Ukraine's independence dependent on relations with Russia

Ukraine's independence dependent on relations with Russia

Now, more than any time since the country gained independence 17 years ago, Ukraine looks destined to come back under Russian hegemony... The deciding factor may be an indecisive West...

Now, more than any time since the country gained independence 17 years ago, Ukraine looks destined to come back under Russian hegemony. Ironically, the more the pro-Western administration of President Viktor Yushchenko resists this outcome, the greater the chances of it coming about. Conflicts in bilateral relations have escalated in direct proportion to a paralyzing power struggle in Kyiv. However, the deciding factor in the fledgling nation`s future may be an indecisive West, caught up in a global economic crisis of its own creation.

By any estimation, relations between Kyiv and Moscow have reached an all-time low. Many of the conflicts have been simmering for years. Indeed, they are often rooted in a history that was put on hold following the First, then the Second World Wars. Anyone who expected the Russians to simply accept the fate dealt to them following the end of the Cold War would do well to restudy this history.

For example, there is the issue of language. Maintaining the widespread use of Russian in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics is seen as a useful lever of influence by Moscow (no less than by Western powers in Africa or other former colonies). But Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has made promotion of Ukrainian one of the pillars of his pro-Western platform of policies since coming to power in 2005. For a variety of reason, a large percentage of Ukrainian citizens resent now having to watch movies and listen to newscasts in Ukrainian only. The authorities in Kyiv have nevertheless stepped up the linguistic pressure by recently moving to ban Russian channels from Ukrainian cable TV. Although the attack is likely aimed more at the pro-Moscow view of many of these channels, the result has predictably been stiff opposition from both Moscow and Ukraine`s significant population of Russian speakers in the country`s south and east.

Then, there is Crimea, which is being increasingly (re)claimed for Russia by Russian politicians as well as by many of the peninsula`s Russian-speaking citizens. In response, Yushchenko`s Foreign Ministry has upped the anti by suggesting that the Russians remove their fleet from Sevastopol before the due date of 2017. Undeterred, the Russian fleet has flaunted any circumscription on its activities by Kyiv, while Moscow simultaneously questions the sea border between Crimea and Southern Russia and pursues plans to build a bridge between the two. If the Chinese were forced to wait until 1997 to regain control of Hong Kong from the British, what does Ukraine expect?

Well, if this question were posed to President Yushchenko, the answer might be: NATO membership. But taking into consideration that the Russians never liked giving up Crimea in the first place, and have become particularly vocal on this issue as their hydrocarbon-funded status on the world stage has improved, adding the expansion of Moscow`s traditional enemy to the equation is certainly not going to ease the tension. As for the Bush administration, it just keeps talking about strategic cooperation, even as it goes forward with its ill-timed decision to place a missile defense system in Central Europe. The Russians are, of course, supposed to be good sports about all this, although the Cuban Missile Crisis, a classic example of the shoe being on the other foot, took place in living memory.

Getting back to Mr. Yushchenko, it`s really impossible at this point to work out whether his NATO bid was meant to deter a Russian military incursion or whether he just stumbled by mistake onto the road of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In either case, Mr. Yushchenko didn`t get the warning sent out by Moscow during its invasion of Georgia last summer. To everyone else, the message was crystal clear: Moscow is no longer going to allow the West to move in on Russia`s traditional sphere of influence, especially when Moscow`s only source of influence (i.e. hydrocarbon exports) on the West is at stake. You can call this Moscow`s version of the Monroe Doctrine or "The Empire Strikes Back," but no one from the West came to Georgia`s rescue. In Ukraine, the pro-Russian opposition even went on the offensive in accusing the president of illegally supplying weapons to the Georgians.

Caught between a rock and hard place, Mr. Yushchenko has increasingly resorted to `barking at the bear`. He may not be able to convince Russia to stop raising the price of its crucial gas exports to Ukraine, but he can travel the globe on a quixotic campaign to get the great Ukrainian famine recognized as genocide perpetrated by Russia. In between, the president has played with other historical powder kegs such as the role of Ukrainian nationalists during World War II. And let`s not forget Yushchenko`s drive to unite the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – and thereby reduce the influence of the patriarch in Moscow.

Maybe, in the future, Yushchenko will be praised for his unbending efforts to fortify the Ukrainian national identity. But in the mean time, he would do well to keep his eye on the ball, as relations with Russia ultimately influence Ukraine`s domestic stability as well as its relations with the West.

At home, the president`s public support has dropped to an inkling of what he enjoyed as the leader of the country`s Orange Revolution. Since then, Yushchenko has additionally alienated virtually all of his political allies, the latest one being parliamentary speaker Arseny Yatseniuk, a man about as politically controversial as a cocker spaniel. But the worst enemy the president has made is his one-time co-revolutionary Yulia Tymoshenko, a political pit bull with her eye on the presidency. Much more `flexible` in her views on Russia and always the populist to the Ukrainian people, Prime Minister Tymoshenko`s victory in the upcoming presidential race may turn out to be a pyrrhic one: There may not be much of a country left to be president of by 2010. Although Ukraine has had to go through painful repeats of the last parliamentary and presidential elections, the country remains as divided as ever. The courts have been prostituted to political interests, and the parliament is dysfunctional. Worse yet, ordinary citizens are still bracing for the full effects that the world financial crisis will have on their fledgling financial existence. The collapse of the stock market and national currency have already confirmed their traditional suspicion of capitalism.

And despite the recent commitment by international financial institutions, Ukraine is looking increasingly alone. It no longer appears as the next stop in almost two decades of Western expansion to the East. Europe has long been divided over its relationship with the former Soviet republic. Power houses like Germany and France have good reason to court Russian energy, which is why both countries were instrumental in putting Ukraine`s NATO bid on the back burner during the last summit in Bucharest. In the Ukrainian corner are EU newcomers Poland and the Baltic states, who are all bark without US teeth. And now that Barrack Obama is set to take the helm in America, a spirit of compromise – including compromise with Russia – may eclipse the confrontation of the Bush years, leaving independent Ukraine more dependent on Russia.

John Marone, a columnist of Eurasian Home website, Kyiv, Ukraine


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