The art of hesitation

2 October 2019, 17:14

Ukrainian-Russian Treaty of friendship, cooperation and partnership expired on the 31st of March 2019. In order to extend it for another ten years, one side had to notify the other one within the six months prior to its expiration. On 6 September 2018, Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council (NSDC) announced it will not be seeking an extension due to Russia’s illegal annexation fo Crimea and its hybrid war on the east of Ukraine. Later on, after Ukraine’s then-president, Petro Poroshenko, signed the document on 17 September 2018 Russia’s has been officially notified that no extension has been made. On 6 December 2018 Ukrainian parliament voted to terminate the agreement as of 1 April 2019.

Was it possible that the fate of this treaty could have been different? Lengthy and complicated history of this document begs to differ. Russia has proven to be extremely untrustworthy and dubious partner in its relationship with Ukraine. It makes sense to briefly describe the history of the documents below.


Colluding interests


Perhaps it would make sense to briefly describe the circumstances surrounding the overlong creation of this Ukrainian-Russian treaty, signed by then head of the parliament of Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkrSSR), Leonid Kravchuk, and the head of the parliament of Soviet Russian Federal Socialist Republic (SRFSR), Boris Yeltsin on 19 November 1990. In terms of maintaining its own political sovereignty, Russia, as a Soviet republic, has always been a step ahead of the rest of socialist republics. Ukrainian communists, supportive of Ukrainian sovereignty and led by Kravchuk, were obediently following Yeltsin. In his opposition to Mikhail Gorbachev, Yeltsin desperately needed support from the biggest regional soviet republic – Ukraine. Soon after, the talks in Moscow have begun.   

Not long afterwards, it became clear that Yeltsin and Kravchuk were ready coordinate their actions against Gorbachev, but their aims turned out to be contrastingly different. Ukrainian communists were hoping to win independence for their country and get rid of Kremlin’s heavy hand on their shoulders. On the contrary, Boris Yeltsin and his circles have not even anticipated the fall of the Soviet Union as such.  They only wanted to replace the pan-Soviet power centre in Moscow and make it more Russian. The root of the tensions between those two centres, the pan-Soviet and the Soviet-Russian, date back to the early days of creation of Soviet Union. Regional power centres in national republics had more power than the same national power centre in Russia (that is, state institutions of Soviet Russian Federal Socialist Republic as opposed to pan-Soviet state institutions located in Moscow), where the Soviet government was located. Founders of the Soviet Unions would not agree to have two power centres in Moscow – one pan-Soviet and one “national” Russian one, thus Russian republican government has always had little power and influence.


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According to Bohdan Horyn, member of Ukrainian Soviet delegation on the talks in Moscow, both sides could not come to an agreement on the issue of national borders and official recognition of each other’s territorial integrity. Russians even offered to remove this conflicting point from a text of the treaty, because there were only administrative, but not state borders between Russia and Ukraine. After heated arguments, Russians agreed to a formula, when both sides would officially recognise each other’s state borders and territorial integrity within then-borders of Soviet Union. Bohdan Horyn rightly pointed out that while for Russians it was explicitly important to secure close ties of independent Ukraine’s to the Soviet Union, Ukrainians deemed this comprise to be Russia’s recognition of Ukraine’s state borders and its territorial integrity. “This rather serious compromise on the Russian side meant that in Russian perception free Ukraine is possible, but only possible within the concept of Soviet Union”, said Horyn. “In fact we were dealing with a slightly rephrased Lenin’s formula.” Hereby Horyn referred to a Lenin’s phrase in his “Critical Remarks on the National Question”, where he claimed that “Free Ukraine is only possible when Russian and Ukrainian proletariat act together. Without such unity Ukraine’s freedom will not even be discussed.”

Collapse of the Soviet Union has re-shaped the borders of Europe. Newly emerged countries, including Russia, had to sign various treaties with each other as well as with European states, recognising each other’s borders and territorial integrity. This has been done according to the 1975 Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Signatories of this treaty agreed to respect integrity of international borders that have emerged after the Second World War. 



