For Putin, Ukraine Is Too Important to 'Lose'

Each time a statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin falls in Ukraine, it becomes a little more tempting to think that Russia's Vladimir Putin has somehow "lost" Ukraine.

U.S. President Barack Obama tried to circumvent such Cold War rhetoric in comments during a trip to Mexico on Feb. 19. "Our approach as the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chess board in which we're in competition with Russia," he said. "Our goal is to make sure the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future."

But harsh geopolitical reality tells a different story. Since gaining its independence in 1991, Ukraine has been stuck between the allure of the West and a Russia eager to maintain its sphere of influence in the former Soviet space.

"Russia, understanding that without Ukraine it would not be able to take its place in the wider arena of Europe and create a new, powerful structure that could counterbalance the United States and others, made the strategic decision to keep Ukraine in its embrace," Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's first post-Soviet president, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv Steven Pifer speaks in similar terms: "The Russians have very strong motivations. I think this is a big deal for Vladimir Putin. He wants to build a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. A big part of that would be the customs union. If Ukraine is moving towards the European Union, there's a big hole in that sphere. And I think it's also important for Vladimir Putin, for his domestic political constituency. Pulling Ukraine back is popular at home. Losing Ukraine would not be popular."

People fly Ukrainian and European Union flags following the toppling by protesters of a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin in Kyiv on Dec. 8, 2013. /Reuters People fly Ukrainian and European Union flags following the toppling by protesters of a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin in Kyiv on Dec. 8, 2013. /Reuters

◆ Existential Threat?

But Ukraine's importance for Russia is much more than merely one of popularity. Writing in The Independent on February 23, Andrew Wilson, author of "Ukraine's Orange Revolution," argues that "a real democracy in Ukraine is an existential threat to the entire system that Vladimir Putin has built since 2000."

Not only is authoritarian Russia unlikely to welcome an example of an overthrown kleptocracy in the post-Soviet space, Moscow also sees vital economic and security interests in Ukraine. Its Black Sea Fleet is based at Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea; much of its natural-gas flows to Europe still pass through Ukrainian pipelines; and Russia's oligarchs have extensive and lucrative interests in the country, especially its eastern reaches.

Analysts agree the likelihood of a Russian military intervention anywhere in Ukraine -- despite occasional calls from Russophone areas for Moscow to send in "peacekeepers" -- is minimal. Any such intervention would be far more difficult and costly than Moscow's incursion into Georgia in 2008.

However, Russia does seem intent on promoting what it calls the "federalization" of Ukraine, a tactic that could increase its leverage against the central government and enable Moscow to throw up roadblocks to Ukraine's further integration with the European Union by establishing deep economic relations with "autonomous" eastern regions.

Analyst Dmitri Trenin, who heads the Moscow Carnegie Center, argued in "The New York Times" on February 23, however, that "although federalization is seen in Kyiv and western Ukraine as a step toward ultimate partition, it could in fact help hold Ukraine together" since "more financial and cultural autonomy" could enable the different parts of the country to coexist more easily.

◆ Torn Between East, West

At the same time, Ukraine's economy is teetering on the brink of collapse. The government has issued a call for $35 billion in immediate assistance and an international donors conference. Russia's leverage via trade and energy -- Ukraine is heavily dependent on subsidized gas from Russia -- gives the opportunity, if it desires, to stimulate popular discontent and aggravate political divisions.

As Wilson wrote in his analysis, "the new government in Ukraine...will be given the briefest of ritualistic honeymoons before Russia uses every instrument at its disposal to try to make it fail."

Already on Feb. 24, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev cast doubt on the new government's very legitimacy. "Some of our foreign partners, Western partners, think otherwise -- they consider these authorities legitimate. I don't know which constitution and what legislation they are reading from," he said. "I think it is an aberration of consciousness of some kind to give legitimacy to something that in essence is a result of an armed revolt."

Being caught in this East-West vortex has been not only painful but harmful for Ukraine since independence, argues Samuel Charap, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the Washington-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). In a piece for "Foreign Policy" earlier this month, Charap said that "it is precisely this 20-year tradition of geopolitical one-upmanship that led to this crisis in the first place by allowing a parasitic political-economic system to bargain its way out of reform."

He argues that only "international mediation" involving both Russia and the West can produce a long-term solution for Ukraine. "Such common ground seems like a pipe dream given current tension," he concedes. "But the alternative is perpetual crisis."

VOA News / Feb. 27, 2014 07:53 KST