital that Donald Trump and Boris Johnson mobilised in the United States and United Kingdom: the coalition of un-employed and under-employed former engineers, factory workers and farmers were galvanised into a constituency that saw a return to the older order as the only pathway back to social standing. In South Africa, Jacob Zuma’s allies invoked similar tropes in last year’s July unrest in an attempt to render much of the country ungovernable.

Where Russia differs though, is that it made the fatal mistake of winning in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine. The pro-Russian groups were mobilised to the point that they seized control of land, but they also inadvertently separated themselves from the body politic. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, for example, points out that in Ukraine the pro-Russian electorate has dwindled from almost half of the vote to less than a sixth. In other words, Ukraine has swung from being potentially aligned with Russia to being majority aligned with Western interests.

Make no mistake, Georgia, Moldova and Romania lost enormous resources with the loss of Crimea, Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But it did not result in a public yearning for reunification. On the contrary, despite all the economic failures and social pain delivered by way of the West’s shameful chaperoning of unfettered liberalisation, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are more pro-Western today than ever before.

One of Moldova’s largest winemakers, for example, went so far as releasing a red blend to commemorate the future: the most enjoyable Freedom Blend comprises the indigenous grapes of Saperavi, Rară Neagră and Bastardo. Each of these grape varietals is selected to comprise “the heart of Georgia, the terroir of Moldova, and the free spirit of Ukraine”.

What Russia is realising is that it has won the battle but lost the war, something most surprising to most pundits, especially since the West was widely panned as playing checkers while Russia’s Putin was playing chess. Russia expected that the loss of these populations and regions would remind Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine how much they need Russia.

Truth is, Russia has its satellites, but they are in a frozen state, not recognised by the West and politically and economically expensive to the Russian fiscus. In contrast, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine continue moving on, largely saying good riddance to bad rubbish, a fact that Russia is struggling to digest.

Ironically, the parallels to the United States, United Kingdom and South Africa are hard to ignore: instead of the body politic realising the need to reach out and integrate these flailing constituencies, the hearts of the body politic have hardened and the tolerance of the old world order in public debate has evaporated. DM 

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 3

  • Thanks for this article. I was fortunate to visit Ukraine in November 2021 on a visit to a coal mine. We flew via Kiev to Dnitpro and the drove the Colliery (about 2 1/2 hours by excellent highway) at Pokrovoskoye. I later found ou this waas about 30 km from Donetsk.
    We stayed at a hotel in the town and ate at a Pizzeria close by , which also served burgers, pasta and steaks. The locals were very friendly and tried out their English on us.
    reminded me of a rural town such as Standerton or Ermelo, (except of course most things worked and there were no potholes.)
    A few of the miners had moved from”russian ” Donetsk to work at this pit since it was seen as Ukrainian and not russian.

  • A rather one sided (and probably rosy) analysis of the situation, especially in the light of some analysts indicating how Putin has assiduously since his invasion of Crimea, been fortifying the Russian ‘economy’ against anticipated ‘western sanctions’ …with big brother China ready step in to pick up much of the ‘spoils’… something which even some so-called high profile analysts still had not put their finger on last night … inspite of Xi having publicly pronounced his support for Putin’s plans !

    • The tragedy of the American led ‘outrage’ (rightly so) over this invasion of Ukraine as a violation of ‘international law’ … it fails to apply the same logic to the still continuing Israeli annexation of Palestinian land ! Oh … for the double standards !

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted