World Agenda: Merkel And Medvedev Share Ukraine's Munich Moment

MOSCOW, Russia -- It may come to be seen as Ukraine’s “Munich moment”. With Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, beside him, President Medvedev in effect broke off relations with Ukraine’s pro-Western leadership and signalled the Kremlin’s intention to meddle in Ukraine’s presidential elections to secure victory for the candidate most favourable to Russia.

Mr Medvedev, alongside Mrs Merkel, in effect broke off relations with Ukraine.

“I do not see any prospects for re-establishing normal relations under the current political leadership,” Mr Medvedev declared after Friday’s meeting with Ms Merkel at his Black Sea residence in Sochi. “I hope Ukraine’s new leadership will have many chances of considerably improving relations... this is a top foreign policy priority for us.”

Ms Merkel’s response was silence. The head of the European Union’s largest country offered no support for Ukraine as a democratic partner, nor defended the right of its people to choose their leaders for themselves

Her silence was noted with surprise by Ukrainian officials and satisfaction in the Kremlin, where “Project Ukraine” is the top priority ahead of January’s election. Moscow intends to undo the 2004 Orange Revolution — triggered by its hamfisted attempt to rig the last presidential election in favour of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych — and bring Ukraine back within its sphere of interest.

Ms Merkel cannot claim to have been caught unawares. Days earlier Mr Medvedev had denounced Ukraine’s leader, President Yushchenko, as anti-Russian in an open letter setting out a long list of grievances.

These included his “stubborn” pursuit of NATO membership, support for Georgia in the war over South Ossetia, and “incessant” interference with Russia’s Black Sea fleet based at Ukraine’s Crimean port of Sevastopol.

Mr Medvedev accompanied his letter with a video blog shot against the backdrop of the Black Sea with what looked suspiciously like a Russian warship anchored offshore.

Crimea is a particularly touchy subject. Most Russians regard it as historically their territory and many of Crimea’s residents are sympathetic to Moscow. The fleet is required to leave Ukraine by 2017 but Russia does not want to go.

This is where Mr Medvedev’s sudden focus on Ukraine turns sinister. In his letter, he described Kiev’s decision to expel two Russian diplomats, one in Odessa and the other in Sevastopol, as a “provocation unprecedented in the entire post-Soviet space”.

The Times has learnt, however, that Ukraine’s intelligence service established that one of the diplomats was distributing up to $100,000 a month to pro-Russian groups in the area, and the other was attempting to recruit local councillors as informers.

The fear in Kiev is that the Kremlin will play the Crimean card in the election or later to destabilise any regime considered insufficiently pro-Russian. A Georgian-style scenario, in which troops invade to “protect” Russian citizens, cannot be ruled out. Mr Medvedev submitted legislation to parliament last week that will give him powers to despatch the military abroad “to defend the interests of Russia and its citizens”.

At Munich in 1938, Czechoslovakia’s fate was sealed by European powers too timid to resist an aggressive neighbour. Russia showed its readiness to use force in Georgia last year and now has turned its attention to Ukraine.

The EU, dependent on Russian gas, imposed no serious penalty on Moscow over Georgia. The Kremlin sees Ms Merkel’s silence as an encouraging sign that it will escape just as lightly if it succeeds in undercutting Ukraine’s independence.

Source: TimesOnLine