To avoid misunderstanding, I should start by saying that I don’t like Russia, nor do I like Ukraine. I was born in Ukraine, but during many years of my life in the Soviet Union, I had more than enough “pleasant” interactions with Russian and Ukrainian reality and people, along with the nationalism and anti-Semitism of a good portion of the population.
One of many derogatory epithets directed towards Jewish and other non-Slavic people is, “you’re no Russian,” a statement meant to diminish the target’s sense of worth as a human being. (Of course, as in any other nation, there are good and bad people in Russia.)
For the last 38 years of my life, I have had the honor of being a proud American. From this vantage point, and keeping in mind the Russian nationalistic mentality, let us take a look at our approach to the so-called post-Soviet Russia.
As soon as the Soviet Union disintegrated, one could repeatedly hear our politicians and media personalities saying: “Now the United States is the only superpower.” This was like a red cloth for the bull of the nationalistic feelings of the Russians, including those of personalities like President Vladimir Putin, and contributed to Russia’s desire and actions to prove otherwise.
Many view today’s Russia as being a continuation of the Soviet Union. Often the words are used interchangeably — Russia is misspoken as the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union is misspoken as Russia. Russian democracy is far from the level of our American democracy, and Putin is somewhere between a democratically elected president and a dictator. Nevertheless, Russia is not a continuation of the Soviet Union, and it is counterproductive to treat her this way.
It makes good sense to look at two of the latest issues of contention with Russia caused by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and by Russian actions in Ukraine regarding the so-called “People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.”
Since when did Crimea belong to Ukraine? Throughout its history, Crimea belonged to the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Mongols, Ottoman Turks and — since the year 1783, after the Russian military victory over the Turks — to Russia.
In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev decided to give Crimea as a “present” to Ukraine. It was automatically approved by the “House of Marionettes,” otherwise known as the Soviet Parliament or the so-called Supreme Soviet.
(For those who do not remember who Khrushchev was, or who are too young to know: Khrushchev was a “big intellectual” who thought that the best way to express his opinion at a U.N. session was slamming the counter in front of his seat using his shoe.
Nevertheless, at the time, he was the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union — i.e., dictator of the Soviet Union.)
Perhaps one of the reasons he gave Crimea to Ukraine was the fact that, for two periods of time, before and after World War II, Joseph Stalin made him a ruler of Ukraine, and Khrushchev wanted to somehow show that he still remembered his Ukrainian connections. By that time, it only had symbolic meaning, because Ukraine itself, along with the rest of the so-called Soviet republics, was part of the Russian empire.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea followed a Crimean referendum. There are a couple reasons to think that the results of the referendum were not falsified: First, the population of Crimea is roughly 65 percent ethnically Russian. Second, the Crimean people expected that they would be better off economically if Crimea was part of Russia. If the majority of the Crimean population was satisfied with their well-being under Ukraine, the result of the referendum could have been different.
In eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, there is almost no doubt about Russia’s support of the separatist rebels who collectively refer to their campaign as the “People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.” If not for Russia, after all, where would the rebels get their weapons?
But with all of Russia’s intrigues, the rebellion would not have been possible but for the population’s dissatisfaction with their lives under the Ukrainian government. Despite its involvement, at least for now, Russia maintains a policy of not fully recognizing the separatist entities until there is a political settlement with Ukraine.
The United States and our allies have problems with many aspects of Russian policy. But the possibility of influencing Russian policy lies not through confrontation, but through establishing as friendly a relationship as possible.
When then-candidate Donald Trump was asked how, in light of Russia’s behavior, he could talk about improving relationships with Russia, his answer was: “We do the same.” Perhaps he said this while thinking of U.S. interventions in Grenada and Panama, its actions in Nicaragua, etc. Every country’s politics are complicated and influenced by many factors. Good relationships and cooperation, though, must be the goal of any responsible government.
Increasing American and Russian nuclear arsenals as an alternative to making efforts to improve the bilateral relationship not only will set a bad example for other countries, but is a recipe for eventual mutual destruction. Let us hope that the new administration of President Trump will be able to come up with wise policies leading to good international relationships in general, with Russia in particular.
Arkady Mamaysky is a mechanical engineer who immigrated directly to the United States from the former Soviet Union in 1979.