Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 32

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s February 11-12 visit to Ukraine was the latest in a series of Kremlin moves to capitalize on that country’s political crisis and President Leonid Kuchma’s vulnerability. Follow-up moves are scheduled to be made in rapid succession. The Kremlin has made a decision to “work with” the embattled Ukrainian president and nudge him at this time into strategic concessions to Russia which would later be binding on Kuchma–should he recover politically–or on any post-Kuchma leadership in Kyiv.

The Kremlin is dealing with a Ukrainian president whom the West is now keeping at arm’s length and whose internal political base is constantly narrowing. In the Verkhovna Rada, the pro-presidential majority–much of it based on oligarchic clans–has fallen apart. On the center-right, the National Salvation Forum–which includes a wide range of national-democratic and centrist parties–accuses Kuchma of being prepared to deliver gas pipeline network to Russia and enter into a military alliance with Moscow in return for the latter’s political support. By the same token, in the wake of Putin’s visit the Ukrainian Communist leader Petro Symonenko signaled approval of Kuchma’s rapprochement with Russia. In russified parts of eastern Ukraine, powerful industrial interest groups with a vested interest in that rapprochement remain loyal to Kuchma on that basis.

Kuchma and Moscow are embarking on their rapprochement, however, with different and potentially conflicting goals. The Kremlin senses a unique and perhaps last opportunity to return Ukraine to Russia’s orbit. As the successive visits of Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and of Putin to Ukraine made clear, Moscow’s agenda includes: a voice in Ukraine’s relations with NATO, a more assertive Russian military presence in the Crimea, takeovers of choice industrial plants in Ukraine by Russian capital, a merger of Ukraine’s electricity network with Russia’s, selective “integration” schemes for the two countries’ border regions, and joint operation of Ukraine’s gas transit system. That agenda is long-term and strategic.

By contrast, Kuchma’s goals are tactical and short-term. The president and, almost certainly, such advisers as National Security and Defense Council Secretary Yevhen Marchuk would prefer to ride out the internal political crisis with a measure of Russian political backing and with minimal damage to Ukraine’s interests. For Moscow, this means that it must seek strategic gains in short order while the fate of the Kuchma presidency hangs in the balance, and definitely before the crisis in Kyiv is resolved one way or the other. This is why official Russia–from Putin’s KGB-bred team to the reputed reformer Anatoly Chubais at United Energy Systems–is now pressing Kyiv to ratify as early as next month a Russian-Ukrainian agreement on the operation of Ukraine’s gas transit system and to finalize by March or April a set of agreements on merging the Russian and Ukrainian electricity networks.

Even sooner than that, a meeting on cooperation among Russia’s and Ukraine’s border regions is scheduled to be held in Kharkiv. Heads of the regional administrations and industrial managers will discuss special arrangements for the cross-border trade and joint industrial ventures. Projects under discussion tend to promote the dependence of Ukrainian industries in those regions upon the Russian market and Russian energy supplies. Such a development would be welcome to interest groups in Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk, which are Ukraine’s most heavily industrialized and russified regions. By the same token, many in Kyiv view this kind of special agreement as apt to promote Russia’s economic and political influence in those Ukrainian border regions and, through them, the lobbying power of Russian interests in Kyiv.

Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, a staunchly pro-Western reformer, is treading an uneasy path between the presidential and the pro-reform political forces, most of which now oppose Kuchma. The president is under pressure from oligarchic clan interests and probably from Russia to dismiss Yushchenko and like-minded officials. Just a few months ago, Moscow had successfully demanded the release of Borys Tarasyuk as foreign affairs minister on account of his clear-cut Western orientation. Yushchenko is viewed in Moscow as the West’s preferred candidate to succeed Kuchma, should the latter be forced to step down.

In the wake of Putin’s visit, Yushchenko is mounting a rearguard action to stop corrupt privatization deals of the kind that delivered the Zaporizhzhia aluminum plant to the Russian bidder AvtoVAZ after the latter had actually lost the privatization tender. Yushchenko has in recent days made public two statements officially dissociating the government from that deal and threatening to dismiss officials involved in that and similar cases. He has also publicly asked Kuchma to dismiss the Energy and Fuel Minister, Serhy Yermilov, for decisions in the gas and electricity sphere that directly or indirectly increase Ukraine’s indebtedness to Russia, leaving Ukraine open to demands to cede industrial property in return for debt relief (UNIAN, Ukrainian Television, STB, Eastern Economist Daily (Kyiv), February 12-15; see the Monitor, January 22, February 7).