December 16, 2004

Putin's Ukraine Agenda...and Ours

Jane's speculates.

According to JID's sources in Kiev, on 28 November the pro-Russian Yanukovych met in Severodonetsk with an aide of former Russian prime minister, and current Russian Ambassador to Ukraine, Viktor Chernomyrdin, the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov and the 16 oblast governors. Top of the agenda was a discussion on greater autonomy for the eastern and south-eastern oblasts of Ukraine.

Prior to the hotly disputed elections held on 21 November, Moscow had been offering the possibility of extending Russian citizenship to Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the Eastern and Southeastern regions such as Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk. The situation in the latter could prove particularly volatile, since the population is split between Russian and pro-Western Ukrainians and any efforts to achieve further regional autonomy could easily spill over into violence.

The Kremlin has been openly promoting a scheme to create a new economic power bloc consisting of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan that could function as counterbalance to the EU and the West in general. Russia and Kazakhstan has very substantial oil and gas reserves, while eastern Ukraine has tremendous coal reserves, as well as 13 Soviet-era steel mills that are still awaiting privatisation.

All quite plausible.

But, and well worth noting, things do look different in places like Dnipropetrosk than they do in Kiev. Read this for more:

These 10 million Ukrainians may be just as fed up as Kiev and Lviv are with the post-Soviet oligarchs and with the corrupt semi-authoritarian regime of Leonid Kuchma, the outgoing president. They may have groaned at Putin's cack-handed appearances on the campaign trail and the blatant attempts to fix the vote for Yanukovich in the east (as also certainly happened in the west for Yushchenko). But are 10 million people who did not vote Yushchenko all to be dismissed as latterday Soviet clones? Do they only jerk into life when Putin and the revamped KGB press the remote control? What do they want? How do they think they are going to get it?

Virtually no one has bothered to find out. The entire western media coverage of the Ukrainian upheaval has been limited to Kiev. There have been few if any camera crews in the cities of Kharkov, Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk. These are streets through which western champions of the well-funded orange revolution should walk before declaring Yushchenko and his friends tribunes of freedom.

There is a faultline running through Ukraine that is a product of its history and people. To talk about the history of Ukraine as simply one of Russian occupation is to disenfranchise the voice and identity of a large chunk of its population. If you are not a Uniate Catholic from western Ukraine, you are likely to be Russian Orthodox from the east or south. Remember that Kiev was a Russian city - the Orthodox church traces its roots to the baptism of Kiev in 988 - before Moscow was even thought of.

If Ukraine's regional polarisation continues as a result of the political crisis, the future for Ukraine does not look bright or orange at all. One model for what could happen in Ukraine is Moldova, Europe's poorest state on Ukraine's south-western border. Two regimes - both now communist, but one facing westward to Romania and the other facing eastward to Russia - fought a bitter if brief war 12 years ago. The Romanian-speaking Moldova is largely a rural economy. The Russian speaking Transdniestr is an industrialised enclave. Twelve years on, two parts of a riven state are still staring sullenly at each other across a river, defying every conceivable formula for power sharing. This is not a path that Ukraine wants to travel.

If Yushchenko's revolution is to work, it will have to be one that works in all parts of Ukraine. Only by running Ukraine as a multi-ethnic state facing both east and west does it stand a chance of becoming a real democracy. But if the inheritors of the post-Soviet quagmire are using popular frustration as a cover for ethnic revenge, the fruits of this revolution will be sour indeed.

That's about right. The "Orange Revolution," like many revolutions, contains within it seeds of going forward oppression that must be kept well in mind--along with all the jubilant talk of liberation emiting from the streets of Kiev. Let's not get too carried away just yet (see Nick Kristof for an example of full-blown cheerleading from the scene). Don't get me wrong. I support the democratic revolution underway in Ukraine. But Russia has hugely significant historical links to eastern portions of that country, and many inhabitants located there feel more affinity to Russia than western parts of Ukraine. They have aspirations, fears, legitimate concerns too.

The U.S. and EU must be heavily involved in ensuring that those regions aren't cast aside or slighted should Yushchenko prevail. That will increase the chances that said regions don't separate via some deep autonomy arrangements or de facto secession so as to more fully enter Russia's orbit--a bad result for the U.S.--because, of course, we seek to limit Russia's control of its so-called "near abroad." That said, however, we cannot too fully rub Russia's nose in it. Put differently, declining powers must be managed with tact--overt humiliation of Russia on matters so important to their national interest (eastern Ukraine, parts of Kazakhstan, Belarus) might backfire in the not too distant future.

Bottom line: support Yushchenko, ensure eastern Ukraine's rights are fully respected going forward, allow Russia special trade/economic links in said areas, coordinate closely with Moscow and Brussels to maximize transperency so as to foster greater trust among the key parties. This is, after all, a very delicate period fraught with not insignificant risks that Ukraine could split in two-a result B.D. considers contra the U.S. national interest.

Posted by Gregory at December 16, 2004 04:37 AM

Greg, you know that Sammy P. sort of predicted this would happen, right?

Posted by: praktike at December 16, 2004 02:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg, what is the risk that "those [eastern] regions aren't cast aside or slighted should Yushchenko prevail"?

Yushchenko's sidekick is the arch-thief from Dnipropetrovsk, Yulia Timoshenko (aka the "Eleven Billion Woman"). Yulia contrived with the help of Ukrainian PM Pavel Lazarenko (who was convicted in California of money-laundering and other crimes) to set up a scam holding company that dominated Ukraine's entire energy industry, ie about 20% of Ukraine's entire GDP, and funneled billions in cash to Yulia and other corrupt pols.

How exactly would Yulia alienate the Russian-aligned oligarchs and proles in the East? She's thick as thieves with them; in fact she's one of them.

Posted by: lex at December 16, 2004 09:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yeah, but she's a total fox.

Posted by: praktike at December 17, 2004 06:01 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

That quote from the Guardian is sadly typical Eruo-left reactionary clap-trap arising mainly out of opposition to Bush and refusal to acknowledge or support anything good happening on his watch.

"Oh, we can't be supporting democracy in Ukraine, it's Russia's traditional sphere of influence and we'd be meddling in their affairs. It was originally a Russian city in 988. Blah blah blah..."

By the logic used in that article, I'm sure Guardian writers, readers, and other members of the Euro-left would support immediately withdrawing UNMOVIC and allowing the Serbs to move back into their sphere of influence in Kosovo. After all, that was originally Serbian territory until they lost it to the Turks in 1389.

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