The Box Not Seen

I’ve recently read a report by the Brookings Institute, which claims that the West simply failed to predict the growth of Russia, while Russia continued to conduct an independent foreign policy:

“We built institutions on a fictitious foundation. For what happened between August 1998 and August 2008 is that the unimaginable occurred. Russia became strong, but “bad.” This is not a moral issue, but rather a characterization of how it is seen from the vantage point of the western policy makers who preferred the compliant Russia. What we call “bad” Russians would call independent. Russia became strong because oil prices rose to levels that were completely unimaginable in 2000-2002.

This perspective is important for it focuses our attention away from simplistic explanations of Russian behavior. Russia’s behavior did not change, nor did its evaluation of its own interests. What changed over time was Russia’s ability to conduct an independent foreign policy. But as long as the West was tied into strategies based on the “missing quadrant” fallacy, it was completely unprepared to anticipate them. And as long as the West continues to ignore Russia’s interests it will be unable to engage with them.”

Here’s what the article refers to as the missing quadrant fallacy:


However a strong Russia conducting Russia’s foreign policy that is independent of other countries is not hard to imagine for students of Russian History. Russia has an amazing history of resurgence. In 1240, Kiev was burned. Within 2 years, the Novgorod Republic took on the mantle to rule Russia utilizing the wisdom of Great Prince Alexander Nevsky. In 1598 the country was falling apart. In 1613, the Romanov Rebirth began in Russia. In 1941 Nazis stood at the gates of Moscow. By 1945, the USSR was ruling all of Eastern Europe. Although Russia is very good at getting into trouble, Russia is also phenomenal at getting out of trouble. How could the West not foresee this?

The problem was a unipolar view of the situation discussed at length here,, and thus an inability to properly assess Russian History. During the Romanov period,  Russia did not really get into trouble prior to the assassination of Csar Alexander the Liberator. You had the pre-Petrine Romanov Csars, who were quite good in their own right, (except the last one,) the Csars between Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, (with very interesting results,) and the pre-1801 Csars and Csarinas. Again, I must emphasize that between 1613 and 1801 the Russian Empire was expanding and flourishing. There was no need to for Russia to get out of trouble.

In 1801 Russia had a chance for World Domination, (through allying Napoleon,) but missed it. Nevertheless between 1801 and 1881, Russia was still flourishing internally. One cannot simply forget the Golden Age of Russian Literature. Prior to 1914 or 1917, (depending on who you ask,) Russia did not have to fight for survival. During the Russian Civil War and the Leninist-Stalinist aftermath, little attention was paid to Russia by the US, since the US engaged in Isolationism. After the Great Patriotic War, the USSR was viewed as an adversary, and an in depth study of the Soviet accomplishments in the context of Medieval Russia has not been performed.

On the flip side of the coin, every adversary that the US took down – stayed down. After the American War of Independence and the War of 1812, London didn’t dare to challenge the US in the Americas. After the Mexican-American War, Mexico just took what the US dished out. After the Indian Wars, the Native Americans mostly moved aside. After the Civil War, the South didn’t dare to rise again; after WWII Germany became dependent on the US, as did Japan. As long as the US won the war, the adversary stayed down. Russia simply refused to do that for the reasons discussed above.

And yet, the very same mistakes are being made when it comes to analyzing Ukraine. I will quote the Brookings Institute or rather, their analytical chart of the situation in the Ukraine, which is one of the best analytical pieces that I’ve read thus far, and explain why it’s wrong, because if some of the best analysis is wrong, then some of the worst analysis isn’t just wrong; it’s in another galaxy.


All the boxes in that chart seem to be filled and it certainly makes sense from that perspective. However, consider this: Southeast Ukraine annexed, Rump Ukraine transferred to EU. Whoops. I’m not seeing that one on there. Is anyone? In order to understand how this can happen, one must understand Ukraine’s history.

It’s very popular today to pronounce Kiev as the “mother of all Russian cities…” except that’s a lie. Novgorod was born in 862; Kiev became a Russian city in 882. Anyone know of a mom that’s 20 years younger than her kids? The real “mother of all Russian cities” is Novgorod. Kiev’s more like the older sister that took over, did a great job initially with some spanking, and then turned into a wild party girl who ended up falling to a Mongol and destroying her wealth, with Novgorod having to take over again.

