Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 112

The Kremlin and the West have ratcheted up their rhetoric over NATO’s possible expansion into Ukraine. The strategically located East European state appears destined to remain an apple of discord between an increasingly assertive Moscow and the Western powers. At stake are the intertwined issues of identity, geopolitics, and energy security.

The title of the international conference organized this week by the Vienna-based Osterreichisches Institut fur Internationale Politik — “The Battle for Ukraine” — seems to neatly encapsulate the nature of the brewing geopolitical standoff. On June 7, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the State Duma that NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia would lead to a “colossal” shift in the global geopolitical balance. Moscow, the top Russian diplomat added, would evaluate all possible consequences “first and foremost” from the point of view of the national interests of Russia.

For its part, the Duma the same day overwhelmingly approved a “message” to the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, expressing the “serious concern” of the Russian legislature at Kyiv’s goal of joining the Western alliance. According to the message, Ukraine’s drive to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a violation of a 1997 Russia-Ukraine treaty that outlines the “strategic nature” of Russian-Ukrainian relations and, if fulfilled, “would have negative consequences for the entire range of relations between our two fraternal peoples.” The statement specifically noted that “close interregional relations unite [Russia] with the Autonomous Republic of Crimea,” where pro-Russian forces have been blocking preparations for joint Ukrainian-U.S. military exercises.

Russia’s clear intent to step up pressure on Kyiv did not pass unnoticed by Western policymakers. NATO Parliamentary Assembly President Pierre Lellouche slammed the statement by the Russian foreign minister. Lellouche told the BBC’s Ukrainian service that Lavrov’s assertion reflected a contradictory position. Indeed, the NATO-Russia agreement of 1997 recognized the right of each European country to choose its allies and decide which organizations to join. It was no novelty for the West that Russia is against NATO’s eastward expansion. But it was unclear, the NATO officials say, how Russia could seek to prevent Ukraine and Georgia from joining NATO without resorting to Cold War methods. Lellouche argued that it would be impossible to build another empire within the borders of the former Soviet Union but noted that it is exactly the emergence of such an empire that would mark a true geopolitical shift.

The Western wariness of Russia’s strategic designs is well understood. However, one has also to clearly understand why Moscow feels it is the right moment to launch a massive offensive on the Ukrainian front. It is important to remember that the bulk of the Russian policy elite never believed that Ukraine’s pro-Western course was firmly sealed with the 2004 Orange coalition electoral victory. Most Russian policymakers and analysts always warned there would be a second round of struggle over Kyiv’s geopolitical orientation.

It is the continuous indecision of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko and the endless haggling over the government portfolios among the hapless partners within the Orange camp that resulted in the current situation whereby Ukraine lacks a properly functioning parliament, a viable government, and an operational Constitutional Court. The institutional weakness created by Kyiv’s flawed domestic policies simply invited the Kremlin strategists to launch their all-out attack.

Russia has a two-pronged strategy in Ukraine. Its first aim is to discredit the Orange politicians in the eyes of the West. By actively supporting the massive anti-NATO rallies in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions, Moscow is fanning the inner divisions within Ukrainian society. Russia seeks to portray its Slavic neighbor as a badly split, geopolitically confused, and thus inherently unstable nation. As the majority of Ukrainians negatively view the prospect of their country’s joining the Atlantic alliance, Russian pundits argue, further confrontation is inevitable — a development that would only aggravate the existing divide between the supporters and the opponents of integration with the West.

If the United States and the European Union continue to encourage official Kyiv’s pro-Western proclivities, in particular, its Euro-Atlantic aspirations, one Russian policy paper asserted recently, the result would likely be the emergence of a new “arc of instability” along the Russo-Ukrainian border. If this comes to pass, the paper adds, it will be the end of the alliance of global powers against new threats — including Russia’s cooperation with the West in the war against terror.

Second, the Kremlin wants to maximally strengthen the hand of the political forces within Ukraine that it believes are Russia’s strategic allies. If they manage to impose their scenario of a coalition government on a politically enfeebled Yushchenko, Moscow’s geopolitical interests would be much better protected.

Remarkably, at the heart of the Kremlin’s strategic concerns are the interests of Russia’s major energy monopolies, starting with Gazprom. It cannot be a mere coincidence that this week Gazprom managers raised the issue of a possible price increase for the natural gas Ukraine receives from Russia: the compromise reached between Moscow and Kyiv in January expires at the end of June. Price hikes for the former Soviet republics are Gazprom’s weapon of choice to penetrate neighboring countries’ energy industries. Gazprom has long eyed Ukraine’s export infrastructure, but so far Kyiv has been adamant in its reluctance to cede valuable assets to Russia’s energy giant.

The issue of energy security appears to be intimately linked with Ukraine’s possible membership in NATO and will likely be at the epicenter of the ongoing geopolitical tug-of-war over Ukraine between Russia and the West. According to one high-profile Western analyst, if Ukraine hands over control of its network of oil and gas pipelines or loses ownership of this network, the Western allies will be very concerned. They might question Ukraine’s ability to defend its primary interests, the Western pundit argues, since the oil and gas systems are a guarantee of Ukraine’s independence.

(Kyiv Post, June 8; RIA-Novosti, Interfax, Standard, June 7; Rossiiskaya gazeta, Day Weekly Digest, June 6)