#31 - JRL 2009-155 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
August 21, 2009
Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel:
Medvedev’s Duel with Yushchenko
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov
Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, Eugene Ivanov, Sergei Roy

Last week, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev used his Web site and video blog to deliver a public warning to Ukraine’s president Victor Yushchenko for his provocative anti-Russian policies, which have plunged the relations between Moscow and Kiev to a historical low, culminating in a mutual expulsion of diplomats. What is likely to be Moscow’s and Medvedev’s gain from going on the offensive against Ukraine now? Will it have any impact on the presidential campaign in Ukraine? What does this say about the foreign policy process in Russia?

By announcing his decision to delay sending Russia’s new Ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov to Kiev, Medvedev made it clear that the Kremlin no longer views the sitting Ukrainian president as a viable partner, and would rather wait a few months to engage his successor. With barely three-percent approval ratings, Yushchenko stands no chance in the next presidential election in Ukraine next January.

Medvedev’s statement is both an invitation to engagement and a warning to Yushchenko’s two most likely successors – Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and the leader of the Party of Regions Victor Yanukovich.

Although Moscow views both of them as a major improvement over Yushchenko, Medvedev’s statement should not be interpreted as an open endorsement of either Timoshenko or Yanukovich. The Kremlin is not going to repeat the mistake it made in 2004, when Russia publicly supported Yanukovich’s candidacy for president.

Rather, Medvedev outlined a limited list of issues where Russia expects the next Ukrainian leader to make a dramatic shift, in order to hit a “reset button” in Russia-Ukraine relations.

Here the Kremlin is making good on its public promise to support positions and not candidates in the next presidential election in Ukraine. Russia would immediately and constructively engage any Ukrainian leader who would break with Yushchenko’s failed policies.

Medvedev also sent a warning to Timoshenko and Yanukovich that Moscow expects deeds, not promises, from them, before the new engagement unfolds.

President Yushchenko responded to Medvedev’s statement by listing the Ukrainian grievances against Russia, including the absence of Ukrainian schools in Russia. Prime minister Timoshenko issued a statement warning against interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs, while opposition leader Victor Yanukovich basically endorsed Medvedev’s criticism of Yushchenko and his mishandling of relations with Russia.

It is not entirely clear why Medvedev issued this statement now. Perhaps the timing is tied to the anniversary of Russia’s victory in South Ossetia, meant as a clear message that Russia will not tolerate attempts by former Soviet states to humiliate it. In this sense it is a message both to Yushchenko and other CIS leaders, as well as to the Russian domestic audience.

But what does this really accomplish? What are Moscow and Medvedev likely gain from going on the offensive against Ukraine now? Will it have any impact on the presidential campaign in Ukraine? How does it affect Russia’s relations with the West, particularly with the new team in Washington? What does this say about the foreign policy process in Russia under president Medvedev? And what is this all going to end up like?

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC

For centuries, countries have indicated their displeasure with other states’ policies by recalling their ambassadors for “lengthy consultations,” sometimes accompanied by public explanations of the action. In the interim, career diplomats holding the rank of deputy chiefs of mission would fulfill the functions traditionally carried out by ambassadors, if diplomatic relations were not severed. Another scheme is delaying the sending of new ambassadors to replace individuals who have been acting in that capacity. A third approach is for a country to send individuals to serve as an ambassador who possess an established reputation for taking a tough line toward the very country to which they are accredited, or persons likely to be perceived as lacking sufficient gravitas for the posting – a snub of the host government.

In February of this year, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko informed the Russian Ambassador Viktor Chernomyrdin that he could be expelled from the country over "unfriendly and extremely undiplomatic assessments, comments and statements regarding Ukraine and its leadership." In addition, Ukraine had communicated its displeasure with Russia's consuls in Kharkov and Odessa (both located in largely Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine).

The very fact that the Russian government sent former Russian prime minister and former Gazprom chairman Chernomyrdin to serve as Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine transmitted an unmistakable “undiplomatic” message. Some people remarked that his role in Kiev was to serve as Moscow’s plenipotentiary in Ukraine, or to protect Gazprom’s interests there.

Chernomyrdin’s assignment served to bolster the views of those who believed that the Russian leadership had never accepted Ukraine as a sovereign country (the same attitude could be convincingly argued with respect to many of the countries presently occupying the Soviet Union’s former territory, with the exception of the Baltic States).

Indeed, Russia had legitimate gripes about Ukraine’s alleged siphoning off of some natural gas being shipped by pipeline to other countries – but perhaps quiet diplomacy could have produced better results than public threats. This is particularly true since RosUkrEnergo’s mysterious role as a middleman in much of the Russian and Ukrainian natural gas relationship has never been fully explained. RosUkrEnergo was apparently majority-owned by Gazprom, with the rest of the shares allegedly belonging to Russian and Ukrainian businessmen­both groups possessing organized crime ties as well as connections at the highest levels in both governments.