Thus Ukraine was split between numerous different countries since 1240, only to be somewhat shaped by Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev into its modern borders. Generally speaking, the Communists were very bad at drawing borders. After the fall of the USSR, numerous borders were redrawn in almost every single SSR. The Baltics avoided it solely due to their tiny size. Imagine gerrymandering on crack. Welcome to Communism Border Drawing 101. And Ukraine’s borders were redrawn not once, not twice, but thrice by the Communists.



And here is a simplified map, with the historical claims being confined to the current oblasts; it’s a gerrymander of gerrymandering, but I need it to get my point across:


Ukraine might have had a chance with 1917 borders, but not with the current borders. As Patrick Armstrong notes: “if you wanted to keep Last Summer’s Ukraine together, there was a central prohibition, a “First Rule of Ukraine”: “do not attempt to force a choice between east and west” or, more plainly, “do not demand that one half of the country swallow what only the other half wants”. Violate that rule and the whole thing could tear apart. Ukraine could stay together so long as, for example, no government in Kiev tried to make Ukraine a formal military ally of Russia. Such an idea would be welcomed by many in the east and south but would be anathema in the west and, to a lesser degree, in the centre. In short, the only choice for a stable Ukraine would be neutrality, or, more grandly, to proclaim itself a bridge between Russia and NATO. Likewise an exclusive trade agreement with Russia would be welcome in the south and east but unacceptable in the west. So, again, the correct stance, the one that would preserve Ukraine, would be to advocate trade agreements with both. The “bridge” concept again. Everyone who knows anything about the realities of Ukraine knew this. I can’t stress this enough: this sort of understanding would have been Lecture 1 of Ukraine 101”

If only it was as simple as that single comment. But it isn’t. Remember the comment that I used in my blog earlier, from “BorninUkraine”?

Ukraine was and is extremely heterogeneous. It consisted of five distinct areas. One is the East and South, where most of industry is, which never spoke Ukrainian and never will. I was born in the West, in Lvov, and my parents moved to the East (Lugansk, close to my mother’s birthplace) when I was about six. The Ukrainian teacher in school loved me because I was the only kid in class who could speak proper Ukrainian. Western Ukraine speaks several dialects of Ukrainian. Historically, they fought in WWI and WWII on the side of Germany, against Russia. Hence their loyalties. There is central Ukraine, which speaks what is considered literary Ukrainian and is in between in every way. There is also the part to the West of Carpathian Mountains, where people have their own dialect, which is closer to Russian than Ukrainian, and where many speak Hungarian and Romanian. They hate Western Ukrainians as much as Easterners do, due to their history in WWII. There was Crimea, which was not Ukraine at all, where ~80% of people speak Russian.”

After reading that, scroll up and look at the Ukrainian additions. Do you really think that it’ll just be limited to Novorossiya? Hungary’s Prime Minister does not:

“Hungary’s ambassador to Ukraine was summoned by the foreign ministry in Kiev on Tuesday (May 13) to explain what Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban meant when he spoke of a special status for Hungarian minorities in the region. Orban, who was re-elected for a second term in April, said in his inauguration speech that ethnic Hungarians who live in neighbouring countries in the Carpathian Basin are entitled to special rights. Highlighting the fate of some 200,000 Hungarians in Ukraine, he noted that they must be granted dual citizenship, full minority rights, and the right to self-administration. “This is our clear expectation from the new Ukraine,” Orban said.”

Who else would want to get Ukrainian lands? Perhaps the Poles, maybe someone else as there are quite a few people that were justifiably angered by Stalin’s policies. This is no excuse to take out the anger on the local people living there, but if the locals are your own people that want to join your country, you might want to push for independence, or at the very least a strong autonomous status like Orban is doing.

As BorninUkraine notes, WWII cast a major division in Ukraine between the West and everyone else. The majority of the Ukrainians in the West are hostile towards Russia. The West’s borders are going to be the borders of Rump Ukraine. Why would Russia want that? There needs to be a real reason, not just the fallacious historical claim of Kiev being the mother of all Russian cities at the age of negative twenty. No such reason exists.

Rump Ukraine is divided into West Ukraine and Central Ukraine. With the exception of Kiev’s function as a capital, the region is not economically productive:

Furthermore, a combination of the Chechen-Ingush treatment could work when it comes to Crimea-Southeastern Ukraine. It should be noted that Putin did not simply stabilize Chechnya; he stabilized the Caucasus. Chechnya became the flagship project, receiving the lion’s share of the funding, but other Caucasian Republics were funded and growing just enough to keep the living standards improving for the local population, as is the case in Ingushetia. Putin would fund Crimea and Sevastopol massively, which requires no more than $2.5 billion per year, or roughly $1,100 per person. The aid to other places would be substantially less, but even at $550 a person that would be $11.2 billion. This is not out of the realm of feasibility for Russia.

