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Russia and Ukraine

Ingo Mannteufel / sgbFebruary 2, 2014

For the Kremlin, the protests in Ukraine are not only about outside political influence. They raise questions about the relationship between state and citizens in Russia, writes DW's Ingo Mannteufel.

Ingo Mannteufel of DW's Russian service. (Photo: DW)
Ingo Mannteufel of DW's Russian serviceImage: DW

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukraine is more than just the key to creating a Moscow-dominated Eurasian Union as a counterweight to the European Union. The protests against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych - especially now that they have brought results - have had a profound effect on the Russian leader's political self-image.

The Russian view of an Eastern Slavic community

Here, the historical significance of Ukraine to Russia must be explained: In Russian eyes, Ukraine is its closest fraternal country. Indeed, many Russians find it difficult to acknowledge Ukrainian sovereignty. From an ethno-linguistic perspective, Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are eastern Slavs, who emerged in medieval times as a single cultural and linguistic community. For Russians, the 9th century state of Kievan Rus is the cradle of Russian statehood and the starting point of their own history.

Even today, some Russians consider themselves, Ukrainians and Belarusians to be a cultural unit - much to the chagrin of nationally conscious Ukrainians who see this Russian cultural embrace as an attack on their national independence and sovereignty.

But the idea of a centuries-long common East Slavic history is a double-edged sword for the Kremlin. On the one hand, it incessantly repeats the claim of Ukraine's close bond to Russia. On the other hand, Ukrainians' mass protests against their government could shake up the relationship between citizens and the state in Russia.

Protests against "those at the top"

If Ukrainians' demonstrations prove to be successful in imposing the popular will against President Yanukovych, many Russians will ask themselves if they too could bring about change by protesting against the situation in their own own country. The widespread belief in Russia that European liberal democracy does not fit East Slavic traditions would come into question.

And that's why the Kremlin has done everything to discredit the Ukrainian protest movement from the outset. The Russian media have depicted the demonstrators on the Maidan as a mob of nationalists and extremists controlled by foreign masterminds.

It would be wrong to deny that there are nationalist and radical groups among the protesters. This was certainly true of the activists who engaged in battles with police in Hruschevski Street in Kyiv's government district - a fact sometimes given too little attention in the German media.

Citizens or subjects?

But the conscious discrediting of the entire Ukrainian protest movement in the Russian media is meant to prevent the Ukrainian uprising from sparking political protest in Russia. The dissemination of such conspiracy theories has the clear objective of keeping Russian citizens in political apathy. It is hoped they will remain passive TV viewers and not disturb the ruling Kremlin elite.

The conflict between the protesters and President Yanukovych is about much more than the fate of Ukraine and Vladimir Putin's foreign-policy strategies. It raises the question of whether Russians might take their affairs into their own hands as citizens, or whether they are to remain mere subjects of the rulers in the Kremlin.