The gloating heard in the Kremlin over Kyiv’s political troubles is giving way to concern and apprehension. While fully realizing the utmost importance of the current Ukrainian events, Russian strategists appear to be at a loss as to how exactly Moscow should act in order to take full advantage of the political crisis in the neighboring Slavic country.
There seems to be a consensus among Russia’s policymakers and pundits that the turbulent political processes that are unfolding in Ukraine these days deserve their closest attention and most serious analysis. As one commentary bluntly put it, “There are no developments more important for Russia than those in Ukraine today.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top political advisors were undoubtedly very pleased when the first news about discord within Ukraine’s Orange camp reached Moscow. Such an emotional reaction is quite understandable: the Kremlin was deeply involved in last year’s political struggle in Ukraine and severely traumatized by the results and perceived strategic loss. The feeling of satisfaction, however, is diminishing, as some Russian analysts characterize the situation in Ukraine as “not just a political crisis but the decomposition of [state] power as such.”
While welcoming the general weakening of the “Orange regime” in Kyiv, the Kremlin at the same time is wary of the crisis spiraling out of control and resulting in political chaos. For Russia, says Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin’s leading political technologist, “the [biggest] risk is the second revolution in Ukraine” and the eruption of all-out war among the country’s fractious political elites. But the problem is that Moscow simply does not know which policy vis-à-vis Ukraine to take. “At the moment, Russia does not have a solid strategic position with regard to Ukraine. That is why it is still unclear which developments in that country correspond, or do not correspond, with our interests,” acknowledges Sergei Markov, the Kremlin-connected director of the Institute of Political Studies.
Moscow’s first impulse likely was to take a harsh line and try to pressure Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko into changing his Western-leaning policies by using Russia’s powerful energy leverage. There is a school of thought within Russia’s policymaking community that vociferously advocates teaching Kyiv a good lesson on geopolitical loyalty by hiking the price for Russian gas deliveries up to the world level. The ongoing crisis that seemingly makes Ukraine an easy target, the hawkish commentators argue, is the best possible timing for turning to a tough policy. This is a surest way, they say, to make Ukraine sober up quickly and return to Russia’s orbit.
But the opponents of this argument rightly point to the mutual dependency of the Russian and Ukrainian economic systems. If Moscow’s “disciplinary measures” send the already faltering Ukrainian economy into a nosedive, many businesses in Russia will also be negatively affected. Furthermore, the deepening of Ukraine’s economic mess, some Russian experts note, would lead to a drastic devaluation of property in the neighboring country, including a good number of lucrative companies that currently belong to Russian industrialists.
In addition, Russia’s rude economic pressure would likely strengthen the hand of Ukraine’s anti-Moscow and pro-Western political forces, which might eventually result in their strong showing at the upcoming – and politically crucial – parliamentary elections in the spring of 2006.
On the other hand, the more perceptive Russian observers are slowly coming to understand that in the aftermath of last year’s political turmoil, “There is not any other Ukraine but the ‘Orange’ one.” The values that were born in Kyiv’s Independence Square are those that are currently being shared by both the new powers that be and the new opposition. These values and ideals form the foundation on which the new Ukrainian society is being built. By the same token, all the influential political forces in Ukraine, save for the really marginal groups, will likely support the country’s pro-Western, Europe-oriented, vector of geo-strategic development.
Proceeding from these assumptions, some Russian analysts argue, it would be the Kremlin’s fatal mistake to continue clinging to the old stereotypes that are completely irrelevant to the new situation on the ground in Ukraine and, in one commentator’s phrase, to try “to resurrect the political corpses of the past.” Thus, the attempts at building a big pro-Russian political bloc in Ukraine will be counter-productive for Moscow. One of the Orange Revolution’s most significant outcomes is that Ukrainians reached a qualitatively new level of political development that markedly differs from that of their Russian neighbors. Consequently, the argument goes, it is simply impractical to “return” them to Russia by resorting to economic and/or political pressure.
Remarkably, even Pavlovsky, who, as the Kremlin’s principal point man in Kyiv during Ukraine’s 2004 presidential campaign, was personally humiliated by the Yushchenko victory, admitted in a recent interview that “in politics, it is a decidedly erroneous behavior to succumb to the desire to settle the old scores and let the old grudges define your strategy.”
It remains to be seen, though, whether this time the Kremlin succeeds in suppressing its “basic instinct” to dominate the weaker partners.
(Rossiiskaya gazeta, September 22; Izvestiya, APN.ru, Politcom.ru, September 21; Murkowski komsomolets, Nezavisimaya gazeta, Vremya novostei, September 20, Kompaniya, September 19)