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Analysis & Opinion
26.11.09 Russia’s Stake In Ukrainian Elections
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, Anthony Salvia, Srdja Trifkovic

Last week, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met his Ukrainian counterpart and candidate in the upcoming presidential election Yulia Timoshenko, ostensibly to discuss gas issues. He ended up giving Timoshenko broad political endorsement as a Ukrainian leader Russia can do business with. Will Moscow strengthen its hand in Ukraine after the presidential election next year? Will the West play along and reconcile itself with Russia’s greater influence in Ukraine? Is there a competition between Medvedev and Putin in picking the preferred Ukrainian candidate?

Not only did Putin agree to revise the Gazprom – Naftogaz gas transit and purchasing agreement made back in January, making the terms of the new agreement much more favorable to Ukraine (a 60 percent increase in transit fees, a waiver of significant penalties for smaller volumes of gas purchased than stipulated in the agreement), but he also went out of his way to praise Timoshenko’s government as “comfortable to work with.” At the joint press conference, Putin went on to say that Timoshenko’s government had succeeded in “strengthening Ukraine’s self-reliance and sovereignty,” and that during his work with Timoshenko, “Russian-Ukrainian relations became stronger and more stable.”

A day later, at the United Russia Party congress in St. Petersburg, Putin met with another principal candidate for Ukrainian president, Party of Regions leader Victor Yanukovich, who was given an opportunity to make a policy speech emphasizing his party’s readiness to improve Russian-Ukrainian relations.

Meanwhile, Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Victor Yushchenko continued exchanging angry messages online, with Yushchenko publishing an open letter to Medvedev on his presidential Web site proposing to completely rework the Russian-Ukrainian gas transit and purchasing agreement just a day before Putin’s meeting with Timoshenko and against the backdrop of her repeated statements that the existing gas agreements are working just fine.

It is interesting to note that Putin and Medvedev seem to have divided their roles in Russia’s efforts to influence the outcome of the presidential election in Ukraine in January of 2010. While Medvedev is focusing on demonizing president Yushchenko (he keeps saying to the media that the man is basically finished as a partner for Russia), Putin is attempting to play the good cop who provides tangible incentives to more suitable candidates.

One also has a feeling that Putin and Medvedev may in fact be competing over strategies to win back Ukraine by endorsing different candidates. Medvedev is not interacting directly with Yulia Timoshenko, but holds meetings with Yanukovich, the frontrunner in the race, while Putin is betting on the only other viable candidate, Timoshenko. They seem to be saying: “let’s see who is going to win here!”

Compared to 2004, when Moscow placed all of its bets on Yanukovich, this is a remarkable change of strategy for Russia. This time, with the unpopular sitting president Yuschenko standing no chance in the election, Moscow is in a “no-lose” situation, having not one, but two preferred candidates who essentially compete against each other. It does not really seem to matter much for Moscow which one of them wins. And to make things even better, it does not seem to matter much to the West, either.

Is this a perfect game plan at work? Will Moscow strengthen its hand in Ukraine after the presidential election next year? Will the West play along and reconcile itself with Moscow’s greater role in Ukraine, with a likely influence on Ukraine’s foreign and security policy, particularly with regard to membership of NATO and the EU? Does it really make no difference for Moscow who is going to be Ukraine’s next president – Yanukovich or Timoshenko? Will their policies toward Moscow actually differ? Will Ukraine become Russia’s ally under either of them? Is there really a competition between Medvedev and Putin in picking the preferred Ukrainian candidate?

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

Since many Russians have never fully accepted the breakup of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian independence in particular, it is entirely logical that the Russian leadership is hedging its bets in the forthcoming Ukrainian presidential election. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s interests are furthered only if it is rewarded for being a satellite of Russia or if the West chooses to support Ukraine irrespective of its actions.

I am not convinced that Ukraine is a viable country, capable of defending its national interests, unless it is fully embraced by both the European Union and NATO. This has not occurred for a multitude of reasons, but suffice it to say that the Ukrainian economy has not prospered and its policies remain unpredictable.

Individuals, who are not constrained by principle, particularly if they are charismatic, can be adept at taking advantages of opportunities. The political alliance between Victor Yushchenko and Julia Timoshenko after the 2004 Orange Revolution has proven itself to be a mere marriage of convenience. I have always regarded Yulia Timoshenko as being morally challenged.

