• Українська
  • Русский
  • English
Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Zbigniew Brzezinski: “Ultimately Ukrainian independence can only be built and sustained by the Ukrainian people themselves”

31 March, 1998 - 00:00

By Arkady Sydoruk

Ukrainian People’s Deputy and Presidential candidate Yevhen MARCHUK:
“I am glad through the newspaper to welcome Zbigniew Brzezinski’s jubilee.
Zbigniew Brzezinski is a great friend of Ukraine and has supported us on many issues in the international arena. He is a thinker of the highest caliber and a political scientist of the present day. I was with him
at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and have repeatedly met him at various forums.
I am certain that this person will still contribute much for the analysis of current global problems.
Ukraine is permanently the object of his very deep and serious attention. I believe our politicians
should listen to Brzezinski’s ideas. He has foreseen so many things”.

On March 28, Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of Ukraine’s most influential advocates abroad and perhaps the world’s most influential political scientist, turned seventy. In the absence of an effective Ukrainian lobby and often incompetent Ukrainian foreign policy, Dr. Brzezinski has always been clear and consistent in his assessments about our country. As early as the 1970s he foresaw a “crescent of instability” in the Middle and Near East, a prognosis confirmed by subsequent events in Afghanistan and Iran. He also predicted the “inevitable” collapse of communism along with the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union. Later he advocated Western aid for radical economic reform in the postcommunist world and NATO expansion eastward long before these became official Washington policies.

During a discussion in Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, Brzezinski was asked, “If you were one of the candidates in the Presidential election right now and won, what would your foreign policy be toward Ukraine and how would you try to help it?”

“I would certainly try to do everything I can to confirm American involvement in Ukraine and to widen it,” he replied. “I think, to start, our embassy is too small and our presence insufficient. I would like to encourage American business in to move into Ukraine, and I would like to encourage reciprocal links between Ukraine and Central Europe, because I think that would contribute to the consolidation of the kind of Ukraine which is so desirable for Europe and which would also help in turn the transformation of Russia. And this is why I view a close association with Ukraine not as an anti-Russian policy but rather as a policy which helps the consolidation of democracy in Russia.”

Brzezinski is drawn to Ukraine not only by political sympathies but also by family ties. His father is buried in the Lviv region, and he himself recently became an honorary citizen of Lviv. Understanding the potentially important role Ukraine could play in Europe, he has been a leading advocate of Polish-Ukrainian cooperation. As an independent and sober analyst, he understands completely the ambivalence of Ukraine’s place on the international scene, that while winning broad recognition after independence, it has still to find its place in the world, wavers between East and West, and finds its place with neither.

Brzezinski believes the US was tardy in recognizing Ukraine’s geopolitical importance. At the same time, since the seventeenth century Ukraine has had a tradition of political double-dealing, often with catastrophic consequences for the nation. As always, Brzezinski is blunt, pointing out that a problem exists of Ukraine’s very self-determination as an independent state. Immediately espied are differences in principle between Brzezinski’s views and those of the architects of Ukrainian foreign policy. While the latter announce a so-called multidirectional course in foreign policy, Brzezinski believes that Ukraine has only two real alternatives: integration into the CIS and with it a return to its traditional dependence on Russia or firmly setting out to become a Central European state and full-fledged member of the world community. He finds it obvious that this depends above all on the progress and content of economic reform and political democratization in Ukraine. For how can a country hope to be successful abroad when continuing to suffer chronic political and socioeconomic crisis at home?

Working with ITAR TASS in Washington I interviewed Zbigniew Brzezinski a number of times and was present at his press conferences. Some excerpts are:

Q: Was the collapse of the Soviet Union the verdict of history or a fancy by three bad guys?

A: I think it’s clearly the verdict of history because by 1992 it was clear that the only way the Soviet Union could be preserved was through massive use of force. Massive use of force in turn would have to entail a dictatorship in Russia itself. In brief, the empire could only be preserved by a dictatorship. And in my view, neither the dictatorship nor the empire are desirable solutions to the problems of the people who inhabit the former Soviet Union. In December 1991 the Soviet Union was viewed by most people as an illegitimate system. They (Yeltsin, Kravchuk, and Shushkevich) faced reality in that they recognized that the multinational empire could no longer be maintained except by brutal force which would as a consequence condemn the Russian people to permanent dictatorship.