Border issues


Russian president had a rather realistic understanding of the political environment and did not attempt to prevent USSR from collapsing. On the contrary, he has delivered the final blow to the collapsing Soviet state, by resisting the Soviet Communist power centre in Moscow. This, however, does not diminish the fact, that Russian political elite, including the former dissidents such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, have always assured that one way or another Ukraine has to be brought back and absorbed by Russia. From time to time Russian State Duma and Assembly of Federation voiced their claims over Crimea, Sevastopol and Black Sea fleet. In their relationship with Ukraine, Russia’s political circles attempted to avoid doing the obvious – recognising Ukraine’s state borders and its territorial integrity. 

On the 23 June 1992 Ukraine and Russia held diplomatic talks in Dagomys. Leonid Kravchuk and Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement delineating countries’ relationship and laying foundation for the future full-scale international treaty. Soon afterwards Russia’s Foreign Ministry delivered a draft treaty to Kyiv, where the second article of the draft was phrased in a way that Russia suggested to simply “adhere to the principle of mutual respect when it comes to recognising each other’s borders,” in other words – Russia diplomatically refused to recognise Ukraine’s borders as such. Needless to say, Ukraine declined to even review this draft. 

Article 2 of the following 1994 Russian draft has been radically modified. It has read as “signatories of this treaty respect each other’s territorial integrity, as well as inviolability of the border as per Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.” It seemed like Ukraine’s previous objections have finally been taken into account – but it was no more than diplomatic talks. Ukraine has not signed the aforementioned 1975 Final Act as an independent political entity. Moreover, this agreement was merely a political document, not a legally binding agreement, and has only confirmed inviolability of the Soviet borders. Nothing has been said about potential border-shifting within the Soviet Union, as well as between the states that emerged as a result of Soviet Union collapse in 1991. 

Ukraine offered a radically different draft. “Signatories recognise inviolability of the current state borders. Hereby they also confirm that they have no territorial claims to each other and they undertake that no such claims will be made in the future”. Such phrasing has been earlier used in Russia’s treaties with Poland and Hungary. Russian delegation has immediately dismissed the draft, openly admitting that phrasing it this way will make it impossible for the document to be ratified by the Russian State Duma. 


1997 solution 


Finally, two sides signed a Treaty of friendship, cooperation and partnership in 1997. This, however, was only possibly owing to two important factors. First of all, Ukraine agreed to compromise on the issue of Black Sea fleet. Despite the obvious historical background, the presence of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol could have been seen in violation with Ukrainian Constitution, which prohibited the presence of foreign military bases on Ukrainian soil. Secondly, Russian political circles realised that should they continue to openly ignore Ukraine’s demand to recognise its borders, Ukraine will make a permanent shift towards Europe and the West. Despite Russia’s annoyance and desperation, Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic officially began the process of acquiring membership in NATO.

The final draft of the Article 2 of the treaty was phrased as “Signatories of this treaty, according to the Charter of the United Nations as well as their obligations to Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, respect each other’s territorial integrity and recognise inviolability of each other’s borders.” Mentioning the UN meant both sides agreed to adhere to international legal standards when it comes to border inviolability. Ukraine insisted they wanted to see the phrase “state borders”, while Russia has only agreed to the word “border”, however, in the end this has not really influenced the true meaning of the document. Ukrainian territorial integrity as well as the Russian-Ukrainian border has been embodied in the international treaty.

In October 1997 Russian State Duma’s delegation, headed by Svetlana Goryacheva, arrived to Kyiv to discuss the ratification of the treaty. During the talks, Russians have several times touched upon potential common currency, military and political union, and unification of (already split) Black Sea fleet. Ukrainian delegation, led by Oleksandr Moroz, left to Moscow in December 1997. Both of these trips turned out to be fruitless. 


Ratification difficulties 


In March 1998 Gennadiy Seleznev, Speaker of Russian State Duma, invited Ukraine parliamentary delegation to participate in hearings organised in Moscow – “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between Russian Federation and Ukraine. The road to the new international relations”. Those hearings, however have not made any progress with regards to ratification – neither did Seleznev’s visit to Kyiv, where he met Leonid Kuchma, Valeriy Pustovoytenko and Borys Tarasyuk. In December speaker of Ukrainian parliament, Verkhovna Rada, Oleksandr Tkachenko, left for Moscow in order to demand ratification of the treaty, as promised by Seleznev. During his meetings with heads of Russian parliament, Yegor Stroyev and Gennadiy Seleznev, as well as then prime-minister, Yevgeniy Primakov and minister of foreign affairs, Igor Ivanov, Tkachenko claimed that he is in absolute control of Ukrainian Parliament (which was not entirely true, because until 2000 Verkhovna Rada was controlled by the leftists). Tkachenko noted that it is the parliament, that defines Ukraine’s foreign and domestic policy and only the parliament will decide on how close Ukraine will cooperate with NATO. This argument, not entirely sincere, happened to seem rather convincing for Russians.

