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Ukrainian sovereignty withstands Medvedev

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May 20, 2010, 9:31 p.m. | Op-ed — by Stanislav Belkovsky

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Stanislav Belkovsky says that despite the pretty facade, the true relationship between Russia and Ukraine remains complex and antagonistic. The Ukrainian political elite were on the verge of a nervous breakdown on the eve of the visit of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on May 17-18. The most ardent advocates of unlimited rapprochement between Ukraine and Russia expected yet another “breakthrough” in this relationship, akin to the Kharkiv agreements made on April 21, which extended the term for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine until 2042.

Opposition of all colors tried to persuade the public that, during this “historic” visit, President Viktor Yanukovych would surrender Ukraine, renouncing a part of its territory (such as Tuzla Island and the Kerch-Yanikal channel), strategic industrial sectors (such as nuclear energy and plane building) and, of course, the main national treasure – the natural gas transport system, the famous “pipe.”

In the end, there was neither a breakthrough, nor surrender. Medvedev’s visit was ordinary and even boring. Its highlight was probably the fight between Yanukovych and a wreath in Kyiv’s Glory Park, which showed once again that the Ukrainian president, despite his impressive stature, is no Terminator capable of squeezing any opponent, but a fearful creature dreading any threat to his physical security.

Of all the documents signed by the presidents, only one – on the demarcation of borders – actually has some political meaning. It allows both nations to activate negotiations on a visa-free regime with the European Union, an important issue for the elites of Ukraine and Russia.

The rest of the agreements, including the one on a new navigational system, cooperation in the culture and education sectors, cooperation between Ukreximbank and Vneshtorgbank are part of a pleasant ritual, not real politics.

As far as I know, on the eve of the visit, the sides discussed cutting it down to a single day. But it was decided that shortening the visit would give the public the wrong signal. So they set up a Ukrainian-Russian economic forum on May 18, featuring the two presidents and the best and most talented oligarchs from both countries.

The forum brought no practical results, except one: It once again showed that the facade of the new Russian-Ukrainian relationship – in which FRIENDSHIP is in banner-sized letters – hides deep and sharp antagonisms, primarily in business and economy. They’re not likely to be resolved in the foreseeable future.

Medvedev’s visit once again proved that there will be no “sharp turn” of Ukraine to Russia, as predicted by various commentators after the “Kharkiv pact.” Ukraine will continue moving towards the European Union under Yanukovych.

It’s a completely different matter that this movement is doomed to be very slow. The EU does not want to embrace new members soon, especially after the Greek trouble, which might yet repeat in other countries of the euro zone.

Ukraine, with its retrograde economy and dual political worlds that read and interpret every signal in exactly the opposite way, can barely aspire for quick European integration. I am not even mentioning Russia here – Russia will never join the EU, and knows it very well.

So, despite the opposition’s warning, Yanukovych surrendered neither the gas pipeline, nor the nuclear industry, nor airplane construction. He never will. He needs them, too.

He had agreed to prolong the term of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea only because he knew that neither the U.S. nor Europe would mind. They know that this dilapidated fleet has neither military nor political significance. And the West is tired of being the arbiter in Russian-Ukrainian relations.

Medvedev’s “triumphant” visits to Kharkiv and Kyiv have drowned out a few remarkable moves by Yanukovych, such as his refusal to join the Russian-led customs union or strip [the late Ukrainian nationalists] Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych of their Hero of Ukraine awards. These stances are clearly not pro-Russian.

The logic of Ukraine-Russia relations is now shaped by two key factors.

One of them is international. The world truly became unipolar 20 years after the Soviet Union’s demise. The U.S. now dominates completely, not through the “export of democracy.” Rather, it establishes loyal regimes in different parts of the world and sets technological and consumer standards, as well as controls the world financial system.

In the framework of this global domination model, there is no particular difference between Russia and Ukraine, two large but peripheral states. Today’s Moscow is no less loyal to Washington than Kyiv is, and the superpower has no reasons to fear Russia. That’s why selling anti-Russian ideology is more difficult these days. Nobody will help you just because you’re against Russia. Yanukovych and his team know it and are acting based on this knowledge.

The second factor is internal for Ukraine, deriving from the fact that Ukraine has two political elites. One of them considers anything tied to Russia to be positive. The other one rejects it. Until this internal gap is bridged, there can be neither a national consensus about relations with Russia, nor a consistent policy related to Russia. The relationship will continue to develop along the “one-step-forward-two-steps-back” principle.

Also, Medvedev’s visit exposed the depth of the moral and psychological crisis of Ukraine’s opposition. Bluffing in politics is acceptable and habitual. But a bluff is only effective when it cannot be quickly and clearly disproved.

Of course, Ukraine’s opposition claimed right after the visit that the nation was not surrendered thanks to their preventive panic. But I imagine that even many critics of Yanukovych did not believe the opposition’s claims. Their accusations were made too crudely.

I think the official Ukrainian opposition needs a timeout to re-think and re-group. During this timeout, Yanukovych’s camp will make enough stupid mistakes, giving the opposition new ammunition.

No matter how hard Medvedev and Yanukovych demonstrate their friendship, on May 17-18 we once again saw that Ukraine and Russia are two different nations that will never reunite, at least not in the foreseeable future.


Stanislav Belkovsky is a Russian political analyst. He is a founder and director of the National Strategy Institute and of the communication company Politech.
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