The Significance of Ukraine
Russia has long measured its power by its control over the strategic plains and mountains between Russia and the rest of Europe, and Ukraine is now a post-Cold War political battleground between Moscow and the West.
In Russia’s view, the key to its continued influence in Kiev is Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s prime minister and the declared winner in the nation’s bitterly contested presidential election. Though tens of thousands of Ukrainians are protesting his victory as a fraud, any decision by Yanukovich to relinquish his claim depends largely on whether Moscow will back down.
And Russia Ã¢€” for reasons that are as old as its history, and as contemporary as President Vladimir V. Putin’s determination to consolidate Soviet-style power on his nation’s borders Ã¢€” cannot concede Ukraine, many analysts say.
“Russia cannot really afford to suffer a defeat over Ukraine,” Liliya Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Wednesday. “Russia cannot be a power without Ukraine. It is historically conditioned, but it is also a plain fact.”
The Russian parliament Wednesday threw aside its previous reluctance to comment on the affairs of another country and condemned “the illegal actions of Ukraine’s radical opposition forces,” referring to Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western candidate whose supporters have taken to the streets.
“It’s time we interfered into this situation, and let’s consider it,” nationalist deputy Oleg Malyshkin of the Liberal Democratic Party urged fellow lawmakers.
Even the normally liberal audience of Radio Echo of Moscow seems in favor of a tough stance. After the U.S. State Department and several European governments called for a comprehensive review of the results, widely viewed in the West as flawed, 56% of the station’s listeners came out against that idea in a phone-in survey Wednesday.
“Geographically, socially and nationally, Russia still does not perceive Ukraine as a separate, sovereign nation,” Shevtsova said. “This is its great power complex.”
I wouldn’t put much stock in that poll number, but I can definitely see how even liberal Russians would attach considerable importance to maintaining influence.
Naturally, defense and economic issues are also at play:
With a friendly government in Ukraine, plus allies in Belarus and Kazakhstan, Russia is able to dominate an economic bloc on its borders. That provides an opportunity for shared markets and other economic partnerships that do not leave Russia alone outside the European Union.
If Yushchenko became Ukraine’s president, though, the country could decide to join NATO and end its substantial military cooperation with Russia. Such a move, some analysts believe, could cost Russia as much as $10 billion a year in contracts and other revenue.
In contrast, a Yanukovich presidency would guarantee Russian companies access to vital energy pipelines Ã¢€” Ukraine transports 90% of Russian gas to Europe Ã¢€” and, crucially, Russia’s Black Sea fleet, headquartered on leased property in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol.
Of course, the political implications are the most salient:
Before becoming prime minister in 2002, Yanukovich, a former transport executive, headed one of the powerful business and political clans that dominate Ukrainian politics. His defeat would signal the collapse of Ukraine’s classic Soviet-style bureaucracy and might mean that similar regimes along Russia’s frontier Ã¢€” in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Belarus Ã¢€” would give way to democratic forces sooner rather than later.
“If Yushchenko becomes president, it will be such an ignominious slap in the face for Russia. It will mean the defeat of Putin’s entire philosophy of power, and his vision of Russia’s political model,” said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies.
“These elections are a choice between criminal capitalism as personified by Yanukovich, and an open economy, civilized succession of power and democracy, as personified by Yushchenko Ã¢€” a choice between European values and Putin’s values.”
According to some reports, the Kremlin spent $200 million to $300 million to help get Yanukovich elected and deployed some of its master political tacticians to oversee the campaign. Putin twice traveled to Ukraine for the equivalent of stump speeches.
But Moscow miscalculated, analysts say, by presuming that the same election techniques recently employed with success in Azerbaijan, Belarus and the Russian republic of Chechnya would work in Ukraine. Those elections were widely regarded as rigged in favor of pro-Moscow candidates, but their results ultimately went unchallenged. Ukraine’s challenge to the Moscow-engineered campaign, some said, offers encouragement to pro-democracy forces in Russia.
And may it continue.