Vladimir Putin’s icy silence on Viktor Yushchenko’s victory in Ukraine’s marathon presidential race likely reveals the Kremlin’s current strategic predicament. With the Orange Revolution triumph in Kyiv, Moscow faces a two-fold problem: how to reconcile itself with the political outcome it was striving to prevent at all costs and what policy it should pursue toward a Western-leaning Ukraine led by President Yushchenko. Judging by the ongoing debate within the Russian analytic community, the policy recommendations range from offering an olive branch to Ukraine’s victorious democratic forces to advocating a division of the neighboring Slavic country.
Moscow lobbied hard for Yushchenko’s opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, ahead of the first election on October 31 and the November 21 runoff, and his evident defeat in the December 26 repeat runoff threatens to deliver a stunning blow to Russia’s policy efforts in other former Soviet republics. As one commentary notes pessimistically, the immediate consequence of the Ukrainian developments will be a failure of the Moscow-sponsored plans to fashion a Single Economic Space comprising Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan, “and, likely, the beginning of the disintegration of the Commonwealth of Independent States” (Komsomolskaya pravda, December 28).
Putin, who congratulated Yanukovych before official results declared him the winner in November, made no public comments about the Yushchenko victory in the December 26 ballot. Earlier, during his trip to Germany, Putin had said he was ready to work with Yushchenko if he won and invited him to visit Moscow. As expected, President-elect Yushchenko has said his first foreign trip as president would likely be to Russia.
Yet on December 24, the Kremlin leader fiercely denied meddling in Ukraine’s election and accused Western countries of playing an active role in its electoral process. “We haven’t engaged in any behind-the-scenes policymaking in the post-Soviet space, and that to some extent limits the instruments we can use to defend our interests,” Putin told a meeting of the State Council, a grouping of Cabinet members and regional leaders. (Interfax, December 24).
Following Putin’s accusations of Western meddling in the Ukrainian elections and speculation that Kyiv might be invited to join NATO, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged the United States to be more open about its military presence near Russian borders. After praising Moscow and Washington’s cooperation on fighting terrorism, Lavrov said Russia “needs clarity in our relations with the Americans, because our country’s security depends on it” (Itar-Tass, December 27).
Russia’s lawmakers, seemingly reflecting the strategic confusion in the Kremlin, appear divided as to how to react to the outcome of the Ukrainian poll. Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov expressed optimism that Russia and Ukraine would find a common language despite “the stain of the Orange Revolution.” However, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, deputy speaker of the State Duma and leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, said Moscow should adopt a harsher policy toward Kyiv: “The main thing is to stop our assistance. We need to pursue stern and dry policies toward Kyiv” (Interfax, December 27).
Moscow pundits seem as divided as the country’s policymakers in their analyses of Russian-Ukrainian relations in the post-Kuchma era. Quite predictably, most liberal experts point to the dismal failure of the Kremlin strategy of crude pressure and brazen interference in a neighboring country’s political process and urge an immediate policy shift. According to Yegor Gaidar, Russia’s influential theorist of liberalism, Moscow needs to draw lessons from the mistakes it has made, the most important one being “The need to learn how to treat one’s neighbors with due respect and pursue one’s political goals using means acceptable in the civilized world” (Itogi, December 21). Other liberal-minded analysts specify that the set of instruments the Kremlin was using to influence processes in Ukraine and other post-Soviet lands proved extremely inefficient and needs to be urgently discarded. An overall revision of strategy should lead to the reliance on whatever is left of Russia’s “soft power” — an appeal of the country’s rich culture, political ideals, and international identity (Vedomosti, December 15). Needless to say, such a policy shift presupposes a necessity for Russia to reverse its backsliding on democracy, liberal commentators note.
Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, who is not known as a great champion of liberal philosophy but was nevertheless very critical of Russian policies throughout Ukraine’s election campaign, suggested that the Kremlin should take the initiative in mending fences with Kyiv and immediately sack the spin doctors “who discredited themselves in Ukraine.” If Moscow offers the Yushchenko administration a new model of Russian-Ukrainian interaction, which Belkovsky calls a “strategy of alliance,” bilateral relations, he asserts, “will be easily restored.” Yushchenko, Belkovsky notes, is interested in a rapprochement with Putin and does not want to further strain the relationship (Komsomolskaya pravda, December 28).
But more imperialist-minded Russian strategists argue that pressure and interference continue to be worthy policy tools that should remain in the Kremlin arsenal. Ukraine’s election results, they assert, prove that the country is almost equally divided. Thus the correct policy would be to support the opposition to Yushchenko in the east and south of Ukraine, help strengthen its political stance, and use it as a lever against Kyiv’s pro-Western government (Gazeta.ru, December 27). Some conservative political thinkers, such as Vitaly Tretyakov, bluntly say, “The most favorable strategic scenario for Russia is undoubtedly a division of Ukraine, whereby its eastern Russian-speaking part will join Russia” (Ekspert, December 6).
Yet ultimately, the nature of relations with “post-revolutionary” Ukraine will be defined by the Kremlin’s principal strategic choice. According to Igor Bunin, head of the Center for Political Technologies, the development of ties with Kyiv will depend on whether Moscow “will orient itself toward rapprochement with Europe or further strive to create a ‘soft underbelly’ to protect itself from the West” (Moscow Times, December 28).