Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Russo-Western Tug War over Ukraine

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev postponed dispatching new Russian ambassador to Kiev, and blamed Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko for his anti-Russian policies, such as arming Georgia against Russia and pursuing NATO membership. This is a pressure on the forthcoming Ukrainian presidential election in January 2010. According to Lilia Shevtsova, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, "It is a message to any new leader that we will deal with you only when you accept our demands." (Medvedev issues ultimatum to Ukraine leadership”; Financial Times; August 12, 2009).

In the TV speech broadcasted by Russia Today on August 10, President Medvedev explains why he sent such a hash message to Ukraine. Medvedev stressed common cultural heritage and history between Russia and Ukraine. However, he denounced Ukrainian defense policy to supply its weapons to Georgia in the war over South Ossetia. In cultural and educational policy, Medvedev blamed the Ukrainian government for excluding the Russian language at school and public organizations. In the economy, Medvedev criticizes Ukrainian restrictions on Russian businesses. On history, Medvedev blamed Ukraine for illustrating the Great Patriotic War as a battle between dictators. Considering current enthusiasm for Stalin in Russia, the Yushhenko administration has aroused Russian ire. See the video below.

Actually Russians felt critically nervous when US Vice President Joseph Biden visited Ukraine and Georgia, following the Moscow summit between President Barack Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev from July 6 to 8 to reset US Russian relations. Russia Today interviewed Ivan Eland, a political analyst at the Independent Institute, on July 20. Eland says that the United States is sending a mixed signal. As Obama told the United States wants to improve relations with Russia, while endorsing NATO expansion. In the interview, Eland soothes Russian public concern with the mixed signal, and emphasizes that Russia hosted the President while Ukraine and Georgia hosts just the Vice President. Therefore, he says that the United States will not ruin the relationship with Russia for the sake of Ukraine and Georgia. See the following video.

Both videos illustrate widespread viewpoints among Russian policymakers, regarding the advance of the Free Europe into the Former Soviet Union. In other words, Russian leaders still retain Soviet styled geopolitical instinct.

As Lilia Shevtsova told the Financial Times, President Medvedev said that the relationship with Ukraine would not be normalized until a new leader supplants current President Yushchenko (“Medvedev: No Normal Ties with Ukraine Under Current Leaders”; VOA News; 14 August 2009).

Tomas Valasek, Director of Foreign Policy and Defence at the Centre for European Reform, has released an insightful report to understand the tug war between Russia and the West, entitled “Why Ukraine matters to Europe” in December 2008. He points out that Ukraine has tremendously signaling power, as it is the largest country between the EU and Russia in terms of area and population. EU members in Eastern Europe want a strong and stable buffer against Russia. Once Ukraine joins the EU, this will have significant influences on from EU neighbors like Belarus and Moldova to Caucasus nations.

Quite importantly, Valasek points out that if Ukraine succeeds in developing a transparent political system and a credible market economy, it would undermine the appeal of Putin-styled state controlled capitalism. Therefore, Russia wants to slow down Europeanization of former Soviet nations beyond geopolitical considerations.

Most importantly, Valasek argues that poor governance in Ukraine dominated by corrupt oligarchs is a hurdle for the membership to the EU and NATO. Also, this provokes Russian interventionism, as Vladimir Putin said to George W. Bush, “George, Ukraine is not even a state.”

Both Western and Russian media tend to focus on geopolitical rivalry, but the Ukrainian must be reformed as well. Tomas Valasek mentions invaluable points to advance Ukrainian bid for EU and NATO membership, and read the report for detail. The West needs to help Ukrainians build good governance to fulfill the qualification for the Atlantic community and separate themselves from Soviet legacies. Once Ukraine is successfully Europeanized, things in the New Cold War between the West and the Russo-Chinese axis will be in our favor.

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