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Europe needs Russia and Ukraine together

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It would be more sensible for all parties involved to stop fighting this natural affinity, and instead incorporate it into a new and more comprehensive paradigm of European identity. The current Western paradigm, as the late historian Martin Malia has pointed out, excludes Russia by treating it as a subspecies of “Oriental despotism.” [10] Given Russia’s pre-eminent role in the Orthodox world, this amounts to denying all the primarily Slavic and Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe the ability to participate as equals in the re-definition European identity.  Western Europe’s alienation from itw own Byzantine roots has thus perpetuated Cold War divisions in people’s minds, long after they disappeared from the political map.

Two decades ago, former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt foresaw this very danger, and warned of the need to embrace a broader conception of Europe. “We also know,” he wrote presciently, “that the historical spiritual reality of Europe does not consist of . . . the [European Economic] Community, but that Byzantium and Novgorod, Krakow and Prague have also contributed to our old common civilisation. And  our concept of Europe will one day have to once again encompass the whole intellectual and artistic life of our Eastern European neighbours if we do not wish to become impoverished. [11]

Until the rich heritage of Byzantium truly becomes Europe’s common cultural inheritance, proclamations by Russian and Ukrainian leaders of their European bona fides will continue to fall on deaf ears. Working together is the only way they stand a chance of bringing about the fundamental change in Western attitudes that is needed to place the task of European integration on a solid footing.  

It would therefore be an unexpected boon for all Europeans if, as a result of this latest crisis, Ukrainian elites finally realized the pivotal contribution they could make to European security by re-casting Ukrainian identity from a border region (Russia’s border with Europe; Europe’s border with Russia) into a European cultural center binding its Eastern and Western halves. Doing so would offer Western Europeans a manageable bridge for integrating Orthodoxy into their political and cultural horizons, while at the same time serving as an opening for Russia, which can hardly disavow this part of its heritage, into Europe.

Ukrainian politicians who embrace such a strategy will find a largely untapped domestic constituency eager to support it, as well as allies in Russia and Belarus, two of the country’s most important economic trading partner, eager to assist.

This combination might just be enough to allow Ukrainian society to overcome the malaise that has been afflicting it for the past two decades.
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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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