It is very easy to cross the line between president Medvedev’s expressing legitimate criticism of certain Ukrainian policies and interfering in the domestic affairs of another country. I believe the demarcation is where a foreign leader makes public his preferences for particular individuals and parties in another country known in a formal manner.

Consequently, there is nothing wrong with Medvedev indicating that he and his “colleagues” had decided to postpone sending a new ambassador to Kiev until there was a change in relations. Unfortunately, he did not stop there. In an open letter to Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko, Medvedev wrote that “Russia hopes a new Ukrainian leadership will be ready to build ties between our countries, ties that will indeed answer the true hopes of our peoples in the interests of strengthening European security.”

Apparently, the Russian leadership does not approve of Yushchenko’s policies of arming Georgia in its war against Russia last year, and pursuing Ukraine’s entry into NATO, which Medvedev claims is done despite Ukrainian public opinion. On this point, president Medvedev may be right – but public opinion can be fickle.

The election of a new Ukrainian president is scheduled for January 2010. At present, Victor Yanukovich, the Ukrainian leader most identified with a pro-Russian foreign policy, has the support of about one-fifth of the electorate, roughly ten percent more than Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko. She purports to want better relations with Russia, but has pledged a more “independent” foreign policy than her two principal rivals. If the election were held today, Yushchenko, who favors joining NATO, might receive as little as five percent of the vote.

A lot can happen in the intervening months in the political sphere (particularly if Russia does not pursue a "good neighbor" policy); it would be unrealistic to expect a turnaround in Ukraine's dismal economic performance anytime soon -- one should not overlook the fact that generally, people vote with their pocketbooks. Ukrainian GDP declined by approximately 20 percent in the first quarter of this year, and is estimated by the Ukrainian government to have dropped by roughly 18 percent in the second quarter. The IMF projects that by the end of the year, the Ukrainian economy will have contracted by 14 percent.

Some Ukrainian voters may have hoped that the EU and the United States would find a way to prop-up the Ukrainian economy due to their country's strategic significance. Today they are probably embarrassed by their expectations, and perhaps some harbor a sense of betrayal: Yushchenko, an economist by training, will probably suffer the brunt of this blame, even if there is more than enough to go around both within Ukraine as well as abroad.

Eugene Ivanov ("The Ivanov Report," http://theivanovosti.typepad.com/), Boston, MA

In a July 26 interview with NTV, president Medvedev outlined what looked like a contour of Russia’s new diplomatic approach vis-à-vis its neighbors, including the CIS countries. A quote is warranted here: “…Under difficult circumstances, we must be able to give a response. Sometimes, a tough one; sometimes, very tough. But only when the interests of our citizens are threatened. In all other circumstances, we should be predictable, strong and comfortable partners to our neighbors.”

Medvedev spoke specifically about the Ukraine as well: “…Much depends on these relations [between Russia and Ukraine] because our countries are very close, our people are, as they say, brothers, and our economies are tightly intertwined. Certainly, we expect that in the future, these relations will be better than now. Much better.”

It’s hard to deny that the spirit of Medvedev’s August 11 letter to president Yushchenko didn’t match what he said to NTV’s Kirill Pozdnyakov. Besides, it isn’t immediately clear what has happened between July 26 and August 11 that precipitated such a “tough” shot across the border. What interests of Russian citizens have been threatened over this period of time?

I consider the most troubling part of the letter to be Medvedev’s lightly-veiled threat not to deal with Yushchenko until his term in office expires.

Ukraine seems to be joining a list of countries whose leaders Russia doesn’t want to have any relations with. The first country to be put on the list has been Georgia, as Medvedev repeatedly insisted that Moscow will have no dialogue with the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili is a war criminal and doesn’t deserve any better. Yet Moscow makes no serious attempts to engage any other part of Georgia’s political class. What is Moscow hoping for? That Saakashvili will be gone soon? Hardly: all the signs indicate that Saakashvili will be around until 2013. And what if the next Georgian president will be Irakli Alasania, whom Moscow doesn’t like either? Will any meaningful relations between Russia and Georgia be postponed until 2018?

True, Yushchenko has almost zero chances to get re-elected. However, in politics, miracles do happen (and actually happen more often than in “real” life). Besides, it’s not beyond our imagination that the next Ukrainian president will come from the Yushchenko camp and will continue his anti-Russian policies. Then what? Wait until 2015?

Although Russia’s troubled relations with Ukraine and Georgia can be viewed as an exception, it’s no secret that there isn’t much love flourishing between Russia and the rest of its neighbors. Will Moscow stop talking to each of them – one after another – should the leadership of these countries pursue what the Kremlin would interpret as anti-Russian policies? From here, one could see a short path to Russia sitting in a “diplomatic vacuum,” i.e. surrounded by countries it doesn’t want to deal with until more Russia-friendly regimes are established there. Hopefully, this is not how president Medvedev sees the future of the country’s policy in the “near abroad.”

