With the Ukrainian presidential election just two days away, it is becoming increasingly clear how crucial this ballot is. Its outcome, as the dean of Ukraine specialists, Harvard University Professor Roman Szporluk, has succinctly put it, will set the course for this pivotal nation: “Toward Europe or back to Russia.” Moscow strategists appear to have the same understanding of the Ukrainian presidential race’s geopolitical implications. The Kremlin wants to win the tug-of-war with the West over Ukraine far more than it wants to develop mutually beneficial economic relations with its Slavic neighbor.
Most independent analysts agree that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprecedented three-day visit to Kyiv this week was meant to demonstrate his personal support for Russia’s favorite, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. It also revealed at least three things. First, the Russian leadership believes it is vitally important to help set up in Ukraine what Moscow strategic planners call a “friendly and allied regime.” Second, the Kremlin isn’t sure of Yanukovych’s victory, despite considerable financial and propaganda efforts invested in his win. Third, Putin is prepared to struggle for Yanukovych’s election using almost all means — even risking losing face if his protege eventually fails at the polls.
Some commentators suggested that Russia’s backing for Yanukovych, while suiting the Kremlin politically, could paradoxically act against Russian business interests in Ukraine. The argument notes that Yanukovych’s main rival, Viktor Yushchenko, while serving as Ukraine’s prime minister, opened the doors for Russian business and allowed Russian companies to buy up large enterprises in Ukraine. By contrast, Yanukovych, since his appointment as prime minister in November 2002, has generally blocked Russian businesses from making acquisitions in Ukraine, the experts say. “If Putin wanted to lobby for Russian business groups, he should have backed Yushchenko,” notes Anders Aslund, director of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In Aslund’s opinion, Putin does not completely understand the situation. “It really seems that Putin is lost,” he contends.
But Aslund and other like-minded analysts simply misinterpret the thinking behind the Kremlin policies. In fact, Putin is not “lost” — he just thinks that the Ukrainian election is about geopolitics, not economics. According to the influential political analyst and journalist Vitaly Tretyakov, there are “far more important issues” than the opportunity for Russian business to freely buy up Ukrainian assets. Tretyakov’s commentary, as well as some recent policy papers penned by Russia’s leading political scientists, reveal the Kremlin’s true concerns regarding the Ukrainian election.
According to Tretyakov and other Russian foreign policy experts, the significance of the current Ukrainian presidential campaign lies in the fact that it is the first time in recent years that the United States and Russia have locked horns “in the direct [geo-] political battle.” And for the first time in many years, Tretyakov asserts, Moscow “has a chance to beat the Americans politically” in Ukraine.
“This is a global play, and Russia is playing for the first time in 15 years, which is why people are so surprised. Suddenly, the rest of the world is finding out that Russia has some national interests,” echoes Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Moscow-based Politika Foundation, who has spent much of the election campaign in Kyiv. “With Yushchenko, Ukraine could be in NATO soon, very soon,” Nikonov warns.
Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies and head of the analytical department of the Russian Club in Ukraine, elaborates on Moscow’s fears of Yushchenko. Under a Yushchenko presidency, Markov contends, “Ukraine’s military industrial complex will be paid a visit by the U.S. intelligence services, as a result of which Russia will be forced to cease military cooperation with Ukraine.” It could cost Russia “as much as $10 billion, as well as the possible collapse of the part of Russia’s military-industrial complex that since Soviet times has been technologically integrated with its Ukrainian counterpart.” In addition, Markov predicts, under Yushchenko, “the Russian Black Sea Fleet will be forced out of Sevastopol. The cost of building a new Black Sea Russian naval base is hard to calculate, but we are talking about tens of billions of dollars, as well as the collapse of Russian influence in the Middle East and Mediterranean.”
Furthermore, Ukraine is vital to the Kremlin’s reinterpretation of the concept of Europe. Currently, Russian analysts actively promote the idea of “two Europes” — the EU with its center in Brussels and the Russia-led “Euro-East.” Russia still highly values its status as a European country, especially if it can cast itself as a leader of the “other Europe.” But if the western CIS countries, especially Ukraine, begin gravitating toward the EU, Russia, which does not want to join the bloc, will likely face an unpleasant identity problem. It will be deprived of the ability to present itself as the head of the alternative European grouping and ultimately, being excluded from wider Europe, will have to answer a painful question of how it relates to the old continent. Yushchenko appears unacceptable to the Putin administration exactly because he represents, as Markov concedes, “the Ukrainian yearning for an identity separate from Russia, as well as the younger generation’s dream of Ukraine becoming a full-fledged member of Europe.”
Needless to say, the pro-Western Ukrainian policymakers eye the emerging European divide with alarm. As Borys Tarasyuk, chairman of the Ukrainian parliament’s Committee on European Integration, noted, “Ukrainians sense there is a rising threat of a new bipolar Europe, with centers in Brussels and Moscow, and with competing sets of values.”
(Komsomolskaya pravda, October 28; Rossiiskaya gazeta, October 28; Moscow Times, October 27, 28; Wall Street Journal, October 26, 28).