Kremlin Intensifies Pressure as Ukraine Prepares for Vote

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 14, 2009

KIEV, Ukraine -- Five years after Ukraine defied Russia and turned toward the United States and Europe in a peaceful, democratic revolution, Moscow is poised for a comeback in this former Soviet republic.

The pro-Western president who came to power as the hero of the Orange Revolution is struggling with single-digit ratings just months before he stands for reelection. The man Russia backed in 2004 is leading the race to succeed him. And the next-strongest candidate also appears acceptable to the Kremlin.

But rather than sit out the election, Russia has redoubled its efforts to portray Ukraine as a hostile neighbor, lodging a barrage of complaints against its policies and plunging relations between the two countries to their lowest point since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The vilification campaign has puzzled and alarmed analysts here as well as in Washington and Moscow. Many say Russia is trying to tilt the electoral field even further in its favor. But because that seems unnecessary, some are also asking whether Russian leaders might be laying the groundwork for a more serious confrontation with Ukraine, just a year after a brief war with another pro-Western neighbor, Georgia.

"Wars and conflicts begin with discussion of them as an option," said Valeriy Chaly, a foreign policy scholar at the Razumkov Center, a top research institute in Kiev. "Now, for the first time in years, the word 'war' is being used here, and it's not dismissed as impossible."

Eighteen years after the Soviet Union's collapse, Ukrainian independence still does not sit well with many Russians -- and a sizable minority in Ukraine -- who feel strongly about the country's cultural and historic ties to Russia. Relations have always been strained, but they became especially rocky after the Orange Revolution, when huge crowds protesting election fraud and autocratic rule rejected the Russian-backed presidential candidate and swept in a pro-Western government.

The democratic uprising worried Russia's own authoritarians, and Ukraine's subsequent push to join NATO alarmed them further. Recriminations between Moscow and Kiev became almost routine and culminated in a prolonged standoff over natural gas deliveries to Europe in the winter.

In recent weeks, though, Russian officials have ratcheted up the rhetoric, accusing Ukraine of sending troops to Georgia last year to kill Russian soldiers and of disrupting the operations of the Russian fleet in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued a letter last month that denounced his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yushchenko, and read like a brief for war.

The letter catalogued more than a dozen "anti-Russian" policies, including Ukraine's NATO bid, mistreatment of Russian investors, limits on the use of the Russian language, and efforts to promote a version of history that says the Soviet Union committed genocide against Ukrainians in the 1930s.

In a somber video released with the letter and staged with warships floating in the Black Sea behind him, Medvedev said he would refrain from sending a new ambassador to Ukraine, adding that tensions between the two countries had "hit unprecedented levels."

"Basically, we've entered a cold war," said Oleksandr Tretiakov, a parliamentary leader in Yushchenko's party who argues that Russia is trying to use its economic clout and control of the media to portray Ukraine as a "failed state" and unravel the Orange Revolution, which Moscow describes as a U.S.-engineered coup.

Some say the Kremlin is trying to distract its population from problems at home; polls show that Russians have more negative attitudes toward Ukraine than they do even toward the United States. But the message has resonated with many in Ukraine who are nostalgic for the Soviet era. Ukraine's 46 million people include 8 million ethnic Russians concentrated in the east and south.

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