With Ukraine’s presidential election just three months away, Russia appears to be stepping up efforts to influence the outcome of the ballot in its neighbor. Ukraine remains the linchpin in the new frontier of Russia-led Eurasian integration. The result of the October 31 election may either spur the integrationist drive or dash hopes for the economic and political institutionalization of the “Euro-East.” Kremlin-connected political gurus argue that Moscow should more actively counter what they call the West’s interference in Ukraine’s political life.
On July 26, speaking at the Russian-Ukrainian business forum, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin sternly warned the West not to get in the way of closer ties between Russia and Ukraine. “By getting closer we increase our competitiveness. And this is understood not only by us but by serious people, our partners abroad,” Putin told a gathering of Ukrainian and Russian businessmen in the Crimean resort town of Yalta. “Their agents, both inside our countries and outside, are trying everything possible to compromise integration between Russia and Ukraine,” added Putin.
The bulk of Russian analytic community seems to view the Ukrainian presidential race not as a primarily internal affair of Ukraine but rather as a major geopolitical tug-of-war between Russia and the West. Of all ten presidential hopefuls, the Kremlin regards the two frontrunners as polar opposites in terms of their strategic orientation. Ukraine’s Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, President Leonid Kuchma’s heir apparent, is seen as the man who will best secure Russia’s political and economic interests in the region, whereas Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of the oppositionist “Our Ukraine” party, is perceived as dangerously pro-Western. Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia’s influential ambassador to Ukraine, spoke out in favor of Yanukovych in an interview in July with the Kyiv weekly Korrespondent, saying Yanukovych’s election would help maintain good bilateral relations. He also hinted that the Kremlin dislikes that Yushchenko is looking more to the West for allies than to Russia.
Thus, Kuchma and Putin share similar outlooks on Ukraine’s presidential election. In his desire to secure victory for Yanukovych, Kuchma is eager to get as much support from Russia as possible. For his part, Putin is eager to install in Kyiv a “reliable man” who will draw Ukraine closer to Russia. In an apparent move to please Putin, Kuchma announced a significant change in Ukraine’s military doctrine, which now says that Ukraine should no longer strive to join the European Union and NATO, but only to “deepen relations” with the two organizations. Meanwhile, fully aware of how valuable Moscow’s support is to Kuchma’s clan, Putin, in his Yalta address, energetically called for Ukraine and Russia to come up with a joint strategy for joining the World Trade Organization and also to speed up their own economic integration through the Single Economic Space.
Some Moscow-based political strategists contend that Russia should clearly define its political agenda in Ukraine and more aggressively defend its interests throughout the election campaign. According to Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Policy Foundation, “Russia, as a great power, while making its stakes in the presidential election in the neighboring country — an allied country, not just a partner nation — simply doesn’t have the right to ignore the comparative advantages of the candidates.” According to Pavlovsky and other Russian analysts, “It’s absolutely clear today that Yanukovych has better chances to consolidate Ukrainian voters and Ukrainian power elites.” On the other hand, Yushchenko, the Kremlin political advisors argue, is not seen as a politician capable of uniting both the elites and Ukraine’s regions. “Yushchenko’s victory would mean the victory of Ukraine’s west over the east, which is extremely dangerous for Ukraine,” Pavlovsky contends. The Kremlin spin doctors hint that the latter scenario is being promoted by the “Western centers of influence, which are very active in Ukraine.”
In the opinion of Sergei Markov, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Political Studies, hundreds of Western-funded foundations are currently operating in Ukraine and “brainwashing” public opinion there. The majority of those Western centers and think tanks, Markov argues, are controlled by the so-called “Brzezinski group,” people hostile to Russia. “Ukraine is just a chess piece for them in their [geopolitical] game against Russia.” As the Kremlin analysts see it, Ukraine’s major problem is, “The 15% Russophobic minority is trying to impose their will on the 80% of Russo-Ukrainian Orthodox majority.” The task of the Kremlin advisors is to “help this Russo-Ukrainian Orthodox majority to define the fate of the country in their own interests.” To fulfill this “humanitarian mission,” Pavlovsky has recently launched a “Russian Club” in Kyiv. Pavlovsky’s club is technically a non-governmental forum to discuss bilateral relations, but it is also one of the many channels through which Moscow can influence the outcome of Ukraine’s October 31 presidential election (Kreml.org, July 1; Russ.ru, July 7, 12, 14; Trud, July 14; Moscow Times, July 21, 27).