Ukraine's Shadow Across Eurasia

KIEV, Ukraine -- Modern Ukraine's most famous son, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, once said, "He who cannot eat horse meat need not do so. Let him eat pork. But he who cannot eat pork, let him eat horse meat. It's simply a question of taste."

Nikita Khrushchev

The predicament facing the United States over the death of the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine is somewhat similar. The choice is whether to do business with the incoming pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich or to destabilize him in the coming months by consorting with the mercurial opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. The dilemma is acute insofar as Washington doesn't have a genuine "taste" for either of the two Ukrainian leaders.

The choice would have been easy if Moscow had placed its cards on the table. But Moscow is not helping matters. It is eschewing polemics and is not stating preferences. Instead it is putting on a poker face - an exasperating correct median line. No sooner had Yanukovich assumed office in Kiev on Friday than Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov extended customary greetings and expressed hope for the development of bilateral ties.

President Vladimir Putin took another three full days to add his felicitations. On Monday, significantly, he first telephoned Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to congratulate him for putting an end to the political crisis emanating out of the latter's rift with his "orange partner" Tymoshenko. And only then did Putin congratulate Yanukovich.

With characteristic understatement, Moscow drew attention to the great strategic defeat that the US has suffered in Ukraine. It is common knowledge that the US actively worked behind the scenes after the March elections to put together an orange coalition of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.

Washington was eager to see an orange coalition in power in Kiev so that at the summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in November in Riga, Ukraine could be formally invited to a membership action plan, which in turn would qualify Ukraine potentially for full membership at the 2008 NATO enlargement summit. But in the event, Yushchenko simply would have no truck with Tymoshenko.

Fearing that his popularity, which is already below 10%, might plummet even further if fresh elections were held because of a hung parliament, Yushchenko opted for a grand coalition with Yanukovich despite the US administration's deep suspicion of the latter as a menace to the United States' geopolitical interests. Worse still, as a former American diplomat put it, "pretty much everybody ... was surprised" by the undercurrents that swept Yanukovich to power.

Washington has put a brave face on the geopolitical shift in Kiev. The US State Department spokesman claimed satisfaction that Yanukovich's return to power was "in the old-fashioned, democratic way" and, therefore, Washington would seek a "good relationship" with his government, "just as we would with any other democratically elected government".

Yet such grandstanding couldn't hide that in three broad directions at least, Yanukovich's ascendancy signifies a shift in Ukraine's policies that profoundly hurt the US position. First, developments in Ukraine conclusively debunk Washington's claims that a wave of US-sponsored freedom and democracy was on the march. President George W Bush himself had listed in his 2005 State of the Union address the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine as one of the "landmark events in the history of liberty".

As Russia scholar Anatol Lieven wrote, these assumptions on which the US strategies have been based stand contradicted today; Ukraine "demonstrated that the processes which the West has encouraged in Central Europe and the Baltic states cannot be extended seamlessly to the former Soviet Union. Societies, economies and national identities and affinities are very different, links to Russia are closer, and both the US and the EU are weaker than appeared to be the case a few years ago."

Indeed, the reverberations of the collapse of the "orange project" will be felt far and wide in the post-Soviet space. Belarussian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will feel vindicated in his assertion that there will be no rose, orange or banana revolutions in his country. Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia, on the other hand, will worry that "color revolutions" are not irreversible.

Kurmanbek Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan would be gratified that his early burial of the "Tulip Revolution", and his choice of indigenous and regional moorings as the mainstay of power, were after all the correct choice.

Across the length and breadth of the post-Soviet space a realization will have dawned that the era of the "color revolutions" has ended and that with all its awesome power as the sole superpower, there are serious limits to the US influence in bringing about regime changes. Certainly, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine - or, wherever Washington has let the genie of "democracy" out of the bottle - pandemonium prevails.

The Bush administration faces a serious credibility problem in the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, which will pose a difficult legacy for the next administration. The less said the better for Washington's "Greater Central Asia" strategy or any mediation in settling the "frozen conflicts" in Moldova or Transcaucasus. (Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin visited Moscow on Tuesday to discuss with Putin key issues of finding a settlement to the Transdnistria problem.)

