The fact that only 3% of Russians say that Crimea should be part of Ukraine shows that Ukraine’s main problem in dealing with Russia is “not in Putin and his kleptocratic regime but in the chauvinistic madness of the majority of the population of Russia,” Vitaly Portnikov says.
And that pattern in turn means that if Russia retains its current borders and “does not get rid of its imperial swagger, Russian-Ukrainian relations will never normalize,” even if Putin’s successors give Ukraine back.
It is significant, Portnikov says, that the percentage of Russians who consider Crimea Russian “coincides with Putin’s rating, and therefore it is easy to trace a reverse connection: They love Putin because he stole Crimea” since they have no need for Crimea as such.
“The majority of Russians are proud of theft as their greatest national achievement,” he writes, a feeling that is “the typical reaction of poor marginalized societies which don’t have anything else to be proud of.”
He gives as an example of this Indonesia. There, to the delight of the population, Suharto annexed East Timor. After he was overthrown, his replacements decided to annul the annexation, a step that was not “positively received” by the Indonesian people.
“When, after the overthrow of Putin and the economic collapse of Russia, the new leadership of the neighboring country decides to return to Ukraine control over Crimea, Russians will gnash their teeth.”
And that, he suggests, constitutes “a sentence on Russian-Ukrainian relations:
If Russia stays in its current borders and doesn’t depart from its imperial madness, [these relations] will not normalize over the course of the next centuries.” Instead, Russia will play by the rules when it is weak and be aggressive when it gains strength.
But this represents an even more serious sentence on Russia itself: until it comes to agree that stealing is wrong and that its neighbors have the right to make their own choice, it will be increasingly caught in a meaningless world without many people and without much hope.
That wouldn’t be the worst outcome for Ukraine, Portnikov says, although its defense expenditures could be put to better use. But “all the same it would be better to live next to a well-intentioned and constructive neighbor than next to a state of potential aggressors.”