On the other hand the EU would be stuck with Rump Ukraine. The tab of incorporation would be at least $110 billion. And Southeast Ukraine would be Russian. How will the citizens of the EU react to that, when austerity is already ensuring massive gains for any anti-austerity parties, even the ones on the extreme right and left of the political spectrum? My guess is that the EU citizens will not react very positively.

This comes in addition to the EU being forced to pay for Rump Ukraine’s gas, which Rump Ukraine will siphon from the EU in order to keep their economy semi-functional. This would stick the EU with a tab that few in the EU wanted to pay in the first place, while looking defeated in the eyes of the rest of the World. The failure would be several times more devastating than EULEX.

When this is taken into account, there is only one possible option: Finlandization in Ukraine, with a nominally independent Ukraine under Russian control. This deal will have the following conditions:

  1. Crimea to join Russia and be internationally recognized; DonBass to either join Russia, or receive autonomous republic status in Ukraine, like Crimea had
  2. Federalization of Ukraine
  3. Autonomous status for Southeastern Ukraine and Zakarpatiya, if the voters approve it
  4. Russian to be recognized as the official language of Ukraine
  5. Truly popular and democratic elections by region, with no candidates being beaten up or not allowed to run for office

Yes, these conditions are harsh. However, they are the only way to prevent the most devastating outcome: Southeastern Ukraine joins Russia, Rump Ukraine ends up demanding funds from the EU, as that is an option where Russia takes a $14 billion tab, whereas the EU ends up stuck with a $110 billion tab, while looking defeated to the rest of the World.



  1. Hungary was the birthplace of my mother and father, and I learned Hungarian as a child. See About me on EU: Ramshackle Empire. They came to England in the late 1930s separately and met there. I agree with your analysis of Hungary and its interests in Ukraine.

    1. Thank you! You lead a very interesting life. What got you interested in getting a job as a researcher? You explained quite a bit about why you chose that topic, but why go the path as a researcher, and how’d you succeed?

      1. I wanted to research Germany, as my father lost all his relatives in Slovakia, taken to Belsen, and could never reconcile himself to this. I applied to Leicester Univ and barely got in, but got a 2.1. At Leicester were 2 sociologists who I was most interested in – Norbert Elias and Tony Giddens. Then I went to Sheffield to do an MA, and met Teodor Shanin, who wanted me to study Russian peasantry. I began to learn Russian, the cyrillic language was OK and I still remember bits, and some words. But after a couple of years gave up. Its nothing like Hungarian, a Finno-Ugric language, with bits of Turkish and Austro-Hungarian culture thrown in for good measure.

        My Aunt took me to Czechoslovakia and Hungary as a young teenager. Much of this is on the ordoliberalism blog, I really must create my own wordpress site on this to bring everything on my background together.

        I am still concerned about WWIII, the previous 2 wars were started by accident as it were. Obama needs to learn his history! If he places nuclear missiles in Ukraine or Estonia it could easily happen. Of course, we all hope not! I guess I have succeeded as an academic though not as I intended. I started researching ordoliberalism, as Sweden, where I live with my wife, had elements of this (see Germany has the most developed ordoliberal policies of any country, which partly explains its dominance in the EU.

      2. I think you should, your background sounds very interesting!

        In terms of WWIII, the conditions that existed in the teens and thirties/forties, simply do not exist today. In the teens Europe had one empire too many. In the thirties/forties there was nothing to stop Hitler until he started WWII. Today we have nuclear missiles and the Internet. The spread of information is instant, and if a country starts militarizing like Nazi Germany did in the late thirties and early forties, we’d certainly notice it. Given these conditions I doubt that a WWIII is possible. Let’s not forget that it was the American Voters who stopped Obama from bombing Syria. If a limited war could be stopped through net organizing, a global war could certainly be stopped through the exact same thing. Additionally, the countries are investing a lot more into special forces, at the expense of regular forces, meaning that no massive wars are being planned.

        (Technical note – if you’re unable to reply to this comment, just respond to my comment above it, and I’ll be able to see your reply, and know that it’s meant for this comment.)

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