With Ukraine’s presidential poll just a month away, the Kremlin propaganda machine is working at full speed. As one group of Moscow spin doctors accuse the West of interfering in Ukraine’s domestic affairs, the others are aggressively peddling their vision of “European integration,” where Ukraine is firmly anchored in the Russia-led Euro-East.
On September 22, the Kyiv-based Russian Club, Moscow’s front organization set up to help Kremlin favorite Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych win the October 31 Ukrainian presidential ballot, lambasted the West for the “unacceptable interference of certain European and American politicians in the internal affairs of independent Ukraine.” Citing reports that the U.S. government is allocating financial resources to support programs aimed at securing free-and-fair elections in Ukraine, the Russian Club angrily stated that, in fact, Washington’s real goal is “to prevent the exercise of the Ukrainian people’s free will.” Currently, Ukraine is experiencing “unprecedented foreign pressure,” the statement said. According to the Russian Club’s Kremlin-connected members, “A well-coordinated politico-information campaign is being waged against Ukraine,” whose objective is “to discredit the ballot and call its results null and void if [challenger] Viktor Yushchenko is defeated at the polls” (Strana.ru, September 23).
This rhetoric betrays Moscow’s growing anxiety about Ukraine’s political prospects. “It is terribly important for us what will happen in Ukraine after the presidential election,” one leading political commentator told Izvestiya (August 24).
Russian political pundits increasingly view the outcome of Ukraine’s presidential race as a crucial choice that will define the future strategic orientation of Russia’s key neighbor. Moscow views Western concerns about transparency and fair play in the Ukrainian election campaign as part of a wily scheme to install in Kyiv’s presidential palace the West’s own pick, Viktor Yushchenko, who will tear Ukraine away from Russia and bring it into the European Union and NATO. As the election date nears, Kremlin propagandists are going out of their way to cast Ukraine’s internal political struggle as a geopolitical Great Game between Russia and the West.
According to Pavel Svyatenkov, a political scientist at the Institute for Development, the Western countries pursue a policy of building a “circle of unfriendly states” around Russia. “This is a scenario,” he asserts, “whereby Russia’s development will be controlled from without, which will keep Russia in the position of a third-rate country.” Svyatenkov and other Russian analysts believe that Ukraine is a pivotal state in the Western plan. “Conflict with Georgia, although it’s a vexing nuisance, doesn’t pose a serious threat to Russia,” since “Georgia is too small,” Svyatenkov says. But Ukraine really matters, for it “is the key member of the CIS” (Kreml.org, August 11).
Russian defense experts, who tend to look at developments in terms of strategic bridgeheads, military bases, and theatre operations, also contend that an alliance with Ukraine is paramount for Russia’s security interests. In the opinion of Sergei Markedonov, an analyst at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, with a possible “loss of Ukraine” following the election, Russia will find itself deprived of strategic access to the south and the west. “The Black Sea is to a large extent an internal sea,” explains Markedonov, and “with the loss of Ukraine and particularly of Crimea, it will shrink even more for Russia” (Kreml.org, July 26).
To offset what they see as the West’s dangerous encroachment into Russia’s core sphere of interest, the Kremlin political gurus advance the concept of “two Europes.” Long gone is the romantic vision of a “common European home” of the early 1990s. The reality of the new millennium is the existence of two Europes: the EU centered in Brussels and the Euro-East centered in Moscow. For advocates of this school of thought, “It is absolutely obvious that Ukraine is a constituent part of Russian cultural space — there is no escape from this fact” (Kreml.org, July 26).
The EU brand of European integration is being portrayed in Moscow as an effort to impose a “super-bureaucratic and socialist structure” that limits national sovereignty and arrests economic development. The integration within the Euro-East, by contrast, is described as a process of building mutually beneficial political and economic ties between the strong, equal partners. “There is a clear crisis of the EU’s concept of Europeanization of Russia, Ukraine, and other countries of the Euro-East,” asserts Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation think tank. The Euro-East, he contends, conscious of its distinct cultural and geopolitical identity, flatly declined to blindly follow Brussels’s leadership and recommendations, a “slavish” pattern of behavior characteristic of the Central European nations (Kreml.org, September 16).
Remarkably, the Kremlin ideologues have even tried to arouse Ukrainian nationalist sentiment and turn it against the EU and the West. In the eyes of Modest Kolerov, the editor-in-chief of the Regnum information agency, it will be a “true tragedy” if the pro-Western candidate wins the election. Then Ukraine will “sacrifice its long struggle for independence and national revival” and will “give away its national sovereignty to the European bureaucracy” (Kreml.org, July 20).
But not every one, even in Russia, falls for this crude example of Kremlin Agitprop. As one commentary perceptively points out, “The main problem in the relationship of [our] two countries is that Russia has actually failed to recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty.” This recognition did not take place either at the level of Russian popular consciousness or within Moscow political elites, and Russia’s “behavior in [Ukrainian] election campaign testifies to this” (Izvestiya, August 24).