Prime minister Timoshenko had been highly critical of RosUkrEnergo, the mysterious company with ambiguous owners. According to Timoshenko, RosUkrEnergo had sought to gain control over Ukraine’s energy supply i.e., it was a Russian stalking horse. Not surprisingly, at the time, she stood to gain both financially and politically from promoting this view.

One should not forget her complex relationship with former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko. When the U.S. government first indicted Lazarenko, Timoshenko and her company, Unified Energy Systems, were both named as co-conspirators in the case. She had allegedly bribed then-prime minister Lazarenko, and he was ultimately convicted of money laundering. The charges against Timoshenko were eventually dropped, not because the U.S. Justice Department believes that she had not paid a bribe, but because it decided that a U.S. federal court lacked the authority to hear a criminal case against her. Political considerations may also have influenced the department’s thinking.

President Yushchenko’s poor performance in office has destroyed his popularity with the Ukrainian electorate. Meanwhile, a large segment of the Ukrainian population remains distrustful of Russia’s intentions toward Ukraine. In my view, there are two possible explanations for Russian Prime Minister Putin’s decision to orchestrate a rapprochement with Timoshenko.

First, prime minister Putin sees his Ukrainian counterpart as both pragmatic and opportunistic. Hence, she could be relied upon to see the benefits of more cordial Russian-Ukrainian relations, because the West could not be counted upon to support Ukrainian interests against Russia, especially after Ukraine’s actions lead to the interruption of Russian exports of natural gas to certain EU countries.

The second alternative would be far more cynical and cunning. Prime minister Putin’s indicating that a Timoshenko presidency would be acceptable, could lead those Ukrainians who are inclined to take action contrary to what Moscow wants may vote for Yushchenko instead. This would lead to a second round of voting, where Yanukovich would defeat the current Ukrainian president.

I have no idea if this Machiavellian ploy is what motivates Russian policy, but it should not be ruled out entirely. Furthermore, I am not absolutely convinced that Yanukovich would defeat Yushchenko: less popular incumbents have won presidential elections. Can anyone be sure of the loyalties of the Ukrainian electoral commission and judiciary?

It would appear that Russia expects to benefit from its stance at the expense of Western interests. Still one can never rule out Timoshenko, if elected, taking a more nationalistic stance toward Russia or Yushchenko defeating Yanukovich in the second round of voting.

Anthony T. Salvia, Director, American Institute in Ukraine, Kiev:

If things appear to be going Moscow’s way in Ukraine, it’s not because of any tactical cunning on the Kremlin’s part, but because objective factors have coalesced in ways that obviate the need for it. The Ukrainian economy is on life support; France and Germany are adamant in their refusal to allow Ukraine to enter either NATO or the European Union, and Washington—bankrupt and overextended— has its hands full in preventing the emergence of a nuclear-armed Islamist caliphate in South Asia.

Consequently, Ukrainian politicians are increasingly apt to say sensible things about geopolitics. Whereas the outgoing Yushchenko administration appeared intent on participating in the encirclement of Russia, the two candidates likely to get the most votes on January 17—Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich—seem intent on working constructively with Moscow, with the latter opposing NATO membership and the former urging that it be put off into the distant future.

Even the candidate who has positioned himself as heir to the Westernizing Orange Revolution—former Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk—has taken to calling for a revived “Kievan Rus.” This would entail a customs union embracing seven former Soviet republics, including Russia and Ukraine, with its headquarters in Kiev. You can quibble with the practicality of the proposal, but it certainly demonstrates a willingness to work with Moscow.

Consider the views of presidential candidate and former National Bank Chairman Sergei Tigipko. In a lengthy think piece published last September in the Ukrainian edition of Komsomolskaya Pravda, Tigipko issued a ringing call for a foreign policy rooted in the national interest. He says Kiev’s policy for the past five years has been to “participate in a cordon sanitaire” around Russia, a policy which, he says, has done “enormous economic damage” to Ukraine, weakened Ukraine’s position in the post-Soviet realm, and turned Moscow into a “powerful opponent of Ukrainian interests.”

