The recent dismissal of Mikhail Zurabov, Moscow’s ambassador to Kiev has raised many important points. One of the more salient points is ‘why does Moscow still have representation in a capital whose rulers are openly hostile to Russia’? This is best addressed by contrasting recent Moscow-Kiev relations with those between Iran and the United States since 1979.
Whilst there are countless historical differences, there are some strange political parallels between the Iran Revolution of 1979 and the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in 2014. The differences are more obvious. For most of its long history Persia (later Iran) was an independent kingdom. Even incursions by the Umayyad and later Abbasid Arab Caliphates were not wholly destructive forces, as the Arabs in Persia adopted some Persian customs and often ruled alongside ethnic Persians. The only serious destruction to the sovereignty of Iran came during the 13th century Mongol invasions of Persia under Genghis Khan, a destructive period Russians can historically relate to.
By contrast, there has never been a true Ukrainian state until the 20th century. The early 20th century Ukrainian States were short lived and were tainted by the shadow of multi-party civil wars. A Ukrainian state as one knows it only came about in 1991 and did so according to the historically arbitrary borders of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, drawn in the 1920s. The history of the region was historically divided between three great powers, the Russian Tsardom, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Ottoman Empire. Areas of Eastern and South Eastern Ukraine were effectively Ottoman until the rule of Catherine The Great in the 18th century.
Except for far western regions which remind Polish territory until being granted to Austria after the defeat of Napoleon, central and north east regions were formally part of Russia since 1667 when the Truce of Andrusovo was agreed between Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In reality, such areas were Russian as early as 1654 when Cossack Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky beseeched Russia for military assistance in his rebellion against his Polish-Lithuanian overlords.
Unlike ethnic Persians who have a well-established, ancient identity, the idea of a uniquely Ukrainian identity is a very recent intellectual phenomenon. The culture and language of the region is a synthesis of Polish and Russian. The word Ukrainian itself simply translates to ‘borderland’, which explains why many in Kiev today want to call themselves Rus (adopting a Russian identify) whilst they insist on referring to people living in the modern Russian Federation as ‘Muscovy’, something which in this context is an intentionally derogatory term.
But onto more recent political realities. In 1979 Iran adopted a foreign and ideological policy which was specifically anti-American. This along with the capturing of hostages at the American embassy in Tehran led to the end of US diplomatic relations with Iran, which until the revolution had been the closet American ally in the region. Even after the Obama brokered nuclear agreement of 2016, Iranian officials continue represent themselves to Washington via the neutrality of the Swiss Embassy and US interests in Tehran are communicated via the Embassy of Pakistan.
The current rulers in Kiev have made their regime officially anti-Russian, both in terms of pursuing policies which discriminate against and debase ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, but also in terms of policy towards the Russian Federation. Waving a Russian flag in front of the Rada in Kiev is today as dangerous as waving the American flag in front of the Iranian Parliament in 1979.
Yet perhaps surprisingly, Russia has not broken off relations with Kiev. The precedent set by US-Iranian relations would have put Russia in a good place to do so, even if temporarily.
This implies several things. First of all, it shows that the Russian government is not willing to discard centuries of shared history, culture and government due to the whims of a radical government which does not speak to the concerns of ordinary people. Secondly, it demonstrates what many in the world believe, that a government whose founding principle is hatred, cannot withstand the storms and stresses of daily events. This is especially true of a government prone to infighting, physical violence and a kind of corruption that would make a Goodfellas style mod boss blush.
The Iranian revolution was an internal struggle between many factions ranging from communist on one side to theocratic on the other. Had a Communist, liberal or moderate conservative faction won the revolution, the consequences would have been antithetical to those which transpired in the wake of the formation of an Islamic Republic.
The events in Ukraine in 2014 were different. The chaos represented a small band of people, with interests as dangerous as narrow, being funded and encouraged by external powers.
Perhaps the fact that Russia has maintained its quiet diplomatic presence in Kiev means that normalcy may one day return to Kiev, bringing with it the peace and prosperity which all peoples deserve.