As Ukraine’s conflict with Russia enters into its fourth year, Kiev’s concerted efforts to separate itself from Moscow’s political orbit continues steadily apace. As Ukraine attempts to break economic, cultural and political relations with Russia many of the steps taken by its government and civil society have been motivated by straightforward security concerns. This was the case last year for instance when Ukraine banned the Russian social networking site “Vkontacte,” widely assumed to be penetrated by Russian security agencies. Others decisions, however, have relied on outsize symbolic gestures.
Case in point: Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan declared yesterday via social media that “bears will be the only transport to Moscow, just like they were in the good old days.” Yes indeed, the good old days of bear transport. Beyond the image of bears traveling by train, the larger story here is that four years into the conflict its long tail effects are manifesting in all sorts of unanticipated ways from travel bans to religious schisms. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was meant to keep Kiev within Moscow’s sphere of influence and under continued dependency. But the conflict has had the opposite effect, fostering a Ukrainian national identity rooted in civic nationalism and solidifying support for the nation’s independence.
Omelyan’s comments accompanied the announcement that he had signed a “historic document” that would ban all railway and bus traffic traversing over the Russian and Ukrainian border. But reality has not yet caught up to the boldness of the minister’s statement. The document he signed has not been presented to the public as of press time, and in any case, would have to be approved by the cabinet and the National Security and Defense Councils.
Direct flights between Ukraine and Russia were suspended in October of 2015. Travelers wishing to go from one nation to the other usually having to take Belarussian airlines with a layover in Minsk. However, it appears that Omelyan’s ministry is not ready to restrict Ukrainian citizens boarding Moldovan trains on their way north to Russia.
The cancellation of train transit is part of a larger set of countermeasures Ukraine is undertaking in retaliation for Russia methodically blocking maritime and trade navigation within the Sea of Azov. For its part, the Russian navy recently stepped up its pressure against Kiev by expanding its boarding and inspection of Ukrainian port bound cargo vessels.
Earlier today, Omelyan went on live Ukrainian television in order to enumerate his reasons for why Ukrainians should not be traveling to the Russian Federation. Foremost was protecting Ukrainian citizens from “falling into the paws of the FSB,” Russia’s feared domestic intelligence agency. And, in any case, he informed his fellow citizens “in the midst of a war you should not be going there anyway.” Ukraine never officially declared war on Russia, however.
Though the travel restrictions are meant to punish Russia they will impact many Ukrainians who have family across the border or have gone in search of the significantly higher wages offered for temporary work. An estimated 4 million Ukrainians cross the Russian border every year according to Ukrainian government statistics. The many critics of the proposed travel ban legislation point to these social costs and the fact that it would disproportionately fall on ordinary working class Ukrainians, who can’t afford to fly and are forced to take day-long trains.
In another dimension of the ongoing conflict, the Ukrainian Orthodox church now seems to be mere months away from receiving recognition of its autocephaly from Constantinople and thus breaking away from the Moscow patriarchy of the Russian Orthodox church. This cleavage of the link between the Moscow and Kiev patriarchies would represent the most significant schism in the Orthodox church in four centuries.
Finally this week, new economic reports show that Ukrainian exports to the European Union are now at least five times greater than Ukrainian exports to Russia, once the country’s main trading partner. It is hard to overestimate how powerful these sorts of shifts are in reshaping the geographical, cultural and political space of Eastern Europe.
It does not seem that there is any way now to repair what has been torn asunder. From Moscow’s vantage point, the train may have already left the station.