The Death of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution

Brooks Foreign Policy Review

by Webster Brooks

Victor Yanukovich’s inauguration in March as the new President of Ukraine marked the death of the “Orange Revolution.” To the Obama administration’s consternation, Ukraine has gone red. Yanukovich’s pivot eastward toward rapprochement with Moscow is a major victory for a resurgent Russia that has longed for Kiev’s return to its political orbit. For Yanukovich, whose fraudulent presidential victory was overturned five years ago by pro-western Orange forces, his triumph was bitter sweet. He inherits a nation with the most dysfunctional government in Central Europe; a nation divided between pro-western Ukrainian nationalists and its pro-eastern Russian speaking population, and a nation whose 15 percent drop in GDP in 2009 is illustrative of its spiraling economic problems. Ukraine is also the central battleground between the United States and Moscow over NATO’s eastward expansion to Russia’s borders and control over strategic energy transit routes to Europe. While Yanukovich said Ukraine will be a “bridge between the east and west” and a “non-aligned” European country, Ukraine cannot survive in the near-term as a neutral state. Ukraine will either be Euro-Atlantic or pro-Russian. Yanukovich’s statement during last week’s visit with President Medvedev in Moscow left little doubt about Ukraine’s future direction. “The new government in Ukraine” he said “will change relations with Russia, so that they will never again be like they were for the last five years.” 

Ukraine’s drift to the West the past five years posed a grave threat to Russia’s national security interests and the strategic balance of power in Eurasia. Former “Orange” President Victor Yushchenko transferred weapons and tanks to Georgia in its 2008 war against Russia. Yushchenko incessantly pushed Ukraine’s entry into NATO despite majority opposition from the Ukrainian people and the nation’s lack of preparedness. He repeatedly threatened to break Ukraine’s treaty with Moscow by expelling Russia’s navy from Ukraine’s Sevastapol base and refused to negotiate with Russia over Ukraine’s gross mismanagement and theft of energy transfers to Europe. Now that the strident anti-Russian era of Victor Yushchenko has ended, Ukraine’s turn back to Moscow is a certainty for two reasons. First, Ukraine was hurt economically and politically by its excessive anti-Russian policies. Second, Russia has more strategic and political leverage in Ukraine than the U.S. and the European Union.

For the United States and Moscow, the seminal issue since the Soviet Union’s collapse has been whether Ukraine would vacate Russia’s sphere of influence. With 45 million people, the most advanced industrial base in the former Soviet Union and a Russian Diaspora upwards of 20 million people Ukraine was Russia’s crown jewel republic. From Henry Kissinger to Zbigniew Brzezinski, American grand strategists have asserted that if Ukraine joined the EU and eventually NATO, Russia would have no choice but to integrate into a Common European home stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok. But the EU and NATO never shared America’s enthusiasm to grant Ukrainian ascension. Five years of Orange rule validated their fears. Ukraine’s weak government, tottering economy and volatile relationship with Russia is viewed by the EU as a cesspool of problems that will dilute its strength, sew division among member states and possibly push NATO to the brink of an armed confrontation with Russia—the same type of confrontation NATO narrowly averted during the 2008 Georgian crisis. The EU’s central powers, Germany, Italy and France made clear they would not risk their substantial trade relations with Russia to undertake Ukrainian EU ascension. Thus the EU’s attempts to keep Ukraine at arm’s length was underscored at Yanukovich’s March 2 meeting with European Commission President Barroso who said “Regarding accession, instead of discussing possible dates for negotiations, it is much better to focus on reforms needed to [bring] Ukraine closer to Europe and de facto integration in our economic system.” The horizon’s of Barroso’s “de facto” integration would be limited to establishing free trade and visa-free travel; not exactly an expansive agenda. Furthermore, Europe will continue to view Ukraine as a “toxic nation” until Yanukovich’s new government adopts a budget with spending controls and austerity measures to justify the IMF lifting its suspension of the final $5 billion payment of its $16.4 billion dollar loan.   

