Features | Politics | Central Asia

Russian Roulette

By flirting with NATO and trying to suppress Russian culture, the Ukrainian government is playing a very dangerous game, says Medhi Chebil

By Medhi Chebil for

No Action, Talk Only. This is how the Ukrainian government could be tempted to redefine the NATO acronym after the Atlantic Alliance refused to extend a formal membership process to this former Soviet republic. Following the conflict in Georgia, President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine was hoping that the NATO summit in December last year would hear his alarmist plea to guarantee his country’s security:

‘We urge NATO to resist Russian pressure and make an historic offer of membership to my country. Since 1918, Ukraine has declared its independence six times and five times it failed. One of the fundamental reasons for that is that we had no external partner who would recognise our territorial integrity,’ Yushchenko declared at a press conference ahead of the summit.

The January/February 2009 issue of The Diplomat pointed out that ‘the next big Western-Russian crisis is likely to be over Ukraine’s NATO membership’. So far, however, Yushchenko’s pleas are proving fruitless, as internal political turbulence and the growing threat of Russian recrimination have strengthened the position of those Western European countries, including Germany, France, Spain and Italy, who consider that further eastward NATO expansion would cause international instability.
Their security nightmare is that a reckless anti-Russian leader, emboldened by the NATO umbrella, would trigger a war with Russia to settle old scores – as Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili had already done without NATO support. To date, this view has prevailed over the pro-enlargement group led by the US and its Eastern European allies, which basically advocates a new ‘containment’ policy against a resurgent Russia. However, while it remains to be seen what new US president Barack Obama’s position will be, the recent gas crisis suggests it will not take much to antagonise Russia into taking some form of punitive action.

Although NATO framed its refusal in terms of waiting for certain standards to be met, the real reason is politically motivated – and the decision may well have closed the brief window of opportunity to bring Ukraine into the fold.

Complicating matters is the fact that NATO remains a highly divisive issue in Ukraine, with a September 2008 poll revealing that 63 per cent of the population oppose Yushchenko’s efforts to seek NATO membership.

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Furthermore, Yushchenko’s abysmal personal popularity – running at a mere five per cent support according to another poll – means that his days in power are almost certainly numbered. Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych didn’t even wait till the formal end of the NATO summit to bury Yushchenko’s efforts, saying: ‘The world leaders have understood and accepted the fact that Ukrainians speaking against NATO membership have expressed their rejection of more dividing lines between the two brotherly nations, Ukraine and Russia.’

Even Yushchenko’s former ally and current prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is far from committed to NATO integration. She notably failed to add her voice to Yushchenko’s support for Georgia last August and later flew to Moscow to negotiate gas prices with Vladimir Putin. Her conciliatory tone regarding the Russian leader prompted one Ukrainian presidential aide to brand Tymoshenko a ‘traitor’, and by steering clear of the unpopular NATO issue, she is clearly trying to broaden her appeal ahead of the 2010 presidential election.

Orange Revolution gains unravelling

Regardless of who wins the ballot, it is clear that the Orange Revolution is rapidly unravelling and pro-Western forces are losing momentum. Voters are well aware that the Orange Revolution’s genuine democratic gains, in terms of elections and media freedom, have been squandered, with Yushchenko’s rule marked by prolonged governmental instability that has ultimately cast parliamentary democracy as the biggest loser.

Currently facing their third legislative ballot in less than three years, most Ukrainians are suffering from a severe case of election indigestion. Widespread voting on ethnic lines, backroom manoeuvring by political parties and the oligarchs’ unrelenting rise from mafiosi to respected ‘philanthropists’, have all conspired to discredit the institutional system of liberal democracy, making the country ripe for Putin-like authoritarianism.

Domestic divisions regarding diplomatic issues will most likely intensify. Kiev is actively trying to define Ukraine’s post-Soviet identity through its foreign policy alliances, and the NATO issue is not limited to a national security debate.

Yushchenko’s presidency has been marked by a bold reaffirmation of Ukrainian culture and identity distinct from its Russian neighbour. Major works of literature, textbooks and even Russian movies are being translated from Russian into Ukrainian, and the use of Ukrainian in government, education and the media is being enforced.

But a sizeable part of Ukraine’s 46 million-strong population – of whom 17 per cent are actually ethnic Russians – doesn’t readily identify with Ukrainian culture and feels alienated by the compulsory changes: ‘We read Russian books and magazines, we watch Russian TV soaps and movies, we listen to Russian radio… We didn’t become Ukrainian overnight with independence. We just want to keep and save our identity,’ argues Larissa Chulkova, an official from the Party of Regions.

Ukrainian nationalists, on the other hand, are convinced such restrictive policies are necessary.

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‘In more than 300 years of Russian imperial history, the Ukrainian language has been discriminated [against]. If we don’t support it, it will disappear. The situation of the Russian language is different, as it has support from a big country,’ claims Crimean MP and Yushchenko supporter Leonid Pilunskiy.