Equally Ukraine, with its 50 million people, its advanced military-industrial complex, its strong agricultural base, its highly strategic geography, and not least of all its near-mystic appeal to Mother Russia, should have been the fulcrum around which an entire geopolitics was conceived by the US. With Ukraine cut adrift once again in the midriff of Eurasia, issues are wide open.

Democracy may or may not have changed Yanukovich. But one thing is certain: Moscow is back in serious business in Ukraine - that is, if it ever was out of it in real terms. In his first remarks within hours of assuming office, Yanukovich told the Russian government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta that Ukraine-Russia ties will run on an altogether different track than under the orange regime. He said: "We need to stop quarrelling with our neighbors and learn to have respectful discussions ... The new government is not going to foster anti-Russia sentiments in Ukraine."

Influential Russian politicians promptly reciprocated. But the chairman of the Russian duma's International Affairs Committee, Konstantin Kosachyov, underlined Moscow's cautious approach not to raise hackles in the West. He commented: "Yanukovich stands for a balanced foreign policy of Ukraine. Russian-Ukrainian relations now have a chance to overcome the crisis and start gradual development." The emphasis of Russian politicians was on the "de-ideologization" of Russian-Ukrainian relations and their pragmatic development.

All indications are that Russia will offer Yanukovich's government a new concept of strategic partnership focusing on the economic-reform objectives of Ukraine but aimed at closer integration with Russia in terms of projects and programs. Russia has an inherent advantage over all of Ukraine's Western partners in pursuing such a course. More important, it is a "win-win" situation, since Russia will also attend to the top priorities of Ukraine's political economy.

But US cold warriors seem to be stopping at nothing to raise the dust in Russia-Ukraine relations. They see fresh hope in the "checks and balances" implicit in the Yushchenko-Yanukovich grand coalition. (They made more or less the same misplaced assumption in the case of the Bakiyev-Felix Kulov team in Kyrgyzstan.) They count on Tymoshenko providing an "effective critique" of the grand coalition in Kiev. They insist democracy has changed Yanukovich's outlook. They calculate that the US still has its own clientele in the Ukrainian leadership. They visualize Yushchenko, though an isolated politician, as still capable of (and interested in) fighting for the "orange" spirit.

Without doubt, Yanukovich will create a change in atmosphere in Ukraine's relations with Russia, especially at the political and diplomatic level. He will not be enthusiastic about the anti-Russia regional groupings sponsored by Washington such as the GUAM group (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova) or the Community of Democratic Choice. These regional groupings are bound to wither away if Kiev doesn't put its heart in them.

The million-dollar question has always been about the prospects of Ukraine's NATO membership. In his first comments, Yanukovich reiterated his opposition to Ukraine joining the NATO. He recalled that the orange regime's stance on the issue "made Russia unhappy" and that his government must abide by the wishes of the majority of Ukrainian people who were opposed to NATO membership.

Yanukovich later amplified that "NATO is a very sensitive issue for our society" and, therefore, "balanced and collective decisions" became necessary involving the government, president and the parliament. What all this adds up to is that the NATO enlargement summit in 2008, which Bush very much hoped to have as a legacy of his presidency, will have to be postponed indefinitely.

But NATO expansion is not merely an issue of Bush's political legacy. If Ukraine holds back, NATO's eastward expansion virtually stalls. Ukraine is too big to be bypassed. And no encirclement of Russia is realistic without Kiev coming on board.

Furthermore, NATO expansion into Ukraine was intended to give verve to Poland's claims of a leadership role in Eurasia, which the US was counting on, challenging Russia. Eastward expansion is NATO's strategy; it isn't Ukraine's strategy. It is a strategy that, essentially speaking, has nothing to do with the actual security of member countries. It is political and has been championed by the caucus involving the US, Poland and the Baltic states. It is a venture about which other NATO countries harbor ambivalent feelings.

Washington hoped that NATO expansion would give impetus to the United States' trans-Atlantic leadership and keep burning the fire of Euro-Atlanticism even in the post-Cold War setting. Now, if NATO begins to meander for want of motivation or a clear-cut action plan, lingering doubts about its raison d'etre would resurface.

It is not even two years since then German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder questioned NATO's pivotal role or France reactivated its NATO links. The challenge is thus political and, as Khrushchev put it, politics are the same all over - "They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river."

Source: Asia Times Online