Putin’s Wary Reconciliation

Although the newly elected Ukraine president Victor Yushchenko arrived in Moscow today in a gesture of reconciliation, Russia's ill-disguised attempt to defeat him in the election has left a bad taste in the mouth. It has not only soured relations between these two historically close partners giving rise to anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine, but also further complicated Russia's relationship with the West. Russia does not want to release Ukraine from its sphere of influence, and is extremely concerned about the prospect of NATO and EU expansion extending to the Ukraine. In confronting these issues, Liliana Proskuryakova writes that old style Soviet politics will not work. To succeed, Russia must craft a more modern foreign policy that repairs relations with the West and takes into account the realities of today. - YaleGlobal

Putin's Wary Reconciliation

Russia faces stiff challenges in repairing relations with US and Ukraine
Liliana Proskuryakova
Monday, January 24, 2005
Good cop, bad cop: Ukraine president Victor Yushchenko led a conciliatory mission to Moscow but appointed anti-Russian Yulia Tymoshenko (right) as his prime minister. (Photo: DPA)

MOSCOW: Although President Putin took nearly a month to congratulate Viktor Yushchenko on his victory in the re-run presidential election in Ukraine, in a bow to the geopolitical reality Yushchenko made Moscow his first stop in a presidential tour… "Russia is our eternal strategic partner," Yushchenko told Putin. But the diplomatic niceties could not hide the deep chasm that has arisen as a result of Moscow’s ham-handed interference in the Ukraine election or the challenge that Putin faces as a result of Yushchenko’s victory.

The nature of the challenge ahead was underlined within moments of Yushchenko’s arrival in Moscow. While out of consideration for his host's sensitivity, Yushchenko did not wear his trademark orange scarf, which represented the party that Moscow so badly wanted defeated, it was announced in Kiev that a firebrand anti-Russian ally Yulia Tymoshenko, was named the prime minister.

Behind these signs of friction lie the fact that Russia's interference with the election has damaged its future capacity to exercise influence, both in Ukraine and abroad. Indeed, President Putin's zeal to strengthen the Russian bond with Ukraine and keep the Western presence at bay proved counterproductive. Rather than improving relations, his actions produced an anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine and complicated relations with the United States and the European Union.

Ukraine has had close political ties to Russia for a long time – ties which Russia is not willing to cede. Ukraine is a country of vital importance in many respects. First, it is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and smaller economic alliances in the post-Soviet space. Rich in natural resources, Ukraine also provides Russia guaranteed access to strategically important Black Sea ports. Furthermore, its geographic location gives it a particular geopolitical importance, encouraging a rivalry among the EU, United States, and Russia for influence on its political development.

This conflict is apparent in the tension surrounding the possibility of Ukraine's membership in NATO. So far, the nation has not officially expressed interest in joining, and Moscow hopes this will remain the case – at least in the near future. Ukraine's membership would expand the Western alliance even closer to Russian borders. The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act opened the way for Eastern enlargement, eventually leading to the creation of the NATO-Russia Council. The exclusion of Ukraine would allow Russia to remain one of the few privileged partners.

Russia's anxiety became palpable, considering that Yushchenko's victory became almost synonymous with Ukraine's membership not only in NATO, but also in the EU – though the EU will not make binding promises to Ukraine with regards to membership, only proffering a vaguely defined "political neighborhood" policy. In fact, in his inauguration rally Yushchenko declared "Our place is in the European Union" – which is only the first step towards NATO

The prospect of NATO and EU expansion sent Russia scrambling to prevent any further Western influence. In its frantic efforts, the leadership simply over-reached in the presidential campaign in Ukraine. Putin's prematurely congratulating Yanukovich as the new President-elect, as well as Putin's six visits to Ukraine in 2004 (more than to any other country), constituted precious social capital – that was ultimately spent in vain. According to the Chair of Presidium of the Russian think-tank, Council of Foreign and Security Policy, when the time came to use this capital during the meetings of international mediators in Ukraine, Putin had nothing left.

This turn of events was tragic for Russia, which – at the start of the campaign – had all the preconditions to turn the situation to suit its best interests. Ultimately, though, the Russian political consultants who had carte-blanche to work in Ukraine were more a nuisance than help for Yanukovich. Their uncoordinated and sometimes contradictory efforts, at times simply aimed to show-off, resulted in substantial loss of public support. The "hand of the Kremlin" was too obvious an intrusion in the internal affairs of the newly independent state.

The fight over the Ukrainian presidency was essentially between two oligarchic business groups, leading the outgoing politicians to use any means necessary to preserve their power. Yuschenko alleged that his dioxin poisoning may have been at the hands of his opponents. Though the suspicions are unconfirmed, many still suspect foul play on the part of the outgoing government.

The upshot of the electoral over-reaching is growing anti-Russian sentiment within the Ukrainian population. These sentiments are negatively affecting Russian national interests in the international arena. In the end, Russian foreign policy has alienated a whole lot of people.

Ukraine is yet another country in the post-soviet camp – after Georgia and Yugoslavia – in which the regime changed to the dissatisfaction of Moscow. The causes of Russia's rapidly decreasing influence lie in the highly centralized system of foreign policy decision-making, wherein the old-fashioned and non-reformed Ministry for Foreign Affairs plays a minor role. Recent events reinforce the need to reform Russian foreign policy in both bi- and multi-lateral relationships with the CIS, Europe, and the Americas. Short-term objectives cannot be successfully attained by forcing through desired policies. And popular support can neither be won with political subterfuge nor substituted by bureaucratic decisions. Russian authorities still have much to learn about effective policy-making from their Western counterparts.

Moscow has not developed and at present cannot suggest a clear set of attractive goals and ideology for either Russian citizens or those in strategically important neighboring countries.

One of the possible solutions to Russia's wounded image internationally could be strengthening trans-Atlantic ties of both Ukraine and Russia with the US, thus making all parties members of the same club. However, admitting Ukraine to NATO on conditions that it sustains good neighborhood relations and cares about its national minorities would likely not work. First, protection of ethnic minorities is not a NATO specialization; similar efforts did not work particularly well in the Baltics. Further, the current Russian leadership, who still view NATO as an imminent evil, will treat the organization's Eastern expansion as a clear threat to the Russian state. At the moment, both Russia and Ukraine have special relations with NATO that are working well. The challenge now is to transform these into a political triangle, where each side contributes and reinforces the others.

The key challenge for Russian foreign policy in 2005 will be to develop a comprehensive ideology both for internal and external use, taking into consideration the various internal stakeholders - civil society, business, regions - and their interests. Another challenge, given the complicated Russia-EU relations, will be negotiating the Agreements on Four Common Spaces at the May 2005 summit. At present, negotiations continue behind closed doors, as both sides discuss how to best fill the thus-far empty Spaces: economy, foreign policy, security and justice, and science and education.

In addition, the Russia-US partnership, rife with tension and mistrust, must be overhauled. After supporting the US campaign for NATO enlargement and the global fight against terrorism, Moscow was enraged when the United States backed Yushchenko during the Ukrainian elections and criticized Russia's lack of democracy in its policy reforms. Considering Russia's waning regional and international influence, it would behoove the administration to mend its US relations.

Finally, in the coming year Russia will be challenged to further develop and sustain its newly made partnerships with the emerging regional centers of power in the East Asia, Latin America and the Far East. If the humiliation in Ukraine serves to reenergize and modernize Russian foreign policy approach that would still be a blessing in disguise.

Liliana Proskuryakova is head of the International Unit, St.Petersburg Center for Humanities and Political Studies “Strategy”.

© 2005 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization