#8 - JRL 8468 - JRL Home
Putin's High-Stakes Gamble in Jeopardy
By Simon Saradzhyan
President Vladimir Putin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko had scrambled Monday to be the first to congratulate Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and proclaim him Ukraine's next president.
As of Tuesday evening, they remained the only two state leaders to do so, and Putin sought to retract his congratulations as European Union members and the United States cranked up the pressure on outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, Yanukovych's patron, to order a vote recount or risk sanctions.
"Both leaders' actions are more than logical because they both supported this candidate and have nothing to lose," said Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Both Putin and Lukashenko share an interest in Yanukovych becoming president. Putin has clearly taken to heart Yanukovych's campaign vows to forge a closer relationship with Russia, while Lukashenko is concerned that a victory by opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko might inspire opposition forces in Belarus.
In addition, the Kremlin has given unprecedented support to Yanukovych's bid, so his loss would cast doubt on Russia's ability to influence affairs in what it considers to be its own backyard.
As such, the Russian and Belarussian leaders threw their support behind Yanukovych even though their actions put their governments on a collision course with the United States and the EU.
The U.S. State Department expressed regret Monday that Putin had offered his congratulations before a victor was declared.
Putin faces tough questioning from the EU that might boil over into a public dispute at the annual EU-Russia summit this Thursday.
In a clear effort to avoid a confrontation with the West, Putin tried to adjust his position on the vote Tuesday afternoon, saying Russia will not "recognize or reject the Ukrainian election results until they are officially announced."
In remarks that amounted to a retraction of his congratulations, Putin told reporters in Portugal that he had congratulated Yanukovych on the basis of the results of exit polls Sunday.
Such an argument appeared to make little sense as foreign leaders traditionally wait for preliminary official results to be announced before sending their congratulations. Also, most exit polls gave Yushchenko a clear lead.
Putin may have realized that his strategy bore another risk: Yushchenko could prevail in his demands for a recount to emerge as the winner, or seize power in a velvet revolution and he would feel little sympathy for a neighbor that has interfered so actively in Ukrainian political life in recent months.
Yet Putin may have decided from the start to take a calculated risk and congratulate Yanukovych because he has been counting on the Ukrainian prime minister to be emboldened by Russia's unequivocal support and install himself as president.
A Ukraine under Yanukovych would be a pariah in the eyes of the West, leaving Yanukovych with no choice but to anchor Ukraine to Russia. This is the case with Belarus, with Lukashenko unwelcome in the West and the economy dependent on Russia.
The possible parallels have not escaped the attention of the Russian media. "Ukraine Is Becoming Belarus," read a headline on the Gazeta.ru web site Tuesday.
Petrov said the Kremlin would be very interested in seeing Ukraine run by a leader whose position is weak and whose support outside Ukraine is limited to Russia.
"[The Kremlin] has a short-term calculation to isolate Yanukovych so that he would be a weakened leader, a bit of a pariah in the eyes of the West," Petrov said.
Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, agreed, saying, "At least under his leadership Ukraine would not be integrated into the West, just like Lukashenko's attempts of rapprochement with the West have been snubbed."
But Yanukovych's gratitude for Russia's support may be short-lived.
Kuchma campaigned on a pro-Russia platform when he ran for re-election in 1999, but the two countries' ties subsequently cooled off when he wrote a book titled "Ukraine Is Not Russia." Yanukovych may eventually feel compelled to write a sequel to Kuchma's book, given Ukraine's dependence on trade with both the EU and Russia and its natural interest in balancing relations between the East and West.
"Ukraine cannot remain independent if it doesn't continue to play on differences between Russia and the West," Petrov said.
As such, "Russia should have no illusions that Yanukovych will be a perfectly pro-Russia figure," Makarkin said.
But while Kuchma managed to restore relations with the EU and United States in his second term, Yanukovych may be unable to do so if he takes office, analysts said. Western leaders would find it difficult to accept someone as a partner who has won rigged elections, they said.
Thus, Russia could count on holding considerable sway over Ukraine as long as it remained alienated from the West under Yanukovych, but such a strategy might eventually backfire if public discontent in Ukraine boils over and forces a regime change, Makarkin warned.