He might have added that the chimera of Euro-Atlantic integration has served to blind Ukraine to its real foreign policy priorities—i.e., the need to work out a modus vivendi with Moscow, and improve relations with Berlin and Paris. Happily, the Ukrainian political class seems to grasp this urgent necessity as never before.

Tigipko criticizes Yushchenko for having put all of Ukraine’s eggs in the American basket, and asserts that the rise of Barack Obama has revealed this policy to be a “complete anachronism.” He says that “not even Washington” finds Yushchenko’s foreign policy “interesting”—a clear reference to the U.S. administration’s desire to reset relations with Moscow. Instead, Ukraine needs a “multi-vector policy”—one that seeks productive relations with the European Union, Russia and the United States, as well as with such important near neighbors as Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey.

The new pragmatism is just what Ukraine needs if it is to serve as a bridge between East and West, rather than a bone of contention. There is no future for Ukraine in allowing the United States to spread a nuclear tripwire along its border with Russia. Washington would be well advised to grasp the potential of a unified pan-European Northern Hemisphere—the once and future Christendom, if you will—in effectively staving off the Islamist challenge. Here, Russo-Ukrainian rapprochement is not only desirable—it is downright indispensable. Washington should encourage the process, rather than seek to drive a wedge between two fraternal states of the utmost strategic importance to pan-Europe.

But there’s a fly in the ointment—two of them, in fact. One is the lack of accountability amongst the Ukrainian political class. The other is Washington.

Ukraine has heard calls for a “multi-vector” foreign policy before and been disappointed. Ex-President Leonid Kuchma coined the phrase, but instead of “multi-vectorism” he promptly antagonized Moscow by raising the specter of NATO entry— even in the face of widespread popular opposition. Yushchenko, his immediate successor, went further along that road, despite the lack of any reference to NATO membership, either for or against, in his 2004 party platform.
So is the newfound realism of the Ukrainian political class sincerely meant, or is it just a flash in the pan? Does Ukraine have a clear sense of its national interest and the strength of character to act on it? Is it willing and able to resist the blandishments of a U.S. foreign policy elite, still (despite everything) besotted with empire and intent on using Ukraine as a wedge with which to bust Eurasia wide open?

While the new administration clearly seeks improved relations with Moscow—and wisely shelved plans to park a ballistic missile defense system on Russia’s doorstep—it is still not clear whether Washington is ready to accept a new security order in Europe that it does not dominate. Such an order, as Moscow has proposed and Berlin and Paris appear ready to accept, provides a broader geopolitical context for the realization of Ukraine's authentic national interests. When a new president takes the reins in Kiev next year, his—or her—realism and pursuit of the national interest may well impel Washington to strike out in a similar direction.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

Russia’s interest in the outcome of Ukrainian elections is not unusual. It is due to many factors, which go beyond politics and the dynamics of routine interactions of countries whose list of commonalities is far longer than the matching list of differences.

Candidates for high elective office everywhere in the world make a point of meeting with international leaders who are important to them (and possibly to the electorate.) As Putin was meeting Timoshenko in the Crimea, Ukraine’s president Yushchenko was hosting the President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili.

Many foreign observers of Russia tend to ignore the pivotal significance of the events in Transcaucasia in August of 2008. At that time, the president of Poland – realizing concepts underlying ancient programs like Intermarium – brought to Tbilisi a veritable collection of associated heads of state who represent territories controlled centuries ago by the Rzecz Pospolita Polska. Victor Yushchenko was prominent among these associates. Later, it was demonstrated that Ukrainian military specialists were active in combat operations of Georgia against Russian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia, and that the government in Kiev is heavily involved in semi-clandestine shipping of armaments to Georgia. Also notable are Yushchenko’s repeated attempts to denounce the natural gas transit and delivery agreements of early 2009 between Ukraine and Russia. In view of such antecedents, Russia’s lack of interest in meeting presidential candidate Yushchenko should not be surprising to anyone.

It is debatable to what extent these meetings can be considered a Russian political “game.” The meeting of prime ministers of the two neighboring countries in the Crimea definitely had objective reasons and an agenda that is important to bilateral relations, regardless of the candidacy status of one of the interlocutors. The meeting in St. Petersburg was evidently more in the context of Yanukovich’s candidacy. But again, we should remember that such meetings are commonplace and therefore it may be reckless to read too much significance into the particular instances under discussion.