Other than that, I don’t think that Medvedev’s letter will have any long-term effect. Certainly not on the outcome of the presidential election in Ukraine. The election is still months away, and in the heat of the inevitably nasty campaign, the letter will be safely forgotten (on the assumption, of course, that Medvedev will restrict himself to only one letter to Yushchenko). Besides, any election in Ukraine, especially presidential, is, first and foremost, about money. Big money. Relations with Russia, however important, will be considered by any presidential candidate as a secondary matter – to be dealt with after it’s decided who’s in charge of state revenues.

Which brings us back to the question: why has this letter been aired in the first place, and why did it happen on August 11?

The explanation that the letter was a “warning” to Yulia Timoshenko and Victor Yanukovich doesn’t strike me as particularly credible. Timoshenko will be in Moscow in a few weeks, and both Medvedev and Putin will have all the time in the world to deliver their “warnings” in person – without creating yet another PR blunder. And I take it for granted that the Kremlin has channels of communication with Yanukovich too.

The explanation that I favor is different. Medvedev has used the letter to announce that he’s delaying sending Russia’s new Ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov, whose appointment the president officially signed two days later, on August 13. The position of Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine is considered to be of special importance to Gazprom (some call this post, only half-jokingly, “Ambassador of Gazprom,” and the former Ambassador Victor Chernomyrdin fitted this description perfectly). One can speculate that Zurabov wasn’t a person Gazprom wanted to see in Kiev, and that Gazprom people used their closeness to Medvedev to effectively block Zurabov’s appointment, at least temporarily.

The notion that Medvedev would use a “foreign policy” letter to intervene into domestic corporate turf wars might appear cynical. But one has to always remember the famous quote: “All politics are local.”

Sergei Roy, Editor, www.guardian-psj.ru, Moscow

With his three percent approval rating domestically, president Yushchenko of Ukraine is, by general consensus, a political corpse. However, political corpses, just like physical ones, have an unpleasant tendency to make a lot of stink, and that is exactly what Yushchenko is doing. His one hope of minimally mending his fences with the electorate is to redirect their anger outward by starting a “small victorious war” in the tried and tested manner of all bankrupt regimes. Kicking Russia’s senior diplomats out of the country was the diplomatic equivalent of such a war.

If this were done by one of the “big ‘uns” like the UK, Russia would have reciprocated with a meticulous tit for a carefully weighed tat, and there the matter would rest, as has happened times out of mind. There is a big difference between the UK and Ukraine, though.

Even if we brush aside the millions of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine and even greater millions calling themselves Ukrainians who are linguistically and culturally more Russian than Ukrainian, Ukraine depends on Russia economically to such an extent that its entire economy could collapse should Russia turn hostile – which would involve much more than turning off the gas, as anyone who has employed Ukrainian illegal workers (like I have) knows first hand. Yet a considerable part of Ukraine’s political class, which proudly calls itself politicum (and that comprises not just the pro-Yushchenko element) has this curious formula for Ukraine’s self-determination: economic dependence on Russia combined with virulent anti-Russian politics. In southern Russia where I come from, and where the less educated folks speak a dialect not unlike Ukrainian, there is this apt if somewhat rude proverb: “Nashim salom da nas zhe po musalam (they use our lard to slap our mugs with).”

In a message ostensibly addressed to Yushchenko (I say “ostensibly” because there is not much use talking to corpses), president Medvedev put the finishing touches to his doctrine first made clear a year ago during the conflict in the Caucasus: “Don’t mess with Russia – you can get in a real big mess.” Both Medvedev’s message and his decision not to send the newly-appointed ambassador to Kiev as long as Yushchenko is there (a move for which I cannot recall a precedent in international relations) represent a clear warning to Ukraine’s “politicum,” currently in the throes of a presidential campaign: you can elect anyone you like for president, but if you elect someone like Yushchenko, you will have to take the consequences.

German has a nice phrase for this kind of warning: “mit dem Zaunpfahl winken,” meaning something like “to drop a hint with a stake from the fence.” In good international practice, this should be followed by a bunch of carrots, and Russia obviously has plenty to offer at the forthcoming meeting between Ukrainian and Russian parliamentarians in September or at the meeting of foreign ministers later, or during premier Timoshenko’s tentatively announced visit to Moscow.

As the months tick by, it is becoming ever clearer that Ukraine is again sure to have trouble paying for its gas: international credit organizations are “still studying the question” of offering Ukraine the necessary credits. Meanwhile, Russia could provide Ukraine with the earnings it sorely needs (to the tune of $16.5 billion) by concluding an agreement to build five or six aircraft carriers at the Nikolaev building berths. There are also the facilities of Ukraine’s Yuzhmash plant where the Soviet Union’s heavy missiles were built, missiles that Russia badly needs now. One can be sure that that’s not the kind of offers that might come from NATO.

