The Tymoshenko-Putin Axis?

by Tammy Lynch

Ukraine announced yesterday that Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko will meet her Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin next month in Warsaw, Poland. The announcement came on the same day that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev brusquely denounced Ukraine’s “leadership” during a press event with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Sochi. Medvedev also claimed that “normal relations” would not be possible until “new leadership” takes over in Ukraine.

Days earlier, Medvedev had released a harsh video blog criticizing everything from Ukraine’s treatment of Russian speakers to its “resistance” toward Russian business to its gas deals with the EU. (An English text of Medvedev’s video blog is here.)

Medvedev’s remarks have created numerous questions. The Putin-Tymoshenko meeting could begin to provide some answers.

The video blog appears to be an attempt to undermine Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko in advance of the upcoming presidential election, while increasing support for “pro-Russian” candidate Viktor Yanukovych (and possibly others considered “pro-Kremlin”). However, Medvedev included harsh words for “Ukraine’s political leaders” who “do deals with the European Union on supplying gas.” The Russian president’s use of the plural in his video blog, as well as an ambiguous reference to Ukraine’s “leadership” during his recent press event, should not be overlooked.

In fact, it was Prime Minister Tymoshenko – not Yushchenko – who negotiated and signed the Joint EU-Ukraine Declaration on the Modernization of Ukraine’s Gas Transit System. The Declaration provided for a framework to modernize Ukraine’s transit pipelines in order to increase transit capacity for Russian gas to Europe. This has the potential to undermine competing transit pipelines planned by Russia that would bypass Ukraine and led to a loud, threatening – and effective – response from Moscow.

So, is Medvedev’s wording a sign that Moscow does not understand the diarchy of power in Ukraine? Or simply doesn’t care? The Russian President clearly is proceeding as if there is one unified power center in Ukraine – and suggesting that Russia will oppose anyone associated with that center.

Or, is Medvedev perhaps signaling that concessions will be necessary from Tymoshenko if Russia is to either back the Prime Minister in the election (assuming she wants this backing) or stay out of the election?

This last question in particular will undoubtedly come up at the Putin – Tymoshenko meeting on September 1st – a meeting which was initiated by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

Tymoshenko and Putin have maintained a cordial, if sometimes strained, working relationship. In fact, Tymoshenko first began working with Putin while he was president; at that time, he clearly showed an understanding of the significant power held by the prime minister’s position in Ukraine.

The implication by Tusk that a meeting between Putin and Tymoshenko may ease tensions is a significant repudiation of Medvedev’s claim that “normal relations” with Ukraine are not possible. And the fact that both prime ministers have agreed to take part is more interesting.

Given Tymoshenko’s strained relationship with Yushchenko, she is happy to appear statesmanlike and effective at his expense. But are Medvedev and Putin working together? Will Tymoshenko meet the good cop in Warsaw? Or, is Medvedev attempting to use Ukraine as a demonstration of his own power? If so, will he be allowed to succeed?
Stay tuned……