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The Russian Renovatio: The Ukraine Outcome You Don't Want to Think About

Pascal Le Segretain via Getty Images

In 1991, after raising her up for fifty years, calling her a "superpower" -- a title she had never held before -- in sudden victory the United States cruelly spurned its longtime Cold War helpmate and conjugal geopolitical partner. World terms had changed: We did not need her anymore. Worse yet, she was inconvenient, except in her fallen estate, to showcase our own celestial greatness. After decades of fidelity to the terms of US world primacy -- always accepting us as the senior superpower -- Mother Soviet's final act in history, in its fall and subsequent wreckage, was to exalt America's millennial seizure. History was ours now, and we brought it to a triumphal end.

So discarded, spurned, and reviled, we Americans left the Soviet Union's broken shards where they lay, on the ash heap of History: A monument to our contempt, we said, for all time.

But Holy Rossiya was still there. Not that we paid much attention in those days. We actually expected a Yeltsin Federation lap dog -- which we deigned to pat absent-mindedly from time-to-time, as in helping them take care of "loose nukes," like a nanny cleaning up an old mess. We even let them build a service module for the International Space Station (those Russians can do some things well, after all).

Yet we did not hesitate to casually diss them when it suited our sacred narrative. My vignette from Davos, 1994, is razor-etched in memory: There was Jeffrey Sachs -- for all the world, a Tom Wolfe "Master of the Universe" incarnate -- surrounded by fawning global machers and movers, all desperate to get just a little slice of face-time with a new god. And just what was the fount of his godhead? Why, it was the tough-love he was personally visiting on the former Soviet Union, the flagellant-penitentes course that would in the end, assuredly, make them all good Jeffersonian democrats.

[In retrospect, he sees things differently.]

Truth is, America not only helped Putin happen -- America guaranteed Putin. The once and future Czar was engineered by our shaming and defilement of After-Soviet Russia. Because we are such nationalist narcissists, if we ever even come to see this, we will still find a way to make it somehow all about ourselves. Thus we can chide ourselves about the perils of American Triumphalism, or scold about "blowback."

But it was never about us -- it was about them. It was about Russians. It was about how we treated a defeated idea that also happened to be a people with an identity force in history as strong as our own -- and a civilization that will never let itself be dismissed.

No single nation can, by an act of will however godlike, dismiss another's history. Our feckless gesture to do so in the 1990s only drove Russians into a deeper embrace of what they must save of their own: Historical memory whose passionate edge has been honed razor-sharp by us. What we did to After-Soviet identity may have been thoughtless. Our cruelty was surely casual, just as its course of dishonoring them was unseen by us, even as we told ourselves how we were doing them such big favors.

Put simply, the US treated Russia after 1991 exactly like the allies treated a defeated Germany after 1919, during and after the Versailles Conference. The United States helped oversee and then anointed the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, a geopolitical evisceration on a far grander scale than that visited on Germany in 1919. Much of this empire was glaringly artificial, so that the "loss" of the Baltic republics and the gaggle of "Stans" wrested from the body of Islam in Victorian times was no great loss, in the end, to Russian identity.

But Rossiya is a place in the heart: And thanks to Stalin's forced movements of peoples, it is a heart that beats in the Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, as much as in Russia. A restored realm could be a crown imperial, but it might also be a looser fraternal belonging: Yet to Russians it is still the irreducible proposition of identity.

So when you ask: What is going to happen in Ukraine? What is Russia going to do? These are not questions -- they are answers.

Russia is embarked today on its long-awaited Renovatio -- its restoration. The term renovatio is archaic, and has its origins in the old Roman Empire. In Late Antiquity, Roman universalism was several times brought down, and the empire collapsed: First in the 3rd century, and then the 5th, and then the 7th, and then the 11th centuries. Yet Rome rose again each time. The restoration and revival of Roman power and glory in all of these great crises was always rooted in Constantinople.

After the Ottoman conquest Constantinople as imperial seat, and imperial idea, migrated to Moskva -- as heir and successor. So it should come as no surprise that, like Byzantine ancestral spirits, Russians are receptive to the lure of Renovatio. Say it is in their blood, archaically, but everything in the world today is about archaic sources of identity -- because they drive identity. And identity drives everything.

Russia has also had its share of celebrated, glorious Renovatios: Like throwing off the Mongol yoke; like the renewal engineered by Peter the Great, bringing Muscovy into Europe and remaking it as "Russia"; like the Soviets themselves, bringing Rossiya back from the absolute ruin of World War I and then World War II to become, for the first time, the titular equal of the reigning world power -- the United States of America.

So what we are watching unfold before us is surely the hoped-for beginning of yet another Russian Renovatio -- and not just a dictator fantasy, but rather a collective desire -- "The Body" is being restored.

What will the restoration look like -- and how will it proceed?