These are just a couple of areas where the two fraternal nations could cooperate and collaborate, leaving Yushchenko and his anti-Russian antics strongly tinged with neo-Nazism far behind them.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., San-Francisco, CA

Given the clearly anti-Russian activities of Yushchenko’s government during the past several years, the recent declaration by Russia’s president should not be surprising to attentive and objective observers of the relationship between the two countries.

The timing should not be surprising, either. One notes that Medvedev’s declaration is connected with the appointment of Russia’s replacement ambassador to Kiev. Had the declaration been made earlier (and there was plenty of justification for such a step) it would had implied the recall of Russia’s then-ambassador, Chernomyrdin – and the recall of an ambassador is a diplomatic rebuff stronger than what Russia apparently intends at this time. In the present situation, the previous ambassador has completed his term, and the arrival in Kiev of the new one is delayed – a more subtle and flexible response.

Another factor, mentioned by president Medvedev in his statement, is the recent expulsion by Yushchenko’s government of two Russian diplomats from Kiev. This expulsion certainly indicated that Yushchenko – somewhat recklessly – did not appear to be concerned about further damaging relations with Russia.

Thus, Russia’s action is diplomatically milder than the recall of a working ambassador, and certainly is not as severe as a full breach of diplomatic relations.

In his statement Medvedev took great care to distinguish Russia’s governmental action vis-à-vis the present government in Kiev from Russia’s attitude and relations with Ukraine’s people and civil institutions. This aspect underscores the view that specifically the government of Ukraine, installed by the “Orange Revolution,” is the cause of the many difficulties that Russia has experienced with Kiev in the past several years.

For example, the annual disruptions of natural gas deliveries to Western Europe through Ukrainian transit pipelines (deliveries for which Gazprom pays a substantial fee to Ukrainian transit pipeline operators) – were not evident during the previous administrations in Kiev (Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma.) With the advent of the Yushchenko government, Western European buyers of Siberian natural gas have been held hostage by Kiev every winter – while Yushchenko’s “spinmeisters” blamed Russia for delivery disruptions caused by the government in Kiev.

There is a segment among Ukrainian nationalists (some call them chauvinists) which defines its identity by an anti-Russian (or anti-Moscow) ideology, instead of a positive assertion of Ukrainian national and cultural identity. It is perceived in Russia that it is this anti-Russian (rather than pro-Ukrainian) attitude that informs present Kiev policies. Many complaints of cultural oppression by the large number of Ukrainian citizens (about 20 percent of the population) who consider Russian as their maternal language, the cult of Ukrainian collaborators with Nazis, the manipulation of historical evidence (the invented “holodomor” narrative) – all these broad policy directions from Kiev provide substance to the view that Yushchenko’s government is indeed implementing an anti-Russian political and cultural program. Thus, Russia’s response is not extraordinary.

Given president Yushchenko’s single-digit approval rating, it is unlikely that the declaration of Russia’s president is intended to influence the upcoming presidential election in the Ukraine. As it stands, “this dog won’t hunt” already; no additional declarations are needed.

One can say that the importance of president Medvedev’s declaration is more far-reaching and addressed not just at Ukraine’s political establishment, but at other countries as well: basically it is a signal that Russia will not leave unanswered actions and policies that it considers detrimental to its interests and position in the world. Furthermore, Russia demonstrates its readiness to use diplomatic means (in addition to other instruments) to make its response evident. Such a response is the prerogative of every sovereign nation of the world.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA

This is an extraordinarily petulant and impertinent letter that shows weakness, not strength. What angers Moscow is the fact that Ukraine is exercising its sovereignty in ways Moscow does not like. Medvedev again claims that Russia has a right to intervene in other sates' domestic and foreign politics, and that there is some sort of extraterritorial justification for the defense of Russians that Moscow is entitled to engage in, a doctrine out of Adolf Hitler’s and Joseph Stalin's playbook.

Although he intends to put all three candidates on notice, I believe he has ensured that a nationalist backlash will ensue, making it impossible to realize his objectives. Not only did he attack the domestic policies of Ukraine, but also its foreign policies. These actions, taken with the new defense law saying that Russia has a right to use force abroad to defend its citizens and culture (how can Ukraine's citizens be Russian ones at the same time) indicate a contempt for the CIS states' sovereignty and the limits to any true rest button.

As long as Russia believes that it is an empire or should be one, no true reset is possible with Washington or Europe, not to mention Kiev. In the end, Medvedev has only complicated and added to Russia's burdens and isolation, not its strength, and future developments will show this to be the case. For, to quote Vladimir Lenin, who certainly knew whereof he spoke, "in general, spite plays the very worst role in politics."

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