Q: What was the main reason for the break-up of the Soviet Union, nationality problems or economic problems?

A: The two reinforced one another. Poor conditions made people generally unsatisfied, and national awareness was growing over the years, even though it was artificially delayed by the massacres of the non-Russian intelligentsia in the years of the Yezhovshchina and the Beriovshchina. Nonetheless, even in spite of these massacres, trends of national awareness were becoming more pervasive in keeping with trends which are global in scope. Just as the French or British Empires could not be artificially sustained, neither could the Soviet Empire be sustained anymore except through massive use of force.

Q: What’s your perception of the CIS? I personally wonder whether it’s really vital. Is it a transitional arrangement? Will it survive or does it exist?

A: It exists in a limited sense, and it also survives in a very differentiated sense, that is to say, some of the former Soviet republics will have closer relations with each other than others. Some will have very loose relations with Moscow and the CIS, and some will stay outside or perhaps even depart from the CIS. I would not be surprised if Ukraine at some point left the CIS altogether.

Q: Our impression is that the outgoing Bush Administration responded politely to the break-up of the Soviet Union. What’s your assessment of that?

A: I think the Administration entertained the same illusions that Gorbachev entertained, namely that the former Soviet Union could be preserved under the leadership of a KGB-sponsored perestroika, because I think it is increasingly evident that the perestroika in general and Gorbachev personally were part of the KGB effort to modernize the Soviet Union. The failure of that effort came as a surprise to Gorbachev. It also came as a surprise to Bush. You may remember Bush’s speech in Kyiv which has been called the Chicken Kyiv speech.

Q: What can and should be the policy of the new Administration regarding Russia and the CIS?

A: I think it is very important that the United States supports Yeltsin and the democratic forces in Russia and at the same time supports the consolidation of the new non-Russian states. Their consolidation increases the chances that Russia can become a democratic non-imperial state. And that clearly is in the long-range interests of the Russian people themselves. Only in a non-imperial democratic state are they likely to enjoy eventually a life under a democratic system with increasing economic prosperity. If the non-Russian states become weak and nationalist, imperialist forces in Russia are encouraged to try to reimpose the old Soviet Union, the chances for democratic growth in Russia, for closer relations with the West, and for prosperity will be dramatically reduced. This is why I always say that encouraging the emergence of a non-imperial or post-imperial Russia is in the interests of the Russian people itself.

Q: There are some people in Russia who do hope that the Soviet Union will be restored. Is this possible, is this feasible from a historical point of view?

A: I doubt that it can be restored fully. I think it possible that it could be restored partially but at the cost of Russia becoming a political dictatorship and an economic slum. The fact of the matter is that to maintain an empire or to reestablish the empire would require regular force, would be economically costly, and politically demoralizing. Hence, to restore the Soviet Union is to condemn the Russian people to live in poverty under a new form of dictatorship...

It will take a long time, but if Japan can have a functioning democracy, Korea can have a functioning democracy, I think it would be a gratuitous insult to the Russian people to say that they are not able to have a democracy. I’m convinced that the Russian people have the potential for being a modern democratic post-imperial state, but to reach that objective will require political courage and decisive steps by the current political leadership...

The imperial instinct reflects the past, and it will take time for it to disappear. It wasn’t easy in France and is not easy in Russia, but I think there’s a chance that it will succeed.

I think what will happen in Russia and Ukraine is of decisive importance for the future of the world, and I’m very happy to engage in a dialog with Russian and Ukrainian intellectuals through you.

From an interview conducted in December 1992


I view the emancipation and consolidation of a free Ukrainian state as a very important historically and geopolitically development. In fact, if one were to look at the map of Europe in the course of this century I think one would be compelled to conclude that the emergence of Ukraine as a truly independent state is one of perhaps three most important changes in the geopolitical contours of Europe, in the geopolitical map of Europe. The first would involve the collapse of imperial Germany and of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Wake of World War I. That precipitated a massive transformation of the geopolitical map of Europe. The second historically important change was, of course, the division of Europe into two parts as a consequence of World War II and in that context Soviet supremacy over half of Europe. The third most important change in the map of Europe is indeed the emergence of Ukraine because it signifies the sudden appearance in Europe of a state with more than fifty million people whose very existence terminates the existence of the Russian Empire, and that is what makes it so historically and geopolitically important.

