As the democratic opposition continues to swell the streets of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, the Moscow Kremlin is likely having second thoughts about its policies toward Russia’s western neighbor. The Putin administration’s Ukraine strategy has proved to be misconceived: a brazen attempt to steal an election victory from Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine’s West-leaning democratic challenger, has further exposed Moscow’s authoritarian instincts and left it isolated from the international community. Now Russian President Vladimir Putin faces a thorny dilemma. Should he persist in pursuing a heavy-handed policy in what Moscow still calls the “near abroad,” the dynamics of Russia’s relations with the West will soon resemble that of a re-emerging Cold War. But if the Kremlin loses in Ukraine and a democratic transfer of power takes place there, the whole system of “managed democracy” that Putin nurtures in Russia and seeks to preserve in the post-Soviet lands will receive a tremendous blow.
As some independent analysts point out, today’s Russian foreign policy is excessively ideological and rife with myths. It resembles a senseless battle with phantoms engendered by irrational fears rather than a well-thought-out strategy based on national interests. The Kremlin geopolitical gurus’ main dogma appears to be that Moscow must reassert its influence in the post-Soviet space and stanch the growth of Western influence there. To achieve this objective, Russia’s CIS neighbors should remain heavily dependent on Moscow. As a result, the Kremlin has found itself trapped. In the opinion of one commentator, “Now, Moscow perceives any foreign policy issue as an episode in the global confrontation between Russia and the West.” Within this paradigm, Russian strategic planners view their country’s relationship with Western democracies not so much as a complex combination of cooperation and competition but “as a principled [geopolitical] rivalry pitting ‘us versus them’ ” (Gazeta.ru, November 25).
Russia’s aggressive behavior in the former Soviet lands is a direct continuation of the growing authoritarian trend inside the country — strengthening the “vertical power structure” and maintaining the system of “managed democracy.” The Putinists hold that Russia’s greatness and global weight mainly depend on its ability to restore a kind of Moscow-led geopolitical bloc of friendly states. But to ensure those states’ “friendliness,” Russia should be able to control not only their economies but also their political systems and mechanisms to transfer power. And the easiest way to achieve this is to cultivate and support the same political trends — authoritarianism, phony democracy, suppression of independent media — that are currently flourishing in Russia. Triumph of true democracy, fair elections, and a vibrant media in any of the “buffer states” might weaken Russia’s control and eventually lead to a client state’s slipping into the West’s geostrategic orbit, the Kremlin political thinkers contend.
Yet such an outlook, some international and local observers argue, will inevitably lead to Russia’s strategic loss on a grand scale. First, contemporary Russia simply lacks the resources needed for a serious confrontation with the West. Second, a foreign policy guided by the “us versus them” thinking has nothing to do with Russia’s true national interests, which primarily need an economic breakthrough and accelerated modernization. The latter objective, however, demands close cooperation with the West.
Symptomatically, Russia’s stance in the Ukrainian election crisis has left it strategically isolated. Last week a liberal daily ran a graphic chart depicting the world reaction to the Ukrainian vote. The group of countries that supported the “official results”, i.e. a victory for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, is comprised only of Russia and its CIS allies: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Armenia. The entire Western world (including the United States, European Union, Canada, and Australia) pronounced the Ukrainian ballot fraudulent (Kommersant, November 27). The November 27 resolution by the Ukrainian parliament, declaring the poll invalid, undoubtedly made Putin, who congratulated Yanukovych twice over the past week, feel humiliated.
The November 25 Russia-EU summit in The Hague, which was completely overshadowed by the tension in Ukraine, revealed a deep polarization between Moscow and Brussels. Ignoring widespread claims of fraud, Putin argued that Western protests could only worsen the crisis. “These elections do not need any affirmation from outside,” he said (RFE/RL, Nezavisimaya gazeta, Kommersant, November 25). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was even more explicit while expressing his apprehension over the EU stance toward the Ukrainian crisis. “We are particularly alarmed by individual European countries’ statements that they do not recognize the Ukrainian elections and that Ukraine must be with the West,” said Lavrov. “The Ukrainian people must decide on their own with whom they should be. Such statements lead us to believe that some would like to draw new demarcation lines in Europe,” Russia’s top diplomat noted.
But later the same day, following the active mediation efforts in Kyiv on the part of the EU and the de facto internationalization of the crisis, the Kremlin position appeared to have markedly changed. According to a statement made by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, Moscow “will not object to a vote recount and a new runoff in Ukraine” (Interfax, November 26).
It would appear that the Kremlin has realized that the gap between Russia and the Western democracies has become too wide. Now Putin is maneuvering, but his strategic predicament is still there: unless Russia makes a shift in its domestic policy from “managed democracy” to true democracy, it will remain a bully in its Eurasian neighborhood.