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Ukraine: port of Russian illusions

Slavic reconciliation with "little brother Ukraine" has sent Russia starry-eyed, writes Andrei Kolesnikov. While Putin-Medvedev think they have regained an empire, the reality is that Ukrainian leaders have simply learned to do pragmatism.
Andrei Kolesnikov
26 May 2010

“Only an insurance policy offers a complete guarantee” joked Dmitry Medevedev when asked if Russia intended to use its Black Sea fleet against Ukraine. Borrowing a line from Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov’s immortal novel The Golden Calf — though in the original, the word is not “guarantee”, but “peace” — the President’s humour was a rather more subtle than that which accompanied the earlier “black sea port-for-gas” deal. Then, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced a desire to “eat” the Ukrainian president and prime minister, in view of the high price that Ukraine had extracted for Russia’s Black Sea fleet remaining in Crimea. All in all, the wisecracks seemed to be evidence of a light hearted mood on the Russian side: Ukraine, so their reading of the negotiations went, was finally returning to Russia’s embrace.

Exuberant moods, however, generally give rise to unrealizable aims, and this occasion was no exception. We had, for example, an announcement of a new Russian-Ukrainian “innovation fund” — the kind of venture whose only chance of success depends on the ability of both sides to find a “corruption” element within it (where there is a mutually beneficial division, you understand, national borders are not felt so keenly).

Riding on the wave of optimism, President Viktor Yanukovych also promised he would take a leading role in preparations for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. (In what capacity, one wonders? As a Ukrainian builder?) There was also talk about how Ukraine could help to turn Moscow into an international financial centre. It was completely unclear how this could happen, of course. Indeed, they might as well have been announcing an intention to improve the efficiency of London and Frankfurt.

In another announcement, Ukrainian politicians said they were to present Russia with a new guided missile cruiser called, rather ingeniously, “Ukraine”. It was probably designed as some sort of compensation for the high price they obtained for the Black Sea fleet. However, as it is worth noting en passant that construction of the “Ukraine” began some 27 years ago. Prepared for a war some time in the past, she went to sea for a little while, but was later returned for further construction.

Dmitry Medvedev’s statement that Russia — as purchaser of  $10 billion IMF bonds — intended to lobby Ukrainian interests within the IMF, looked more serious. There was also a very abstract joint statement on the issue of European security, which essentially translated into a preparedness from both countries to act as one on certain common “human” problems (presumably the ones not requiring any detail).

In summary, it was emotional, like the reconciliation of a separated couple. There were numerous announcements about mutually beneficial economic projects, and a whole sea of artificially contrived projects, destined never to be realized.

The change is because Russia feels once again that it is the mother country. And this wish to regain empire status gives rise to illusions. It means, for example, that strategic partnership is understood to mean a return to the traditional “zone of influence”. While Barack Obama may caution against the use of such a term – he did during an interview by Rossiya TV – it is a term the Russian leadership are still clearly clinging on to in relation to Georgia. Earlier this month, Putin made a speech marking the laying of the first stone at the Poklonnaya Gora war memorial (a copy of the Kutaisi Soviet war monument which was, in 2009, controversially demolished by the Georgian government). On this occassion, he was flanked either side by two Georgian politicians, Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Nogaideli, on whose future he is clearly counting. In the eyes of Russian leaders, these former allies of Mikhail Saakashvili look more or less the same that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych does against the background of his predecessor Viktor Yushchenko. In the Ukrainian case, the issue is no longer academic: Russia’s most important partner country – economically and politically – most certainly has a “pro-Russian” politician at its helm.

The reality, however, is that there are no zones of influence anymore. Just zones of Russian illusions. Like the potential future Georgian leaders, the current Ukrainian president, is a pragmatic guy. The benefits of warm relations with Russia are predominantly economic. As, indeed they are with the West. In short, there will be no special preference.

Indeed, following the Russian-Ukrainian festival of brotherhood, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Sergei Tigipko announced that European integration was, in fact, the strategic priority of Ukrainian foreign policy. This statement is probably closer to truth than the sham celebrations of Slavic unity. According to Tigipko’s statement, the EU and Ukraine will look to sign a new “road map” aimed at abolishing visa regimes at the EU-Ukraine summit in October. In this sense, Medvedev’s proposal to Yanukovych to join the Collective Security Treaty Organization looks positively naïve: there is no practical or even symbolic sense for Ukraine to join this organization, long ignored even by the CIS. It is unlikely that something so impractical will interest the president of Ukraine, who is well experienced in political intrigues.

In any case, Viktor Yanukovych has enormous room for political manouevre: to ingratiate himself with both Western neighbours and Eastern “friend”. Even the ever-difficult Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenka has been able to play a double game (despite his reputation). It would seem as if Viktor Yanukovych were simply destined to exploit both contradictions in Russia-West relations and Russia’s jealousy of Ukrainian moves in the western direction

he ever difficult-to-manage Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenka has – despite his reputation – been able to play a double game. It would seem as if Viktor Yanukovych were simply destined to exploit both contradictions in Russia-West relations and Russia’s jealousy of Ukrainian moves in the western direction.

Through his obvious overtures towards Russia, and his meetings with Russian leaders several times a month, the current Ukrainian president is deliberately creating illusions of a thaw. In this respect, his pragmatism compares quite clearly with the extremely irrational position of Viktor Yushchenko, who turned poor relations with Russia against himself. Although Yanukovych has the appearance of a blunderer, he seems to have learned from Yushchenko’s mistakes. He also seems to have taken a trick or two in the art of political intrigue from Yulia Tymoshenko, who would undoubtedly have pursued a similar course were she to have been elected.

In a word, the rapprochement is rational from an economic point of view, although so far Russia has gained the least. Politically, however, the Russian leaders are in the grip of starry-eyed illusion, which, for them, is most unusual.

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