A pro-Western foreign policy lasted barely a few years in the early 1990s. During this brief period, Boris Yeltsin rejected the concept of Russia acting as an ‘elder brother’ of the non-Russian nations. In September 1991, Yeltsin said ‘Russia, having chosen democracy and freedom, will never be an empire, nor an older or younger brother; it will be an equal among equals’ (Hosking 2001, p.605). Yeltsin added: ‘We do not intend to build the Commonwealth based on Russia; we are equals among equals’(Hosking 2001, p.605). These comments went against the grain of Russian political culture and Russian nationalism, and lasted only a few years.
In 1994–1996, the Russian Federation transitioned from an identity based on Gorbachev’s USSR as part of a ‘common European home’ to Russia at the centre of a Eurasian sphere of influence. Russia held parliamentary and presidential elections which facilitated a transition towards great power nationalism. This was evidenced by the return of the old guard in the form of siloviki and industrial elites. In 1996–1999, these changes prepared the ground for the capture of Russia by Vladimir Putin and former Soviet Chekists in 2000.
Even Russian liberals in the late 1980s and early 1990s could not fathom Ukrainian complaints about Russification and denationalisation, demands for independence and desire to distance Ukraine from the former Soviet space. All Russian political forces and leaders, including some liberals, were uncomfortable with Ukraine’s separatism, lobbied for Ukraine to remain close to Russia and, failing this, threatened territorial claims against Crimea, Sevastopol and south-eastern Ukraine. Russia never pursued independence from the USSR. Belarus declared independence but then obfuscated the question by not holding a vote in parliament or a referendum.
When Putin was first elected to power in 2000 his ‘obsession’ with Ukraine was commonly found among practically every strand of Russian politician and political party. Unlike Yeltsin, his predecessor, Putin transformed his ‘obsession’ into military aggression against Ukraine.