As for NATO, when asked in Moscow about membership for Ukraine, Yanukovich simply said, “Ukraine will build its relations with NATO in accordance to the national interests of Ukraine”—a polite way of saying thanks, but no thanks. Ukraine’s relations with NATO will continue to be limited to participation in minor training exercises and small numbers of Ukrainian troops serving in NATO deployments. With Ukrainian enlargement in NATO off the table Russian Prime Minister Putin moved quickly to secure Ukraine’s commitment to extend Russian naval rights at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol beyond 2017. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet surged troops into Georgia in 2008 conflict and is critical to Russia projecting power in the Caucuses and Southern European countries of Romania, Bulgaria, Armenia, Turkey, and Georgia. After meeting with Putin in Moscow on March 4, Yanukovich said “I think that very soon we will receive a resolution (to talks on the naval basing treaty) that will suit both Ukraine and Russia,” Furthermore, the combination of Yanukovich’s victory, Georgian President Saakashveli’s growing unpopularity and Russia’s consolidation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as breakaway republics, has frozen all prospects of Georgia’s ascendency to NATO. Once backtracking to keep Georgia and Ukraine from introducing NATO to its borders, Russia is extending its “near abroad westward.”        

Across Europe concerns are growing that Ukraine must reform the chaotic management of its gas and oil pipeline network that was shut down twice by Russia in 2008, leaving several European nations without gas in the winter. The EU wants more private ownership and investment to upgrade Ukrainian pipeline operations and transparency to stop Ukraine’s arbitrary price hikes and outright theft of gas transfers bound for Europe. With 20% of the EU’s gas consumption and 80% of Russian gas exports to the EU transiting through Ukraine, Europe’s energy security is extremely vulnerable. For all these reasons, Moscow is in a strong position to leverage rapprochement with Ukraine to enhance its geo-strategic and national security position. In March President Yanukovich’s foreign affairs spokesman, Leonid Kozhara told BBC news that Ukraine is open to selling off part of its network of pipeline and storage facilities to foreign companies, including the Russian energy titan Gazprom. Having negotiated  an agreement to lower Ukraine’s gas payments in 2009, Russia is superbly positioned to purchase components of Ukraine’s energy network—something the U.S. and the EU adamantly oppose as they strive to lesson Ukraine’s dependence on Moscow. Ukraine has also failed to fulfill promises made to open the Odessa-Brody oil pipeline and the White Stream gas line project to transit energy from the Caspian Sea basin to Europe. With the pro-Russian Yanukovich now in power, it is extremely doubtful that both projects that would by-pass Russia will get off the ground. In the meantime to protect itself against the Ukrainian governments history of incompetence in managing its energy transit system, Russia has launched its new Nord Stream gas line. The new pipeline that will be completed in 2011 will run under the Baltic Sea through Finland, Sweden and Denmark’s waters to Germany.   

The ironic twist of political fortune that brought Victor Yanukovich and his Regions Party to power has given Russia a second chance to re-integrate Ukraine into its sphere of influence. But Moscow will have to do more than simply invite Ukraine to join the Eurasian Economic Community (ERASEC) with Kazakhstan and Belarus which share common foreign trade tariffs. Russia will need to mobilize its substantial “soft power” assets and investment capital to help modernize some of Ukraine’s underdeveloped industries that are transitioning from state ownership to the private sector. Winning by a narrow three percentage point margin over Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenco, President Yanukovich must deliver stability to a chaotic government that has bought shame and a stagnant standard of living to its people. Having secured a “no confidence” vote last week in Ukraine’s parliament to dismiss his adversary Prime Minister Temoschenko, Yanukovich must now cobble together a governing coalition that tames the country’s corrupt oligarchs, reforms the judiciary and adopt business friendly government policies to grow the economy. Yanukovich must also refrain from policies that alienate the country’s western Ukrainian nationalists. His statement last week that Ukrainian will remain the official national was a step in the right direction. President Yanokovich can survive and Ukraine can emerge from its crisis ridden state, despite its tilt to Russia. After all a reasonable argument can be made that Ukraine’s experiment with the West almost drove the country to a state of collapse. However, Yanukovich can only be successful if he leads and governs Ukraine as a centrist. In short, Yanukovich must blend Ukraine’s “Orange” and “Red” color revolutions into a more unified national polity–Yanukovich must lead Ukraine in a new “Yellow Revolution.”

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