The leadership of Ukraine should be decided by Ukrainian voters in what one hopes will be adequately clean and complete elections. In Kiev, one cannot entirely dismiss the possibility of yet another “color revolution,” because the region is profoundly dysfunctional. However, optimism should be le mot du jour during the holiday season…
One notes a persistent interest in observing yet another symptom of possible rift or competition between Medvedev and Putin. This need to evoke or uncover a difference where none is likely to exist (or where the appearance of discrepancy may be due to trivial circumstances) is more telling about the mind of the observer than about any putative differences between the subjects.

In a broader perspective, the West needs to objectively assess the true geopolitical value of Ukraine. Evidently, this country is a useful tool to vex Russia, and a suitable tete-de-pont for regional geopolitical adventures – but the West’s appetite for juvenile behavior seems to have disappeared with the departure of the previous White House tenant. The European Union has been on a path of constructive relations with Russia (not at the detriment of Ukraine) and the current American “perezagruzka” of attitudes in the White House toward Russia also speaks in favor of more balanced and constructive behavior in the region. The global economic crisis is also a harsh mistress. So Yushchenko appears increasingly archaic and even quaint. Constructive dialogue is expected from all concerned, which means possible “curtains” for some of the actors. Timoshenko and Yanukovich certainly do not wish to count themselves among the obsolete ones.

Doctor Srdja Trifkovic, Director, Center for International Affairs, Rockford Institute, Rockford, IL:

The expansion of NATO along the northern shore of the Black Sea is not going to happen, which is good. Moscow does not care a great deal who in particular will succeed Yushchenko, provided he is gone. It is wisely hedging its bets between Yulia and the other Victor, unwilling to be too closely identified with the latter lest his electability is thus undermined.

For as long as Yushchenko is out (as he will be), Russia will breathe a long-overdue sigh of relief. His "vision" of his country - as a third-rate backwater parasitically dependent on the elusive Western largesse contingent upon Kiev's ever-escalating antagonism to Russia - is terminally discredited. This fact is Russia's geopolitical and psychological achievement of the first order, unimaginable in the heady "orange" days five years ago.

Ukraine will never again – let's say, "for decades to come" – be defined by Lviv, i.e. by the intellectually and morally bankrupt political quasi-elite that is in equal measures Russophobic, Polonophobic, Rumanophobic, Jew-hating, and Orthodoxophobic.

This is what matters. Everything else is manageable and negotiable.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

Moscow has learned from the debacle of its policy in 2004 not to be too openly intrusive in Ukrainian politics, especially in an election season. But it is unlikely that the differing approaches to the two candidates in Ukraine reflect opposed foreign policy strategies. Moscow's objectives are greater and its strategy more subtle than that. It is determined to retain at a minimum a pro-Moscow party in Ukraine's politics that can serve as a brake upon the other party, should it think of straightening out Ukraine's politics, reforming them, and/or moving to the West. That way Moscow can retain leverage throughout the duration of the next president's tenure.

The West, I fear, will not intervene. The EU has decided for an ostrich-like policy concerning Eurasia and Georgia, with its new presidential and foreign minster (so to speak) choices. NATO cannot help Ukraine economically or politically, and in any case, Europe is divided. So the main emphasis falls on telling Ukraine to reform itself without offering any strategy or incentives for doing so.

In this situation, Moscow has the leisure to ride both horses at the same time. The presence of Yanukovich at the United Russia Party congress reflects the possibility, cited by, for Russia to establish a permanent party-to-party linkage with him and the Party of Regions, while simultaneously coveting bilateral government relations. But we should make no mistake. Moscow is determined to circumscribe Kiev's sovereignty, restrict its foreign policy choices, gain control over its gas distribution and other key economic sectors, and retain the ability, through control over gas supplies, to corrupt Ukraine's economy and politics. It will not make difficulties before the election, as that only benefits Yushchenko. But we should not underestimate the constancy of Russia's objectives nor the broad range of instruments of power at its disposal that it will try to use toward those ends.
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