Yanukovych’s Russian Overtures May Signal Ukraine’s Allegiance

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine’s President-elect Viktor Yanukovych may be stepping up efforts to move the former Soviet state closer to Russia and end a standoff that’s obstructed gas flows and heightened regional tensions for half a decade.

President-elect Viktor Yanukovych will take Ukraine back into Moscow's sphere of influence.

In the 11 days since beating Yulia Timoshenko in a runoff vote, Yanukovych signaled on his Web site he may allow Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to stay in Ukrainian waters. He asked for Russian help to ease gas flows into Europe and yesterday said he wants Ukraine to join Russia’s customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, Kommersant reported.

Yanukovych’s “policy will steer the country toward a return of good, friendly relations with Russia,” said Sergei Markov, a lawmaker in Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party. “What we observed before was an artificial attempt to make Russia and Ukraine quarrel.”

Yanukovych, 59, who has promised to restore Russian as Ukraine’s second official language, also says he will seek to balance Russian and European Union ties. While he wrote in the Wall St. Journal yesterday that he wants to prepare Ukraine for EU membership “when the time comes,” his actions indicate his ambition to renew relations with Moscow may be stronger than he signaled previously.

“Yanukovych is still under the influence of his election win,” said Yuriy Yakymenko, an analyst at the Kiev-based Razumkov Center for Political and Economic Studies. “He pledged to implement all changes that Russia would like to see, ignoring Ukraine’s political context and without thinking whether he really can do it.”

New Cold War

The defeat of outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko in the Jan. 17 first round ended an era of tense Ukraine-Russian relations that contributed to a souring of ties between Moscow and Washington.

Former Presidents George W. Bush and Putin used Yushchenko’s ambition to steer the country into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as an excuse to ramp up antagonism between the two former Cold War adversaries and prompted fears of a military clash in the region.

The Kremlin curbed natural-gas deliveries to Ukraine in 2006 and 2009, withheld a new ambassador to Kiev and accused Yushchenko of supplying arms to Georgia during Russia’s war with its southern neighbor in August 2008.

Yushchenko, who defeated Yanukovych in the 2004 Orange Revolution, had targeted NATO membership and joining the European Union as ways of freeing Ukraine from Russian influence.

Ukraine’s economic collapse since then, which has left it reliant on a $16.4 billion International Monetary Fund loan, and his bickering with Timoshenko have left voters jaded and contributed to his defeat.

‘Strategic Partner’

In yesterday’s Journal article, Yanukovych pledged to rebuild ties with Ukraine’s nuclear-armed neighbor.

“We are a nation with a European identity but we have historic cultural and economic ties to Russia as well,” he wrote. “We will rebuild relations with Moscow as a strategic economic partner.”

Russia, which traces its statehood to medieval Kiev, shares close economic, linguistic and religious ties to its neighbor. Without Ukraine, Russia stops being an empire with a foothold in Europe, former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in his 1997 book “The Grand Chessboard.”

Ukraine was incorporated into the USSR in 1922 and it was known as the breadbasket of the Soviet empire because of its agricultural produce.

Much of industrialized eastern Ukraine is populated by Russian speakers whose first loyalty was always to Moscow. The Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea, associated with some of Russia’s greatest writers including Chekhov, Bulgakov and Tolstoy, was given to the Ukrainian soviet republic by Russia in 1954.

‘East Is Russian’

Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based in Crimea and 80 percent of Russian gas exports to Europe go through Ukrainian territory.

Eastern Ukraine will become part of Russia “in five years,” said Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia, on Ekho Moskvy radio. “The east is Russian. The population is largely Russian,” Yanukovych is “basically Russian.”

Though Yanukovych has made clear he won’t stick to the NATO membership aspiration, some of his promises to Russia will require significant legislative upheaval to enact.

His offer to allow the Black Sea Fleet to stay past 2017 ignores Ukraine’s constitution, which doesn’t allow foreign troops outside the terms of the lease. Yanukovych will need to secure a 300 vote majority in the 450-seat parliament to overturn that law.

‘Change in Policy’

Ukraine’s military strategy stipulates that the country should target NATO entry, though membership would require a referendum. Yanukovych’s request to join the customs union seems not to take into account Ukraine’s membership in the World Trade Organization since May 2008.

“Yanukovych’s comments obviously reflect a change in policy,” Yushchenko said at a meeting of his Our Ukraine Party on Feb. 16.

Yanukovych has been congratulated on his victory by U.S. President Barack Obama, EU Commission President Jose Barroso and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, though Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was first to invite him for an official visit, Interfax reported on Feb. 15.

“Russia gains by having a friendlier and even preferential relationship but not a dominant one,” said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at UralSib Financial Corp. in Moscow.

“That delivers the Holy Grail for the Kremlin. Good business and good politics: Putin’s dream.”

Source: Bloomberg