11 October 2009
Last month, a group of east European leaders and intellectuals gathered in the Livadia Palace, where Britain, the US and the Soviet Union held the Yalta conference in February 1945. The idea was to discuss Ukraine's strategic future. But the discussion was overshadowed by one question: will there be a war between Russia and Ukraine?
The scenario is not as daft as it seems. In August, Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, gave his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yushchenko, an unprecedented diplomatic mugging. In a seething letter, and subsequent video message, Medvedev reprimanded Yushchenko for his "anti-Russian" stance. He told him that, as far as Russia was concerned, the pro-western Yushchenko was now a non-person.
After reeling off a list of grievances, Medvedev said he would not be sending an ambassador to Kiev. He also said he was reviewing Russia and Ukraine's 1997 friendship treaty - a hint that Moscow may no longer respect Ukraine's sovereign borders. The message was blunt: whoever wins Ukraine's presidential election in January has to accept Russia's veto over the country's strategic direction.
In recent weeks, pro-Kremlin newspapers have been speculating that Crimea might soon be "reunited" with mother Russia, solving the fleet issue. The best-selling Komsomolskaya Pravda even printed a map showing Europe in 2015. The Russian Federation had swallowed Crimea, together with eastern and central Ukraine. Ukraine still existed, but it was a small chunk of territory around the western town of Lviv.
Last month, Ukraine's nervous intellectual class complained in a letter that the west had abandoned it. Other eastern European countries also share a strong sense of betrayal following Barack Obama's decision last month to cancel America's planned missile defence shield in Poland - a key Ukrainian ally - and the Czech Republic. The shield was seen by many east Europeans as a guarantee against future Russian aggression.
"A lot of people in this part of the world are seriously shitting themselves," one analyst in Yalta admitted bluntly. "We don't know what Obama's deal [with Moscow] was. They think that Russia will take it as a green light," he added. Washington insists it dropped the shield following a new assessment of Iran's nuclear threat. But many in Ukraine believe the White House sacrificed its commitments to eastern Europe in order to "reset" relations with Moscow. The reasoning is clear: Washington needs Russia's help on Iran and other issues. The Bush administration strongly rejected Russian attempts to pressure Ukraine. Obama, in contrast, is preoccupied with Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq. Few are under any illusions that he is prepared to wade in to help Ukraine should Russia choose to attack.
The Europeans, of course, disapprove of Moscow's imperial muscle-flexing. But so far Brussels hasn't offered its own clear alternative. It has indicated that Ukraine has no hope of joining the EU in the foreseeable future.
In May, the EU invited Ukraine and five other post-Soviet states to join a new "eastern partnership" - a scheme scathingly described by one EU thinktank as "enlargement-lite". But the EU, unlike Russia, has refused to liberalise its visa regime for Ukrainians. Moscow, meanwhile, says the partnership is a cack-handed attempt by the EU to build its own rival influence sphere.
Most residents showed little enthusiasm for a possible war. "I served in the Red Army when we all still lived in the Soviet Union. There's no way I would fight against Russia," Yevgeny - who declined to give his second name - said.
Others, however, said that the mood inside Russia had grown more hostile, following a wave of state propaganda depicting Ukrainians as the enemy. The Kremlin has accused Kiev of arming Georgia during last year's South Ossetian war. "A friend from St Petersburg visited recently and asked, 'Why do you hate us?'" Alexander, a 32-year-old taxi driver, said.
"There could be an accidental or deliberate confrontation," Andrew Wilson, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, predicted. "Another unspoken problem is that the Black Sea fleet is a bit like the East India Company - all over the place. You have all this extra infrastructure, you have commercial activities, lighthouses and all sorts of back-door operations."
This month, Russian deputies adopted the first reading of a military doctrine that sanctions the use of the army abroad to protect national interests. "There are signs that the Kremlin would not rule out using forceful means to reach its foreign-political aims," the Ukrainian intellectuals said in their appeal to Obama.
To a large extent, Ukraine has itself to blame for the mess. Since the 2004 pro-western Orange Revolution Kiev has been in a state of political crisis. Yushchenko has fallen out with his one-time ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, the prime minister. They have been involved in a power struggle that has paralysed governance and brought the economy to the brink of default.
In an interview with the Observer, presidential candidate Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that Ukraine would not be bullied. Yatsenyuk - former parliamentary speaker, and a mere 35 - is contesting the presidency against Tymoshenko, Yushchenko and the pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich. "There is no going back to the USSR. There can be no more empires, and no more spheres of influence," Yatsenyuk declared.
Of the four main contenders, Yanukovich has positioned himself as the Kremlin's favoured son. He draws support from Ukraine's Russian-speaking industrial south and east. He has said he will recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia's Russian-occupied provinces.
Yanukovich lost in a re-run to Yushchenko. Yanukovich is ahead in the polls, but Putin has better relations with the populist Tymoshenko, who may steal through to win in a run-off second vote.
Whoever wins will face the problem of how to deal with Moscow. In his video address, Medvedev made clear that he regards Russia and Ukraine as indivisible "brothers". Russian civilisation emerged from Kievan Rus - a confederation of city-states based around Kiev in the ninth century. According to this view, Ukraine is an integral part of Russia - and essential if Russia is to be an empire once again.
Back at the Livadia Palace someone had incongruously installed several plastic aliens next to the table where Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met. Last month's conference was organised by Yalta European Strategy, a pro-European organisation that campaigns for Ukraine's accession to the EU.
Some participants were optimistic. The Kremlin's messages should not be read too seriously, they suggested. "It's noise. It's nothing to do with reality," Ukraine's deputy prime minister, Hryhoriy Nemyria, told the Observer dismissively. "We need more Europe in Ukraine. We are not looking at alternatives."
Complete article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/oct/11/russia-ukraine-control-election