Ukraine’s history – notably Holodomor, the ‘Great Famine’ that killed some 3.5 million Ukrainians in 1933 – is also being exploited for political gain both by pro-Russians and Ukrainian nationalists. The latter – who frequently exaggerate the number of victims – regard Stalin’s actions as premeditated mass murder in response to Ukraine resisting Soviet imperialism, while the former emphasise the fact that the catastrophe affected several regions in Belarus and Russia itself, and refute that the famine was planned on ethnic lines.

‘The history of Ukraine is false, those are only myths written in the last 15 years to portray Russia as an enemy of the Ukrainian people,’ says Larissa Chulkova. ‘Despite the famine, Ukraine became one of the most developed Soviet Republics. Because of its border with Europe, it was the face and the visiting card of the Soviet Union.’

To Ukrainian nationalists, joining NATO would be the ultimate assertion of independence from Russia, the ‘evil empire’ bent on controlling Ukraine. Yet such an act could well trigger secessionist conflict in the southern Crimean Peninsula. Crimea only became Ukrainian territory in 1954 when Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev retroceded a region that had been part of Russia since Catherine the Great wrested it from the Ottoman empire in 1783.

Black Sea Fleet remains crucial

Nowadays, Crimea is the only region of Ukraine where ethnic Russians outnumber Ukrainians (by more than two to one), and the prevailing mood is unmistakeably pro-Moscow, making the ‘culture wars’ and opposition to NATO more intense than anywhere else in the country.

‘Russia understands it can’t invade Crimea by force, as they did in Abkhazia or Chechnya, so they try to annex Crimea by using Russian language and culture,’ says Leonid Pilunskiy, deliberately recalling Moscow’s tactics in the breakaway regions of Georgia, where distribution of passports to ethnic Russians, followed by financial and political backing, gave the Kremlin a convenient excuse to rush to the defence of ‘its’ citizens in a sovereign country. Pilunskiy adds that while there is no sign of a mass distribution of Russian passports in Crimea, he is worried about Crimean officials holding dual citizenship.

The head of the Russian Block in the Crimean parliament, Oleg Rodivilov, doesn’t conceal where his heart and loyalty lie – his office is adorned with several Russian flags and a portrait of Vladimir Putin. Like many pro-Russian Crimeans, he openly advocates separatism if Ukraine enters NATO, believing it would be an adequate response to Kiev’s own ‘secession’ from Moscow.

‘The present government wants to build a big wall between Ukraine and Russia, not only by NATO membership but also through the imposition of Ukrainian language,’ says Rodivilov.

It is an argument that resonates strongly with his Russian-speaking voters, nowhere more so than in Sevastopol, the Crimean garrison city where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is moored.

Derided by its opponents as a load of scrap metal, the Black Sea Fleet has been at the heart of heated political discussions in the peninsula since Yushchenko said he wouldn’t renew the lease and the Russians would have to leave Sevastopol by 2017. Tensions climaxed last August when Yushchenko unsuccessfully tried to restrict Black Sea Fleet operations against his Georgian ally.

‘We consider the Black Sea Fleet’s presence as a guarantee of stability in our region, because whoever controls Sevastopol controls the entire Black Sea. If the Russian fleet was to leave, two days later America, Turkey and their NATO navies would immediately show up’, Rodivilov asserts.

Many Crimeans are upset by Kiev’s rapprochement with NATO and each attempt to hold naval exercises between Ukrainian forces and NATO navies is invariably met with small but intense protests. Indeed, when the USS Mount Whitney visited Sevastopol in early November 2008, it stayed only one night and discreetly left before dawn to avoid provoking anti-NATO groups.

This speaks volumes about the daunting task faced by any Ukrainian leader wishing to join NATO and turn the country’s back on its historical – and cultural – ties.

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BLACK FUTURE

What will happen if Ukraine eventually joins NATO while the Black Sea Fleet remains at Sevastopol?

Moscow claims it will respect the Ukranian government’s decision not to extend its lease beyond 2017, while analysts report that Russia could move its fleet to modernised naval facilities in Novorossiysk, a Russian town about 300km east of Sevastopol.

Ukrainian nationalists, however, remain suspicious, believing that because of Yushchenko’s record unpopularity, Russia will simply wait and see whether Ukraine’s next president will be more inclined to extend the Sevastopol lease. According to Leonid Pilunskiy, ‘It’s cheaper for Russia to finance political demonstrations here with millions of dollars, rather than spending billions of dollars to relocate its Black Sea Fleet.’

If Russia does indeed have to move its fleet, deep historical ties will have to be cut. Founded by Catherine the Great in 1783, Sevastopol has been devastated twice in recent history. The city endured a 349-day siege in the mid-19th century against a coalition of British, French and Turkish forces. In 1942, the Nazis had to raze it to the ground before conquering it, after a 250-day siege.

This bloody history is visible in the countless memorials and monuments dotting the harbour shoreline. Sevastopol inhabitants are attached to this legacy and regard the Black Sea Fleet as a living symbol of the city’s heroic past.
However, as Pilunskiy underlines, there are serious political implications to the Russians’ continued presence: ‘We face the danger of a fifth column. Separatists here feel emboldened by the presence of the Black Sea Fleet.’