What Do Ukrainians Really Want From Russia?

Many in the West who have been following the news from my homeland may have been wondering about Russia's objectives in Ukraine. What is it that Putin really wants? Isn't it striking that every other op-ed seems to offer a hypothesis about it, but barely anybody is inquiring into what Ukraine wants from Russia?

Ukraine is a country of 45 million people, a country with a rich history that predates Russia by centuries, a fearlessly independent country with its own unique vision for the future. Shouldn't the media attention focus on the aspirations of the Ukrainian people and stop treating our nation as an object of somebody else's foreign policy? What we want from Russia boils down to one word -- respect. And what we hope is that our friends and partners in the West become more cognizant of how easily one might fall into the trap of Kremlin's narrative -- a narrative that attempts to deny Ukraine's right for self-determination.

Let's take, for instance, Kremlin's call for federalization of Ukraine. Coming from a country that calls itself a federation but doesn't allow the "states" within the "union" even the most basic of rights -- to elect a governor -- this proposition is an oxymoron. Yet, the most prominent western commentators, in good faith, delineate the pros and cons of federalization in Ukraine, neglecting the fact that such demand in and of itself is an insult. Surely, this is nothing but a ploy to undermine Ukraine's sovereignty, but that is beside the point. Debating the merits of this proclamation, we, willingly or not, legitimize Putin's frame, which supposes Kremlin's inherent right to intervene in the internal affairs of another state.

Without mutual respect, normal relations between two countries just can't exist. What I mean by respect is first and foremost acknowledging Ukraine as a nation, abandoning the rhetoric of Russians and Ukrainians being one people, suspending the demagogy of positioning the language as a wedge issue, when in fact, all Ukrainian citizens are free to choose what they speak without fear of repercussion. If Russia were to demonstrate respect, it would have to recognize that Ukraine is pursuing closer links with the EU on its own accord, not because we want to stick it to Kremlin, but because we are an independent people charting our own course.

I've conducted a brief survey on social media trying to understand the wider implications of the absence of respect in Kremlin's attitude towards Ukraine. What I found was alarming. Ukrainians less and less identify Russia as a friendly nation. The sentiment of mistrust is now so pervasive that many find it difficult to separate Putin's motives from the desires of the ordinary citizens of the Russian Federation. Few in Ukraine believe that the damage to the relations can be repaired quickly. I'm also concerned that similarly negative perceptions are poisoning the hearts and minds of the Russian people, all in the name of expanding Kremlin's sphere of influence and coercing bordering states into "friendships."

We, Ukrainians, do not seek to dominate our neighbors, dictate what policies they pursue or threaten anyone's territorial integrity. We want to foster relations based on trust will all nations, and we made a significant stride forward when we rejected nationalism and granted a strong political mandate in a single round of elections to our new President -- Petro Poroshenko. It is important, at this stage, that the leaders of Russia and Ukraine look beyond the string of events that brought us to a point where suspicion and hatred are beginning to dominate the discourse between our peoples.

Regardless of what one believes Putin motivations are, it is hardly disputable that the first step in normalizing the relations between our countries would be for Mr. Putin to pick up the phone and call to congratulate his counterpart in Kyiv. It is a unique window of opportunity for Russia's president to show due respect to his peer, and, on that condition, I am sure Mr. Poroshenko will do his best to reciprocate.