KIEV, Ukraine -- Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko has bluntly stated that the West is letting Ukraine’s sovereignty to be sold away and the Russians to take over.
Since the election of Viktor Yanukovich (by a slim margin of 3.48%) in February 2010 as president of Ukraine, the reversal of Ukraine’s pro-Western progress, led by previous pro-Western president Viktor Yushchenko, has been swift.
Within one month after the vote, Yanukovich abroptly shut down a government commission preparing Ukraine’s eventual accession into NATO. A month later, he struck a deal with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev extending the Russian Black Sea Fleet to remain headquartered in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol at least until 2042. In exchange Ukraine was to be granted a 30% discount on imported Russian gas.
Before Yanukovich’s election win, Ukraine was insisting that Russia would have to vacate their Crimean navel base when the old lease expired in 2017. But if a future pro-Western government decides to boot the Russian navy out of Sevastopol, it would have to repay all of the gas discounts from which Ukrainians have benefitted.
Tymoshenko warns that the country’s current rulers see everyting as an asset to be sold, including natural resources, state monopolies, government cash flows, media and factories.
The most crucial deal Tymoshenko considers to be Russia’ state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom’s intent to outright merger witrh Naftohaz Ukrainy. Ukraine has held off, while proposing a 50/50 ownership.
Russia’s goal of controlling Ukraine’s transit infrastructure is understandable since 80% of Russian energy exports to Europe flow through Ukraine’s pipelines. The North Stream pipeline project will not drastically change the picture.
But if Russia were to outrright control Ukraine’s energy conduit, both Ukraine and parts of Europe would be at the total mercy of Moscow. In addition, Russia’s nuclear conglomerate TVEL won contracts to supply uranium to Ukrainian reactors, beating competition from Westinghouse and tightening Ukraine’s energy dependence on Russia.
The hallmarks of an entrenched dependency on Moscow are very evident in the military and economic sectors. Kiev’s Russia-oriented rulers are also changing the ideological/political landscape of the country. Yanukovich’s supporters have taken over previouslyt independent TV outlets like Channel 5 and RTVi.
He has compiled a list of people and topics forbidden to be broadcast on TV. Stepan Bandera, a WWII freedom fighter against both the Nazis and communists and a national hero to most Ukrainians, has been banned from Ukrainian history. Yanukovich, of mixed Polish, Belorussian and Ukrainian descent, whose mother tongue is actually Russian is backing attempts to upgrade Russian as an official state language. (To his credit, Yanukovich has been taking Ukrainian lessons.)
The Holodomor, a Soviet-instigated genocidal famine targeted against Ukraine in the 1930’s has received a revisionist rewriting, rendering Moscow blameless.
While Yanukovich’s radical changes in direction have sometimes percipitated in physical battles amogst parliamentarians in the Supreme Rada, especially with respect to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, polls have indicated that emotions haven’t run that high in the population.
Apparently more than 60% approve of the Russian navy staying and modernizing, perceiving economic benefits to the locality, which is heavily ethnic Russian, and to Ukrainian shipyards.
While one in three Ukrainians are native speakers of Russian, only 17.3% of the total population identified themselves in the 2001 census as ethnic Russians. This is a dramatic example of the effect of classic Russification, at least in the realm of languages.
But Ukraine’s largest trading partner is still Russia and some say that actually trade and investments, more than Yanukovich’s political predilictions, will keep these neighbours close.
Others remind us of the contempt with which Putin regards Ukraine as he bluntly put it to George Bush at a NATO summit in 2008 that Ukraine is “not even a real state” and that Ukraine would “cease to exist as a state” were it to be a NATO member. They say that the sharp about-face by Yanukovich is more due to Moscow’s influence than a pragmatic economic accomodation.
If the WikiLeaks revelations are credible, then Vladimir Putin’s hate for Ukraine’s pro-Western past president Viktor Yuhchenko is matched by his disdain for the current pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovich.
