KYIV — Few patriots would appreciate an outsider comparing a chunk of their country to finger food.
But when Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny did just that to Ukrainians in 2014 — saying that Moscow-annexed Crimea wasn’t just “a sausage sandwich to pass back and forth” — it struck an especially sensitive nerve, considering his country had just dismembered theirs.
Fast forward nearly seven years: Amid the anti-corruption campaigner’s momentous new confrontation with the Kremlin, which landed him in prison and sparked protests across Russia, many in Ukraine haven’t forgotten that comment — or others they see as hints that Navalny might not be Kyiv’s strongest ally if he’s ever in charge of the huge country next door.
Viewed from Kyiv, it’s almost as if Navalny were two people, not one.
On the one hand, he is a staunch opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country has seized control of the Crimean Peninsula and supported militants who hold parts of eastern Ukraine and are fighting government forces in a simmering war that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.
Remarks That Rankled
The other Navalny, to some in Ukraine, is a Russian nationalist whose remarks, particularly in the past, have deeply rankled. The result is a range of responses to the 44-year-old who, particularly since his return to his homeland in January after treatment abroad for a poisoning he blames on Putin, is the Russian president’s most prominent foe.
“It’s interest, it’s a feeling of danger, it’s slight hope, it’s distrust — a sort of very complicated cocktail,” said Ivan Yakovina, a Russian-born commentator for the Ukrainian newsweekly NV.
It was not his only comment on Ukraine, or on Crimea for that matter, but the remark Navalny made in an interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station in October 2014, seven months after Russia seized the peninsula, has become a focal point for criticism for many in Ukraine.
It’s one of a number of comments in which he has put forth positions more subtle than Putin’s or the “Crimea is ours” mantra of Kremlin cheerleaders — for example, Navalny prefaced the “sausage sandwich” remark by saying that the Black Sea peninsula was seized through “egregious violations of all international regulations” – but they rankle nonetheless.
Also unsettling for many in Ukraine was a 2018 tweet in which he blasted Putin for policies he said resulted in the Orthodox Church of Ukraine breaking off from the Russian church, saying the president “and his idiots” had “destroyed in four years what was created over centuries” and calling him an “enemy of the Russian world.”
Combined with his past association with nationalist politics in Russia — an issue that came to the fore on February 23, when Amnesty International revoked his “prisoner of conscience” designation over past remarks — Navalny’s pronouncements have fueled suspicions that he espouses the same sort of attitude toward Ukraine as the government he is fighting.
Although he has condemned Russian aggression against Ukraine and drawn attention to his local roots – he has family in a village outside Kyiv and spent portions of his youth there — he has not been as supportive of Ukraine’s plight as many Ukrainians might have liked.
Since his near-fatal poisoning in Siberia last August, many headlines, opinion columns, and talk shows in Ukraine have posed what they put as a central question: Is Navalny good for Ukraine?
Speaking on Ukrainian television shortly after Navalny was arrested upon return to Russia last month, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba supported protesters’ calls for his release and echoed a sentiment shared by many of his compatriots, saying, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Yet he also cautioned against romanticizing Navalny as a figure and insisted he would need to apologize on behalf of his country and work to return Crimea if he were to end up in a position of power.
“There should be no illusions here,” Kuleba said.
Whatever mistrust Ukrainians harbor toward Navalny is likely rooted in the broader dynamics between the two countries, experts say.
The complex and often strained relationship between Ukraine and Russia, its ruler under tsars and the Soviet state, has long colored domestic and foreign politics on both sides of the border.
Many Ukrainians are doubtful about Russia’s potential to democratize and mend fences with its neighbors, according to Taras Berezovets, a Crimean-born political analyst in Kyiv.
“This postimperial trauma affects all our feelings about Russians and Russian politicians,” he said.
But the possibility of political change in Russia may be one reason many Ukrainians have followed the dramatic developments since Navalny’s return to Moscow with interest. According to the BBC, nearly 10 percent of the more than 100 million views of Navalny’s recent bombshell investigation into a billion-dollar Black Sea palace allegedly built for Putin came from Ukraine.
Still, some observers describe a tendency among Ukrainians to disassociate themselves from the political tumult in Russia — in part because they are more concerned with their own country’s affairs. Seven years after their own pro-democratic protest movement toppled Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, many remain dismayed by problems such as persistent corruption and the slow pace of reforms.
Human rights defender Oleksandra Matviychuk, head of the Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv, worries that many of her colleagues aren’t paying enough attention to the Kremlin’s crackdown on its opponents — even though, she says, many of their Russian counterparts provided crucial support in Ukrainians’ time of need.
Besides, she argues, there’s no escaping the fact that Russia, as a neighboring country, will remain an important political player for Ukraine no matter who’s in charge in Moscow.
“We can close our eyes and say we’re not interested in what’s going on,” said Matviychuk, “but the experience of our own country shows that actually we really need to follow what’s happening there.”
Wait And See
Navalny is due to spend the next 2 1/2 years in prison, and his main apparent political goal for now seems relatively modest: to dent Putin’s power by undermining the ruling United Russia party in parliamentary elections expected in September.
Putin has been president or prime minister since 1999, and now has the right to seek to remain in office until 2036. Nonetheless, many Ukrainians wonder how relations would develop if the Putin era were to come, sooner or later, to an end.
Despite the bad blood, most experts don’t preclude the possibility of dialogue in the future.
For one thing, Berezovets contends, any new leader not associated with Putin would face enormous international pressure. “They would have no option but to negotiate with Ukraine and Western countries,” he said.
Others are intrigued by the idea of a future in which Russia and Ukraine could be steered toward one another if what NV commentator Yakovina called “like-minded people” were at the helm.
He pointed to Navalny’s U.S. education — the anti-corruption campaigner completed a 2010 fellowship at Yale University — and what he called the Russian opposition leader’s non-Soviet outlook, and said a Ukrainian counterpart with a similar background could make an effective partner.
“It would even be easier for them to carry on a dialogue with one another than inside their own country with people of a different generation and a different level of education,” he said.