As Ukraine’s newly formed government prepares to thoroughly revamp the moribund socio-political system it inherited from the corrupt Kuchma administration, Russia is warily pondering its policies toward a new Ukraine. While a group of liberal-minded experts argue that Kyiv’s Europe-oriented political course is not inimical to Russian interests and advocate cooperation with Ukraine’s new, pro-Western leadership, most Moscow policymakers and analysts are uneasy about Ukraine’s geopolitical intentions and appear bent on blocking its European integration.
Reports about the composition of Ukraine’s new cabinet caused a mixed reaction in Moscow. For some observers, the radical change of the guard in Kyiv is just a natural — and inevitable — continuation of the “velvet revolutions” that swept Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries in the 1980s and 1990s. Now this revolutionary wave, the argument goes, has engulfed the western part of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The Orange Revolution, the liberal commentators contend, was primarily pro-European, not anti-Russian. Oleh Rybachuk, the new deputy prime minister charged with spearheading Ukraine’s European integration campaign, confirms this view. While being genuinely interested in developing economic cooperation with Russia, he says, Kyiv’s principal foreign-policy vector will be oriented toward the European Union. Talking to Izvestiya, Rybachuk pledged that the government would be making “gigantic” steps in its rapprochement with the EU. At the same time, he noted, “We are cardinally changing [our] policy vis-a-vis Russia.” Rybachuk explained that, in their bilateral relations with Moscow, Ukrainians would be guided primarily by the understanding of their own national interests. “From now on, we’ll be speaking with Moscow like equals,” he asserted (Izvestiya, February 9).
Remarkably, a number of Moscow analysts consider Ukraine’s very assertion of its full sovereignty to be an anti-Russian stance. The political scientist Alexander Tsipko makes this point in the bluntest possible manner. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s new policy toward Russia, he argues, does not demonstrate a desire to build friendly relations between the two countries; rather it is a “demonstration of force,” since it announces Ukraine’s “full and final independence from Russia” (Literaturnaya gazeta, February 2). In the same vein, some Russian (and the like-minded Ukrainian) commentators flatly call the new Ukrainian government headed by Yulia Tymoshenko “anti-Russian,” or even perceive it as a manifestation of an “undeclared Cold War [with Moscow]” (kreml.org, February 8).
Significantly, the headed debate among Moscow’s political pundits lays bare the sharp divergence of opinion on Russia’s own international identity and domestic policy. The liberal experts view the challenge presented by Ukraine and its pro-reform government as a good opportunity for the Kremlin to revise its overall strategic outlook and adapt to the changing geopolitical reality. The key aspect of this reality is the gradual disappearance of a supposedly homogeneous post-Soviet space beholden to Moscow. In its nature and political implications, the continued shrinkage of Russia’s sphere of influence, the liberals argue, is similar to the process of the collapse of the European colonial empires after World War II. Should Russia manage to successfully complete its painful transformation from “great power” into a “normal country,” it will bring itself closer to Europe, since it is precisely Russia’s imperial status that has long stood in the way of its being perceived as a European nation. Thus the Orange Revolution may well facilitate Russia’s “return” to Europe, with post-revolutionary Ukraine playing the role of Moscow’s new “window on Europe” (Moskovsky novosti, January 28; Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 9).
Clearly, Russia’s conservative political thinkers are unlikely to fall for this kind of argument. They tend to regard the outcome of Ukraine’s marathon presidential election as a geopolitical zero-sum game. According to Russian lawmaker Konstantin Zatulin, the hawkish director of the CIS Institute, “If Ukraine, even being an independent state, does not have special, allied relations with Russia, its fledgling statehood can easily be turned into an anti-Russian bridgehead, and it will eventually be transformed into a second Poland.” As a result, explains Zatulin, it will become a “historico-cultural project, which is alien to Russia” (Vremya novosti, February 3)
To prevent this scenario from happening, Zatulin and like-minded strategists suggest that the Kremlin should pursue a three-pronged policy. First, Russia must back all political movements aimed at decentralization and federalization of Ukraine. Second, it should pressure Kyiv into making Russian a second state language in Ukraine. Third, Moscow should provide further support to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is canonically subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate. The policy of rallying Ukraine’s population in the southern and eastern regions which is perceived as being overwhelmingly pro-Russian, will allow the Kremlin, Zatulin believes, to “thwart consolidation of two parts of Ukraine on the anti-Russian platform.”
The Putinists appear inclined to continue playing hardball with Kyiv. “One game is over,” one knowledgeable observer recently noted, referring to the fiasco of the Ukrainian election, “but the new one begins” (Tribuna, January 27).
The Kremlin’s tough stance can be explained by two considerations. First, the Putinists hold a curious idea of Russia being a European country but without sharing Europe’s basic liberal values. Furthermore, they argue that it is not just Russia but a whole civilizational zone they like to call the “Euro-East” that has important peculiarities that distinguish it from the countries united within the EU. That is why they would prefer to see Ukrainian reform stalled and keep the borders of the expanding European bloc at Ukraine’s western frontiers.
Second, Moscow fears that the Ukrainian reformers might succeed. The Kremlin’s worst nightmare, Putin’s political opponents point out, would be the steady development of Ukraine’s refurbished socio-economic system — a competitive national capitalism rapidly growing without any “vertical power structure,” an element that is increasingly stifling Russia’s economic growth.