There were different contrasting reactions of Russian MPs when it came to the treaty. Head of the Committee for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Georgiy Tihonov noted that “if this treaty has been backed by the Rukh (“The Movement”), who have been fighting against us during the Second World War, we cannot possibly ratify it”. Scandalous Russian politician, Zhirinovskiy went as far as to claim that the treaty has been drafted and approved by American spies. Such remarks were rare, nevertheless. On the 25 December 1998 Russian parliament passed a legislation titled “To ratify the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between the Russian federation and Ukraine”. On 17 February 1999 Assembly of Federation ratified the treaty. 

On 1 April 1999 Boris Yeltsin signed ratification. This meant that the nearly century-long process of separating Ukraine from Russia, which was first initiated by Central Council of Ukraine delegation headed by Volodymyr Vynnychenko in Petrograd in 1917, was finally over. There was an 82 years difference between those events – this is precisely how much Russian politicians needed to bitterly acknowledge Ukraine as an independent state. 


Declared maximum capacity


Soon after the delegations exchanged with each other official copies of the treaty, National institute of Ukrainian-Russian relations along with the Congress of Ukrainian Intellectuals have organised a round table to discuss the treaty. Participants of this treaty have tried to understand what was this agreement – a painful historical compromise, or a chance for the real partnership? Conversations at this round table were later published and we have an opportunity to compare their predictions with the nowadays reality. 

Ivan Dziuba has said that, “it seems to me that in the treaty, Ukraine has achieved its maximum capacity, at least of what could have be done as of today – only in declarations though”. He claimed that most of the articles of the treaty will not be adhered to, and some of them are not even possible to implement. He spoke of the article 12, which allowed protection of ethnic minorities, their culture and language, as well as prevention of ethnic assimilation in both countries. “How could we possibly even compare the scale of Russia’s cultural, language and information expansion in Ukraine to Ukraine’s presence in Russia?! We have to understand that this article will never be implemented on practice. We need another mechanism, which will protect Ukrainian interests in practice, rather than on a paper.”


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Yaroslav Yatskiv shared his impression of the treaty, based on his own experience. “Nothing has really changed in Russia neither since 1917, nor 1991… we are witnessing a desperate effort to revive an empire. Let me tell you about my experience – I have long worked with various Russian scientists and academics. When it comes to real life, in 1960s I was gently mocked as “banderite”, and now in 1990s Russians are asking me with astonishment, if I really believe that Ukraine will be independent?”

During his speech Mykola Zhulynskiy cited some excerpts from “Ukrainian separatism in Russia”, collection of articles published in Moscow. Namely, he cited several paragraphs from an article of some Mikhail Smolin, named “Ukrainian fog must vanish and then the Russian sun will rise”. In the article, Smolin writes that “Russians’ biggest domestic problem as a nation is Ukrainian issue. If we fail to solve this issue, it will lead to a tragedy, a scale of which we are not even able to imagine. Anything is possible, even the war as it happened in Yugoslavia. If Russian society and the Russian state will be passive and let the project of “Ukraine” establish itself on the soil of the Little Russia, as well as allow various Russophobic fairy tales and myths spread within Ukrainian society as well as among Little Russians living in Russia, very soon our [Russian] Motherland will face a fatal problem on its borders – the “State of Ukraine”.

Mykola Zhulynskiy was pessimistic in his conclusions: “We are trying to convince ourselves that Russia has some democratic intellectual circles, which will prevent imperialist, revenge seeking forces from taking over the power in Russia. We are desperately trying to make ourselves believe in the ability of progressive Russian intellectuals to dismiss the idea of a potential restoration of “united Russia”. Well, I guess we can only hope that this is the case.” 


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