New initiatives supporting Russian economic and political objectives keep emerging in Ukraine as the date of the expected signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union at the November 28–29 EU Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius approaches. On August 9, the leader of the Ukrainian Communist Party, Parliamentarian Petro Symonenko, told Golos Rossiyi that the Communists would begin a campaign to collect four million signatures (a three million threshold is required) for a referendum for Ukraine to integrate into the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) and the Customs Union, and not into the European Union (https://interfax.com.ua/news/political/163717.html).
Russian leaders and think tanks close to the Kremlin support these public efforts, which appear to be lobbying to restrain Ukraine from its Western integration path. The Moscow-based Gorchakov Fund for the Support of Public Diplomacy, which describes itself as a “public-private partnership” to promote Russian foreign policy objectives (https://gorchakovfund.ru/about/), serves as one of the key sponsors of this activity. In June–July 2013, the Gorchakov Fund supported the Eurasian Youth Camp Forum in the Crimea, a geopolitics conference in Odessa, and several other policy events in Russia and Belarus, where Ukrainian representatives participated (https://gorchakovfund.ru/news/events/). These events clearly promote the Russian policy of Ukraine’s Eurasian integration, which also means Kyiv’s actual subordination to Moscow’s power in relations with the EU. Some of the major pro-Russian events in Ukraine were held in Kyiv: Russian President Vladimir Putin, on his July 27 visit to Ukraine to celebrate the Baptism of Kyivan Rus, attended a roundtable sponsored by his Ukrainian supporter Viktor Medvedchuk’s “The Ukrainian Choice” organization. But Russia also aims to arouse public opposition to Ukraine’s association with the EU in predominantly Russian-speaking regions of eastern and southern Ukraine, including Crimea. These regions, in fact, constitute Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s electoral base.
A controversial feature of Putin’s Ukrainian policy is the use of economic coercion and the neglect of incentives and relevant “soft power” tools to spur Ukraine’s economic integration with the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, or selling Ukrainian natural gas pipelines to Gazprom. Russia’s main policy instruments are unsophisticated trade barriers to reduce Ukrainian exports. Interestingly, the Kremlin directs such trade sanctions against the very representatives of the Ukrainian business elite who are deeply involved in trade and business with Russia and are friendly to this country: Viktor Pinchuk (steel pipes), Petro Poroshenko (confectionery), Anatoliy Yurkevych (dairy products). As a result, the pro-Russian business lobby in Ukraine is today weaker than at the beginning of Yanukovych’s presidency.
Illustratively, during the open Parliamentary Hearings on Ukrainian Economic Relations with the EU and the Customs Union on May 19, 2011 (attended by the author), some representatives of Ukrainian big business, including the car manufacturer Ukravto and refrigerator maker Nord, spoke in favor of Ukraine’s membership in the Customs Union. But such voices are muted today. Fears that Russia would easily acquire important sectors of the Ukrainian economy—the nuclear power industry, aerospace or shipbuilding—have also not materialized. Kost Bondarenko, the director of the Ukrainian Policy Institute, thinks that the pro-Russian business lobby is “situational” and not a stable entity (Author’s interview, August 7). While Analyst Michael Gonchar of the Nomos Center commented to Jamestown that Ukraine’s political lobby supportive of Russian business interests is often inefficient. Gonchar thinks that the reason is the Russians’ “why pay more?” attitude and the desire to acquire Ukrainian assets cheaply. He believes, however, that in certain long-term operations a pro-Russian lobby is strong and capable of reaching success, citing the example of Ukraine’s failed alternative Odessa-Brody oil pipeline (Author’s interview, August 12).
Pro-Russian lobbyists in Ukrainian politics and government seem more proactive. Viktor Medvedchuk, a seasoned, shrewd Ukrainian politician and the former head of President Leonid Kuchma’s administration in 2002–2005, has emerged at the center of the action. On August 6, the deputy head of the Party of Regions parliamentary faction and advisor to the prime minister, Oleg Tsarev, told Forbes Ukraine that if Ukraine signs the Association Agreement, Vladimir Putin will not support Viktor Yanukovych in the 2015 presidential elections. Moreover, according to a “tough scenario,” Putin might endorse Medvedchuk or another alternative candidate to Yanukovych. Tsarev further suggested that a group of Rada deputies could appeal to the Constitutional Court, challenging that the Association Agreement with the EU contradicts the Ukrainian Constitution (https://forbes.ua/nation/1356267). Tsarev’s comments prompted negative reactions from representatives of the Party of Regions (https://www.ng.ru/cis/2013-08-08/1_yanukovich.html) and the Ukrainian justice ministry (https://forbes.ua/news/1356380).
Even though Vladimir Putin’s endorsement of Viktor Medvedchuk seems natural, it is not very likely as Medvedchuk is not popular enough to win the presidency in such a short time before spring 2015. Generally, it seems difficult for the Kremlin to rely on an alternative to the current Ukrainian president. Kost Bondarenko, speaking to Jamestown on August 12, suggested Russia’s strategy is rather to have a pro-Russian group in the Rada after the 2017 parliamentary elections and then focus on endorsing a pro-Russian presidential candidate in Ukraine’s 2020 elections.
In addition to parliamentarians, pro-Russian statements and public appearances also come from some high-ranking Ukrainian public servants—a sign of disagreement within the pro-Yanukovych elite, as well as characteristic of the presidential administration’s “fence-sitting” policy. The latest example is the announced participation of Ukraine’s Representative to the Eurasian Economic Commission Viktor Suslov and Government Representative on Cooperation with Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States and EurAsEC Valeriy Muntian in an Expert Group to be created by the new pro-Russian public movement “OKEAN,” which supports Ukraine’s membership in the Customs Union (https://interfax.com.ua/news/press-conference/162841.html). Speaking to Jamestown on July 26, Parliamentarian Volodymyr Kurennoy (UDAR party), a member of the Verkhovna Rada Foreign Affairs Committee, commented that at least two distinct groups influence Yanukovych’s politics and government elite: the first is a pro-Russian group associated with Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, while the second one is not exactly pro-European, but rather supportive of a pragmatic “multi-vector” foreign policy and is associated with the head of the presidential administration, Serhiy Lyovochkin. Kurennoy thinks that presently, the real influence of the pro-Russian group, as well as Azarov’s influence is “close to zero.”
While to date, the pro-Russian lobbyist activity in Ukraine seems generally ineffective to alter the country’s course, their influence cannot be underestimated. At a minimum, such activity increases the costs for the Ukrainian government to pursue a pro-Western policy. And in the medium term, Russia may increasingly rely on Ukrainian Eurosceptic power players, who will inevitably gain political weight as Ukraine works to accommodate Europe and the West.