MOSCOW – Is the Obama Administration, busy pushing the “reset button” with Russia is about to suffer a geopolitical setback in Ukraine? When talking to the security experts here, it sure looks like it.
Ukraine is the key to making Russia an empire and, some here believe, a superpower once again.
In the run up to Ukrainian presidential elections in January 2010, the Kremlin has been ratcheting up pressure on President Victor Yushchenko, which Moscow regularly vilifies as pro-American and anti-Russian. .
Ties between the two countries have increasingly frayed following the 2004 Orange Revolution, the 2006 and 2009 gas conflicts, and the war in Georgia last August. The relations have reached their lowest point in recent weeks, and there is a buzz in the Moscow policy elite of further mischief to come.
The current tensions between the two countries were starkly illustrated by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s recent letter to the Ukrainian leadership.
Medvedev accused Preisdent Yushchenko of a litany of anti- Russian abuses, including arms supplies to Georgia before the 2008 war. Medvedev has announced withholding the appointment of the new Russian Ambassador to Ukraine until more “positive dynamics” are reached in bilateral relations after the elections.
A similar message was ominously conveyed in Medvedev’s presidential video blog. Standing on the balcony of his Black Sea residence in Sochi, with a war ship in the background, Medvedev delivered a stern message that resembled a threat of a war to come.
This letter and the video address were clearly intended to undermine pro-Western forces in Ukraine and offer support to pro-Russian politicians and separatists, especially in the Crimea, a majority-Russian speaking peninsula in the Black Sea.
The Russian leadership and Kremlin strategists believe that there is much at stake in the coming presidential election. Many of these issues are strategic, and after the lukewarm response by the West to the Georgian war and Russian-instigated secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Ukraine may be the next target.
The anti-Ukrainian rhetoric in Moscow resembles the invective against Georgia before and after the last war.
Ukrainian politicians call the Medvedev’s letter a blatant interference in Kyiv’s internal affairs. The anti-Ukrainian campaign is in synch with Russia’s aspirations to secure the “privileged sphere of interests” President Medvedev called for after the Georgian war and many time since. It surely starts to look like an “strategic information campaign” before a massive political intervention — or worse.
Moscow has a number of goals in Ukraine. Foremost, Russia is determined to maintain its Black Sea Fleet base in the port of Sevastopol, beyond the expiration of the current naval basing agreement in 2017. Russian tactics to achieve this objective include distribution of Russian passports in Crimea; a campaign to change the procedure of appointing the mayor of Sevastopol, and the loud encouragement of separatism by prominent Russian politicians such as Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, and Konstantin Zatulin, a loudmouth nationalist MP.
Secondly, Medvedev’s message contained a pointed criticism of the recent EU-Ukraine agreement on pipeline modernization. Ukraine is a key energy transit state for Russia. Around 80 percent of Europe’s gas imports from Russia travel through its pipelines.
Ukraine’s importance to gas transit will be undermined when Russia finally bypasses it by building Nord Stream pipeline to Germany in the Baltic Sea and possibly the South Stream pipeline across the Black Sea to Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria.
Lastly, it is clear that Russia is heavily committed to persuading Ukraine to abandon its road to NATO and the EU. Russia’s information campaign is also focused on defeating support for the European Neighborhood Policy; making Russian the second official language:; and on bringing about a “favorable” result in the presidential elections.
Russians would like to see Victor Yanukovich as the next president. He is the leader of the Party of Regions, who was defeated in the past by both Yushchenko and (in the parliamentary elections) by Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko.
Moscow may “swallow” a Timoshenko victory, although the relationship may be a rocky one.
The danger is that, as Europe and US are asleep at the wheel, Moscow may encourage separatism, seriously destabilize the Crimea or even Eastern Ukraine if one of the candidates fails to concede the elections.
Ukraine is emerging as a flash point in relations between Russia and the West. 2010 may be the Year of Ukraine — and it may not be a pretty sight.
The author wants to thank Owen B. Graham, Research Assistant at the Davis Insitute and Khrystyna Kushnir, a Fullbright Scholar from Ukraine, for help preparing of this blog.