A 2009 cable from US ambassador to Kiev, William Taylor quotes Ukrainian foreign minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko saying that the Kremlin wants a “regency” in Ukraine, someone in control who is totally subservient to Moscow. Observers feel that this reflects Russia’s annoyance and discomfort with Ukraine’s independence.
Even the willingness of Ukraine’s current leaders to seek short term economic gains by making strategic concessions has not brought more respect for Kiev.
Russia has not only been able to solidly anchor its military presence in Ukraine, but has also co-opted Ukraine’s security services. The pro-western head of Ukraine’s secret service (SBU) was replaced by a Moscow-friendly director.
Russian security services have been given a free hand in the Crimea (in reality this means all over Ukraine). The SBU and Russia’s FSB signed a co-operation agreement, whereby the SBU no longer targets Russia but rather the US.
However, some analysts still insist that Ukraine’s seemingly abrupt international about-face displays subtleties and complexities that shouldn’t be dismissed. Yanukovich’s loyal political base is the pro-Russia electorate in eastern and southern Ukraine, and his open courtship of Moscow might in fact be political camouflage for a strategy of steady movement towards Europe demanded by the business interests of his party’s supporters.
It’s also worth noting that Yanukovich’s prime minister Mykola Azarov doesn’t speak Ukrainian. This reveals the current administration’s disregard for the sensibilities (at least on the language issue) of Ukrainian nationalists.
Within one week of being inaugurated as president, Yanukovich visited Brussels first and then Moscow. Never considered simplistically as a pro-Russia presidential candidate, he has withstood pressure from Moscow to make rash statements about NATO and Russia’s proposed customs union.
There are vastly greater benefits to be accrued from a comprehensive free trade pact with the EU than a Russia-dominated customs union.
Pro-Russia observers indicate that a total Russia-Ukraine strategic union is inevitable. They point to numerous polls that showed a lack of support for NATO membership. (Yushchenko never received a solid invitation to join from increasing leery western leaders.)
Ethnically Russian-populated Crimea has been home for the Russian Black Sea fleet for over 200 years. The Kiev International Institute of Sociology says that more than 60% of Ukrainians have no objection to the fleet remaining there for another quarter century.
Other opinion surveys indicate that issues such as NATO membership or the status of the Russian language are not high priority concerns for Ukrainians. It has been suggested that these polls reveal confusion and a secret desire to maintain the status quo, for change is precarious and the benefits indeterminate.
A poll conducted four years ago indicated that 93% of surveyed Ukrainians desired “order” as the most needed condition; 25% opted for “liberalism”. Another poll, in 2006, showed that only 10% of Ukrainians were willing to give concessions to Russia for cheap gas. This willingness had risen to 58.7% in 2010 – an indication for some that Russia had won the hearts and minds of Ukraine`s people.
In attempting to stifle opposition protest, Yanukovich is seen to be mimicking Putin’s autocratic style of leadership. In spite of this he enjoys firm support in specific parts of the country.
While many Ukrainians, especially in the heavily Russified regions take their cultural and political cues from Moscow, others still insist, however, that in the long run, Ukraine won’t do anything that works against its national interests.
But Russia’s “war” in the area, at first glance, appears to be major success – a “war” conducted on the sly, using political maneuverings, security services and big business. However it needn’t be irreversible.
Ukrainian patriots both in their homeland and abroad, stress that ways for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration be broadened, that a western out-reach which includes travel, education and investment be enlivened.
Ukraine’s business community do not need incessant cajoling to boost their interest in economic integration with Europe and the West. They know they need not become just a commercial conduit for Russia.
It’s still feasible for the western military and NATO to continue cooperation with Ukraine’s defence forces, in spite of the fact that its membership is off the current agenda.
In addition, as has been stressed time and again at numerous forums, the West should engage Ukraine’s civil society and support the pro-Western, democratic community in the country.