Belarus and Kazakhstan were easy, and it is all done now. What is useful is how these parts of Rossiya were reunited without a surface transgression of cherished international legal fiction. Reunification does not necessarily require conquest. The re-absorption of Belarus and Kazakhstan into the orbit of Russian identity speaks to a real sophistication. A looser fraternity can be just as satisfying and just as final, as forcing everyone to wear the same color on a map.

But Ukraine is not so easy.

Before 1800, the Ukraine was a contested region, with a substantial part in the West substantially integrated as a part of Poland since the 15th century, and then part of Austria (post 1772). In fact, Western Ukraine was again Polish from 1921 to 1939.

It is cruelly, wonderfully true that the Ukraine of yore was perhaps humanity's most fertile, violent, shatterbelt border region, richest in myth and lore for all the fights and songs of fights which for hundreds of years, between Cossacks and Ottomans, Khanate fighters and Russians and bandits and ...

This is the place the Russians finally tamed, but never conquered. Romanovs simply incorporated it, but Soviets had to be smarter, and also crueler. Their ideology demanded that they at least genuflect to the ideal of identity and self-rule, but Ukraine still had to be punished for its role in the civil war -- to the tune of millions starved under Stalin. Yet was not the entire Soviet Union a constantly contradictory and destructive ideal of revolutionary Modernity?

But Stalin made a mistake in 1945. In the wake of final victory he insisted that Belarus and Ukraine be given seats in the United Nations General Assembly. Or was it such an error? You could argue that legitimating Ukraine and Belarus as independent states worthy of UN recognition was something of a triumph for the USSR. Here was the UN telling the world that the Soviet experiment was indeed a model of both self-determination and subsidiarity (a word not yet invented).

But such cold calculations then have surely backfired now.

The Soviets committed to a Ukraine whose borders were internationally inviolate. To revise that international determination requires a new legal construct for: 1-Ukraine as an independent nation, 2-Its relationship to Russia as a fraternal state.

What Putin is doing -- and to a great extent, has already done -- is to tear down the last shred of legitimate authority of the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine. Putin is saying: There are new terms, some de novo, and some hallowed in History.

But what will those new terms look like? What are Putin's options? What is his best path? What are his limits? How far can he go before he risks self-inflicted defeat?

The future of Ukraine -- or for Russia, The Ukraine -- comes down to three options:

1-Ukraine as Kazakhstan and Belarus -- Call Ukraine the last franchise of Russia, which is to say, something not so different from Stalin's offering to the UN: Russia and its sister republics. Here Putin could even give back titular control of Crimea, so that Ukraine might appear un-violated and still independent. This is Russia's best outcome -- an unruffled restoration. Save for one problem: What if Ukraine fights?

2-A battle that goes Russia's way -- Ukrainian resistance will force people to choose between Russia and Ukraine. Like the 1930s (in Central Europe) the West will not intervene. Russia will offer something of a solution. It will be called Ukrainian federalism, and will involve perhaps four semi-autonomous regions: Crimea, Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine, Middle Ukraine (including Kiev), and Western Ukraine. Check out the language maps to see how this might be parsed.

3-A bolt by far-western Ukraine to Poland -- Here you must look at the most revealing language map. See that the most linguistically loyal Ukrainians were actually part of Poland from 1921-1939, and before that part of either Poland or Austria for 500 years. This Ukrainian Greek Catholic bastion also represents the purest electoral commitment to a non-Russian Ukrainian consciousness: Because there is a Polish option. Remember, Poland and Lithuania were once joined as a federation, both separate and yet together. How about a modern-day Polish-Ukrainian equivalent?

This is no exercise in misplaced nostalgia -- because all the underpinning identity -- alignments are still in place. Moreover, from Putin's vantage, cutting off Western Ukraine rids him of the most troublesome obstacle to a bigger renovatio -- and his place as Once and Future Czar of all the Russians.

These West-most Ukrainians are the purest of the pure. They are the heart of what we have seen these past passionate and heroically bloody weeks. They are also obdurate and ready to die in resistance to Russia. I would wager that Putin wants nothing to do with this Catholic Ukrainian, Western spirit, and equally, would be all too happy to discard this small -- but fervent -- piece of Ukraine, if in exchange he might reclaim the whole of Russia itself.

But consider the downsides to this outcome. Far-western Ukraine joining up with Poland would tie the Poles to its defense. Poland is the strongest army in Europe, and well poised to defend Far-Western Ukraine against a rather ramshackle Russian Army. But absent authoritative American involvement, this would mean a face off for the future between Poland and Russia -- the stuff of centuries of conflict. Actors in Eastern Europe -- 75 years after -- would again be driving European politics -- and American national security itself.

Such an outcome, with Putin marshaling a realm again of 200 millions, would mean pulling off the impossible, even the unbelievable: A Russian Renovatio.

[There is always hope. Tikhon Dzyadko teases us with the tragicomedy of Russia's high command -- Putin too -- flying blind into a strategic peat bog. Remember though: Hope is not a strategy, and hope never writes history]

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