The Russian Empire emerged largely on the basis of the acquisition by Muscovy of Ukraine some more than three hundred years ago, and that was the dynamic point of departure for the creation of a very major empire that has played, obviously, a most significant role in world affairs in subsequent centuries. The disappearance of that empire just as the disappearance worldwide of the British Empire or of the French Empire is truly a seminal development in international politics, and the existence of Ukraine makes that a fact. If Ukraine were not independent, one could not speak of the disappearance of the empire, and, thus, crucial to the future of Europe is, in fact, the existence of Ukraine and in that context and by itself the Ukrainian-Russian relationship: how it evolves, what will it involve, what shape will it assume, how peaceful, friendly, accommodating or unstable, conflictive, and dangerous will it be.

Clearly from the American and European point of view, and, I would argue, clearly from the Russian as well as Ukrainian point of view the best outcome would be a peaceful stable relationship, one of genuine coexistence and accommodation, of relatively open frontiers for goods and people, much like the relationship between the United States and Canada. But one cannot exclude the possibility of the opposite...

Beyond the question of the Russian-Ukrainian relationship, there is also the question of Ukraine’s own position regarding its neighbors, its own self-definition as a nation, and that has bearing also on the evolution of Europe and of the former Soviet Union...

Ukraine, I think, is in a position to determine whether the Commonwealth in effect progressively dissolves or whether the Commonwealth is merely a temporary accommodation, a prelude to later reconsolidation of a greater degree of central control.

If the Commonwealth were dissolved, if Ukraine asserts increasingly a totally independent status, then the question of Ukraine’s relationship with Central Europe will become increasingly clearer. Indeed, one could argue that this represents the other major alternative for Ukraine. Assuming that conflict with Russia is avoided, a major strategic choice might well be collaboration with a Commonwealth which is some degree reintegrates itself or a self-definition as a Central European state in which Ukraine’s relations with its neighbors such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania in a sense are the central foci of Ukrainian relations, and Ukraine sees itself essentially as a Central European state culturally and in the longer range also, in the wake of Hungary’s and Poland’s entry into the Common Market, a respected member of the European community.

There are some strategic forks in the road ahead depending on how the Ukrainian-Russian relationship evolves, depending on how the Commonwealth itself survives or fades, depending on how Ukraine itself defines itself. But beyond that there also internal issues to think about. The fact of the matter is that Ukraine is faced with an economic legacy as difficult to overcome as the one being faced by Russia. 74 years of communism have destroyed much of the extraordinarily gifted and productive Ukrainian farming class, and today the majority of Ukrainian collective farms are staffed by older women and men; it’s still a theater of flight to the city. It is going to be difficult to decollectivize in that setting, and to reproduce what was once Ukraine’s gift to the rest of the empire, namely, its extraordinary agricultural productivity.

There is the problem of industry. A significant segment of the former Soviet military industry is concentrated in Ukraine. It so happens also that it operates in a region inhabited heavily by Russians, who were born in Ukraine and a majority of whom voted for Ukrainian independence, but who could become disillusioned and restless if economic conditions deteriorate. It isn’t clear that they voted for Ukrainian independence because they passionately desired from a political point of view Ukraine’s independence. There is, I think, some grounds for suspecting that many of them voted accordingly because they felt that this would entail an improvement in their economic well-being, but if economic conditions were to deteriorate, the Russian minority of approximately ten to eleven million people out of a total of 52 could become politically restless, and that could greatly complicate the Russian-Ukrainian relationship and further accentuate internal tensions.

