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.
A friendly government in Ukraine is a strategic priority for Russia. Ukrainian pipelines carry Russian gas to Europe, and the Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol under a deal that expires in 2017. But there is also an emotional bond, because both Russians and Ukrainians trace their history to a medieval kingdom that was centered in Kiev.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin once argued to President George W. Bush that Ukraine wasn't a real country, and speaking to reporters in late May, he read approvingly from the diaries of an imperial general who referred to Ukraine as "Little Russia."
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the Kremlin cannot imagine Russia as a great power without Ukraine. The debate among policymakers, he said, is between moderates who want to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and ensure that it continues delivering Russian gas, and officials calling for a proactive strategy aimed at "soft dominance" over the country.
"Recently, it's moving toward the more proactive position," he said.
Both Putin and Medvedev have a personal stake in reversing the Orange Revolution, which was seen in Moscow as a humiliating defeat. Putin, when he was president, recognized the losing candidate as the winner of the election, while Medvedev, then Putin's chief of staff, supervised the heavy-handed campaign effort that backfired.
Mikhailo Pohrebinski, a political consultant who advised Ukraine's former president and often worked with Medvedev, said Russia's president appears to be building a case that Ukraine is violating its 1997 friendship treaty with Russia -- the only agreement in which Moscow has recognized Ukraine's borders.
The escalation of tensions comes at a difficult time for Ukraine, which has been hit hard by the global economic crisis and is struggling to enact painful reforms required for billions of dollars in emergency loans. With the January presidential election approaching, the nation's fractious leadership is even more divided and distracted than usual.
Russia has not endorsed a candidate, as it did five years ago when it backed the then-prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, who is now leader of Ukraine's largest opposition party and has made progress shaking his old image as a corrupt autocrat.
Though he may still be Moscow's favorite candidate, and is the front-runner in the race, Russia seems to be spreading its bets this time. Only Yushchenko has been attacked by name by Russian media, and he has proven such an unpopular and ineffective leader that he has little chance of winning reelection anyway.
Oleksandr Sushko, research director at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, said the Kremlin is trying to force itself onto the campaign agenda and hold a "casting call" in which the candidates must clarify their positions on the issues Russia cares about.
But all of the major candidates, including Yanukovych, favor further integration with Europe, and none is likely to make as many concessions as Russia demands once in office, he said. As a result, the Kremlin is trying to increase its leverage over them now, while also preparing for a confrontation if that fails.
Yanukovych's strongest opponent in the race is Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a leader of the Orange Revolution and former ally of Yushchenko's who says she will improve relations with Russia without sacrificing Ukraine's independence.
Tymoshenko won praise from Putin after negotiating a deal with him to end the standoff that cut fuel supplies to much of Europe last winter. But she committed Ukraine to buy a fixed amount of gas in the contract, and now, with demand down in the recession, she is trying to renegotiate.
She and Putin emerged from a meeting last month saying Russia had agreed in principle to give Ukraine a break. But critics say Tymoshenko has left herself open to be blackmailed by the Kremlin, perhaps just before the election. For example, Russia has objected to a deal that Tymoshenko signed with the European Union to help modernize and reform Ukraine's gas sector.
Julia Mostovaya, deputy editor of Kiev's most independent newspaper, Zerkalo Nedeli, said Yushchenko's failure to pursue further democratic reforms after the Orange Revolution has left Ukraine vulnerable to Russian influence.
"It's a very dangerous situation now," she said. "We have two leading candidates without principles, and Russia has leverage to influence both."