Serhii Plokhy, professor of history at Harvard University, is the 25th winner of the Lionel Gelber Prize for his book The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union. Serhii Plokhy will receive his award and deliver a free public lecture on April 21 at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto.
Last Sunday, as Orthodox Christians throughout the world celebrated Easter, many in Ukraine's war-torn Donbass region prayed for peace. It did not come. That day, in fact, the shelling intensified. According to Ukrainian authorities, there were 11 mortar attacks by Russian-backed separatists. In villages on the Ukrainian side, people were afraid to go to church to bless their Easter bread, and in some places Easter services were cancelled altogether. Monday brought artillery shelling and tank attacks. Six Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 12 wounded. On Wednesday, OSCE observers counted more than 700 explosions around the city of Donetsk.
This kind of news no longer makes headlines in the West. It has become the norm, despite the recently signed Minsk II agreement negotiated by Germany's Angela Merkel and France's François Hollande. The key factor in the lack of progress remains the position of Russia, which continues to arm, supply and reinforce with its mercenaries the separatist armies in Ukraine's east. Why does Russia do so?
Some world leaders, including Ms. Merkel, have suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin is living in another world. Former American president Bill Clinton thinks Mr. Putin is trying to restore the greatness of Russia as a 19th-century empire. Mr. Putin denies that. But he has never concealed his regret, even bitterness, about the fall of the Soviet Union. In a speech on the occasion of the Russian annexation of the Crimea in March, 2014, he referred to the Soviet collapse as a form of robbery of Russia.
That month, the Soviet empire that had disappeared 23 years earlier struck back as the Russian leadership decided to rewrite history. The saga of Soviet disintegration seems to have taken an unexpected turn. What happened in 1991, however, can not only help explain the origins of the current crisis, but also suggest a solution.
In late November, 1991, on the eve of the Ukrainian referendum that showed overwhelming (more than 90 per cent) support for independence, then-president Boris Yeltsin of Russia explained to U.S. president George H.W. Bush that Russia would not stay in the Soviet Union if Ukraine departed – it did not want to be outnumbered and outvoted by the Muslim republics of Central Asia. Mr. Yeltsin's advisers were telling him that Russia could not afford to subsidize other republics: Oil prices were barely above $20 per barrel, after falling to $10 earlier in the year.
Like many other former imperial powers, Russia opted out of the empire because it lacked the resources to keep the costly imperial project going. Unlike most of its counterparts, however, it kept the rich oil and gas resources of the empire – most of the Soviet oil and gas reserves were located in Russian Siberia. Russian control over oil and gas resources made divorce from the empire in 1991 easier in economic terms and prevented armed conflict between Russia and the republics that declared independence. Over the past decade, rising oil and gas prices have made it possible for Russia to rebuild its economic potential and military might, allowing it to reopen the question of disputed borders and territories and step up its efforts to gather back the Soviet republics more than 20 years after the Soviet Union's collapse.
But the events of the past year have shown that there is no easy way back to the imperial past. Russia has paid an enormous political and economic price for its venture into Ukraine. The pressure of Western sanctions, coupled with low oil prices, helped to send Russia's economy into recession. The annexation of the Crimea, which now drains more money from Russia's state budget than Chechnya, and the ongoing war in the Donbass add to the existing price tag.
The time has come for the Russian leadership and the public at large to look back at 1991 not as a year of humiliation to be overcome, but as a time when the Russian leadership realized that the age of empires was over and made a number of pragmatic political and economic decisions that benefited Russia not only in the short but also in the long term.