Related to that is the question of the pace of democratization. Ukraine still has a long way to go in terms of internal democratic institutionalization if it is to be, for example, considered a Central European country. The processes of democratization in Hungary or Poland are far more advanced. The same cannot be said of Romania but can be said of Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia. And Ukrainian participation in the European community of nations will therefore also depend on the pace and depth of the general democratization of the Ukrainian state...

Probably the next three to five years are going to be the most difficult of all. I think these will be the years that will define and determine whether Ukraine truly endures and thereby transforms on a lasting basis the map of Europe. There was, after all, another period of independence in Ukraine’s history some seventy-five years ago, and it did not succeed. I think this time Ukraine has a high probability of success, but one should not minimize the danger that Ukraine faces. Its national statehood may indeed be consolidated if the economic reforms are successful, if the political system continues to be stabilized, if the conflict with Russia doesn’t get out of hand because of demagogic or imperialistic aspirations from one or the other side, but there is the risk of fragmentation, and especially this risk will be coinciding with a period of extreme tension and difficulty within Russia itself. Russia today at the highest political level is dominated by people who in my judgment accept the reality of an independent Ukraine and are prepared to strive for a new relationship with it. I put Yeltsin in that category... But it’s also a fact that there are many people in Moscow who cannot accept the idea of an enduring, separate Ukrainian state, many who still view it as an aberration, that this is not real, that this is a transient phenomenon associated with internal crisis in Russia itself and who hope that once this crisis passes some reconsolidation will take place. If the democratic reforms ongoing in Russia were to fail, if a highly nationalistic movement were to come to power, one could anticipate in that context a serious deterioration in the Russian-Ukrainian relationship. This in my judgment would be tragic for both nations, but it would be particularly dangerous for Ukraine because it would be likely to occur within the next three to five years, at a time when still the political institutions will be fragile, when the economic system will still be in the early stages of very difficult reforms. This is why it’s so important that Ukraine consolidate its international recognition and has make remarkable progress in that respect thanks the efforts of its Foreign Minister and its President. But it is also important that it establishes a successful independent financial system, which is the point of departure for self-management in the economy, and that it creates a truly national army that represents Ukrainian statehood and is committed to its endurance...

From an address in the Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 1992


Ukraine’s future depends on Ukraine becoming in the foreseeable future a de facto Central European state. It is culturally part of the Central European tradition, but it has to become politically and economically a genuine part of Central Europe if it is to survive. This orientation will give Ukraine its own geopolitical identity, one that separates it from its more traditional connection with Eurasia through Russia. Ukraine is already connected with the Central European Initiative. Now, Ukraine must face the fact that Central Europe will also be part of NATO. Central Europe will also become part of the European Union someday. If Ukraine is to become a genuine Central European state, these realities will have to be confronted. The will not come to pass probably for another ten or fifteen years, but it will be important for Ukraine to be ready to exercise whatever option it chooses for the sake of its future and well-being.

From a paper delivered at a l996 conference organized by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and George Washington University

“The Ukrainian people have to bear in mind that independence can only be an enduring reality and the basis for national prosperity and personal dignity if it is based on dedicated work that is derived from a sense of national self-reliance, for ultimately Ukrainian independence can only be built and sustained by the Ukrainian people themselves,” Zbigniew Brzezinski is convinced.


ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI was born on March 28, 1928. In 1953-1960 he was professor at Harvard University and in 1960-1989 at Columbia University. In 1963 the US Chamber of Commerce named him one of the nation's top ten young scholars. In 1969 he became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1966-68 he served as a member of the Policy Planning Council of the US State Department and in 1977-1981 was National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter. For his role in the normalization of US-Chinese relations he was awarded the distinguished Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is now concurrently Counselor at the Center for International and Strategic Studies and Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University. Among his books are the bestseller, The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the 20th Century, Game Plan: How to Conduct the US-Soviet Contest, Out of Control: Global Turmoil in the 21st Century, and The Grand Chessboard.

Arkady F. Sydoruk is a journalist, political scientist, and translator. A graduate of Shevchenko National University in Kyiv in 1979-1988 he was first RATAU and later TASS correspondent in New York. In 1992-1995 he was TASS correspondent in Washington. From 1996 to January 1998 he was editor of Politics and the Times, published by the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs


By Arkady Sydoruk