Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev’s, May 17-18 visit to Kyiv capped a ten-week campaign to lay the basis for “reintegrating” Ukraine with Russia. It was Medvedev’s seventh meeting with Ukraine’s new leaders since early March, not counting Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin’s, similar number of meetings with them. Medvedev’s previous visit to Ukraine, on April 21, had produced the agreement to extend the basing of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on Ukrainian territory, in return for Russia subsidizing Ukraine’s gas consumption.
Moscow exploits a triple opportunity: Ukraine’s regime change through Donetskization of the executive power in Kyiv; the lack of any coherent Western policy toward Ukraine; and the economic crisis that disables Ukraine and the West from resisting, but not Moscow from pursuing Ukraine’s economic absorption.
Previewing his visit for Ukrainian media, Medvedev remarked: “As soon as any vacuum emerges, the temptation arises to fill this vacuum with something….This is why Europe and NATO showed an absolutely calm reaction to our agreement with Ukraine to extend the presence of Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol. This is wise” (Russia Today, May 17).
During this ten-week period, the only reaction from Brussels was the EU Energy Commissioner, Guenther Oettinger, stating that a takeover of Ukraine’s gas transit system would be a purely bilateral matter between Ukraine and Russia (EU press releases, May 3, 6). Washington’s only reaction thus far has been Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s, outright denial (during a NATO meeting) that anything worthy of concern was occurring between Russia and Ukraine (VOA, April 22).
Moscow is in a hurry to capitalize on its perceived free hand in Ukraine while the opportunity lasts. It cannot be certain of how long it will last and seeks to advance the process of reintegration quickly, beyond the point of no return.
Heading a governmental and business delegation to Kyiv, Medvedev proposed a wide-ranging program of industrial joint ventures with Russian capital in Ukraine. Apart from gas, the focus is on the steel, chemical, nuclear, aviation, and ship-building industries. The overall concept involves Russian acquisition of stakes in Ukrainian industries, tempting the crisis-hit Ukrainian owners with the prospect of guaranteed Russian markets for the proposed joint enterprises. Overall, Medvedev proposed that Russia and Ukraine “synchronize the development of their socio-economic relations” (speech at Kyiv state university, Interfax-Ukraine, May 18, 19; www.kremlin.ru, May 19).
Medvedev and Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, co-chaired a session of the bilateral Interstate Commission, which had been dormant in recent years, but will henceforth convene twice a year at the presidential level. The session considered a raft of investment projects, to be submitted in July of this year to both governments for quick action. It also decided to order the drafting of a ten year program for the expansion of socio-economic relations (Interfax-Ukraine, May 18, 19; www.kremlin.ru, May 19).
Those investment projects were broached with Ukraine’s leading industrialists at the business forum, in Medvedev’s presence. At the forum, Yanukovych remarked on Russia’s apparent capacity to invest in Ukraine during the economic crisis, even as “the crisis showed the vulnerability of the US and EU economies” (Interfax-Ukraine, May 18).
In a post-summit interview with Russian and Ukrainian media, Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Nikolai Azarov, expressed his readiness to consider the possibility of Ukraine’s accession to the Single Economic Space of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. He described this grouping as a potential market of some 200 million people (including Ukraine’s 46 million), where Ukrainian industries could enjoy guaranteed access for their products. Ukrainian steel and chemical producers can join forces with their Russian counterparts in the Single Economic Space, instead of competing against each other on international markets, Azarov suggested. Ukraine would choose “based on the national interests” (Interfax-Ukraine, May 19).
This has been Azarov’s position all along, not shared to the same extent, if at all, by other Donetsk industrialists and politicians. Many in that group, however, lack a clear definition of national interests as distinct from business and group interests. The economic crisis has increased the gravitational pull of Russia’s market and raw-material base vis-à-vis Ukraine.
Medvedev offered to represent from now on the positions of Ukraine and other CIS countries at G8 and G20 summits. Russia would “lobby,” he said, to ensure that decisions taken at those summits (on anti-crisis measures, meet the interests of “our friendly neighbors”) (Russia Today, May 17; www.kremlin.ru, May 19). Such a promise reflects Moscow’s goal to act as leader of a Eurasian bloc of countries, and speak to the world on those countries’ collective behalf.
As Russian analyst Fedor Lukyanov has remarked (Center TV, May 18), Russia looks more interesting from Ukraine’s perspective because the country itself is actually interested in Ukraine, whereas the European Union is apparently not. Within days of Medvedev’s Ukraine visit, the United States is scheduled to host him, hoping for Russian support on multiple US predicaments. Downgraded on the list of Western priorities, Ukraine’s current decision-makers must feel that they lack a strategic option other than Russia at this stage.