Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Ukraine to celebrate the anniversary of the christening of Kyiv Rus and Navy Day, showed that Russia’s President is concerned about the situation in Ukraine. There is little time left before the presidential election and the launch of the Eurasian Union in 2015, as well as the looming prospect of the Association Agreement with the EU in November, which adds pressure.
Some experts in Ukraine assume that Putin’s new stance is to reinforce ideological influence and keep Ukraine in the Russian World, even if he has to let go of Kyiv in terms of trade and economics. His messages in Ukraine are indeed generously flavoured with rhetoric about “unbreakable” blood and spiritual bonds. He mentioned this at the Russian and Ukrainian Navy parade in Sevastopol, which he visited with Viktor Yanukovych, referring to the “strength of and devotion to the fundamentals of our predecessors who lived, worked and protected their common Motherland together for centuries and made it powerful, great and undefeated… We share common roots, culture and religion. Our blood and spiritual bonds are unbreakable.” Similar messages were expressed during religious ceremonies. However, they are nothing new in the Russian rhetoric of the past few years.
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Putin’s speech at the Orthodox Slavic Values – the Foundation of Ukraine’s Civilization Choice Conference, organized by Viktor Medvedchuk, fueled diverse reactions from observers and experts. Notably, Putin only spoke to Yanukovych for 15 minutes, giving preference to Medvedchuk, the father of his goddaughter. It appears that Putin was forced to stoop so low as Medvedchuk’s Ukrainian Choice because there is no other alternative in Ukraine today. The failure of various Russian blocks and movements, and the collapse of the Church Russian World led by Patriarch Kirill that has been more and more evident of late, have left Putin with significantly less space and time to maneuver. At the moment, he can only rely on the Communists who have zero prospects in Ukraine or the loyal Viktor Medvedchuk, a notorious Chief of Staff during the Kuchma presidency, and his Ukrainian Choice. No matter what, Putin is no longer content with Yanukovych as his vassal in the gubernia that should be part of the Eurasian Union, since the latter seems to have realized the danger of closer integration with the Kremlin for his “estate”. However, Yanukovych’s potential loss of power in 2015 is of even greater concern.
The Family realizes that following the Russian model is its only chance to rapidly build a business empire that is equal to, or larger than that of its friend Akhmetov. Given the experience of the past three years, “Yanukovych’s Ukraine” is open to humanitarian expansion from the East, the inevitable russification of Ukraine’s cultural and media space, and the evolution of Ukraine’s socio-economic and socio-political models in line with the Russian mould. But it will not cede its own interests, which are completely focused on the rapid expansion of its business empire, something that would be an integral part of Ukraine’s integration into the Kremlin’s neo-imperial projects.
Meanwhile, Putin has once again made it clear that he will not be content with just a loyal state – even a satellite. Instead, he seeks to completely eliminate the aftermaths of “the biggest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century” – the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of an independent Ukraine. Only people like Viktor Medvedchuk who is considered to have pushed Kuchma to consent to integration in the Common Economic Space at the end of his presidency in 2003, can liquidate this “abnormality” “which is not even a state” (as Putin put it in a conversation with George W. Bush in Bucharest in 2008). So far, though, Medvedchuk seems to be too weak to affect 2015 developments in Ukraine, let alone seriously contribute to the disruption of the Association Agreement signing in November.
All this puts Moscow under time pressure. Indeed, the Association Agreement will not come into effect until ratified by all 28 EU member-states – and this could take years, especially if hampered by the Kremlin’s lobby in Europe. However, the DCFTA as the economic part of the Association Agreement will come into effect immediately after signing and will be able to block Ukraine’s integration in the Customs and Eurasian Unions.
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Therefore, there is every reason to expect a surprise or two from the Kremlin before the Vilnius Summit in November. Similar things have occurred before when some events in foreign or internal policy threatened the Kremlin’s stability. For instance, a scandal similar to the alleged sale of Ukrainian Kolchuga ESM systems to Iraq that ruined Kuchma’s relations with the West at the dawn of Putin’s political career and his reintegration projects in the FSU. Or a new wave of mudslinging against the Ukrainian government, this time bigger in terms of media coverage and with a stronger focus on Western politicians in order to ultimately convince the EU of the criminal nature of the Yanukovych regime and that the Association Agreement should not be signed with Ukraine.
Meanwhile, projects like the Ukrainian Choice or media holdings created to spread the word on the Kremlin’s orders, are apparently created specifically for the 2015 presidential race. They are probably supposed to expand the pro-Russian electorate in Ukraine, stealing it mainly from the former electorate of the Party of Regions and Yanukovych. Ukrainian-Russian media are now fueling tension by presenting everything negatively, from the decisions and actions of the government, to social processes, trends and developments. It’s possible that Putin is counting on a potential political vacuum in a number of southeastern regions that are currently under the total control of pro-Russian Regionaires. This is a likely scenario, if mass protests force Yanukovych to quit, as in the 2004 scenario, or if he loses the race to any of the pro-European opposition leaders. Moscow already faced the huge risk of losing its influence over Ukraine for good in 2008 when the Ukrainian government applied for NATO’s Membership Action Plan. Apparently, it is preparing to respond to a similar threat after the 2015 election.
The risks for Ukraine in this situation are aggravated by the fact that the Yanukovych regime does not view it as a fully-fledged sovereign state and ignores national security. This is evident from the choice of appointments to law enforcement authorities and special services, where many generals who are openly pro-Russian, now serve. Therefore, it will hardly be likely to develop an effective strategy to resist the possible special operations of Ukraine’s “strategic partner” as the Vilnius Summit and the presidential election draw closer.
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Ukraine as a state is only valuable to the Family if it maintains power. This is why the regime will not develop any preventive measures for external scenarios that could hurt the country. It appears that Yanukovych still believes that the loss of power in 2004 was a coincidence, a lack of preparedness for extreme scenarios and the betrayal of Kuchma. Therefore, he may be confident of his ability to keep everything under control in 2015. For this reason, the government is instead developing preventive measures to internal threats, by trying to curb protest movements and appointing loyal people to offices which have a direct influence on the outcome of the presidential election. Meanwhile, it is turning a blind eye to external threats. It looks like Putin and pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, including those inside the Party of Regions, are preparing to use Yanukovych’s limitations and shortsightedness for their own benefit.