According to a seasoned observer of Moscow’s political scene, the Russian political class cringed last Wednesday morning on learning that Obama had suffered a humiliating political defeat. The Russian leaders don’t think much of Obama personally, but they are worried over what the Republican control of the House might mean for the fledgling “reset” in US-Russian relations—the solitary foreign policy success of the Obama administration.
“One vulnerable target for the Republicans is the new START treaty which the Obama administration hopes to get ratified during the lame-duck session of the sitting Senate,” our source says. “Another likely victim of the Republican congressional victory could be Obama’s measured and cautious policy in the post-Soviet space, with clear signs of respect for Russia’s legitimate, if not privileged, interests in the region. Republican control of the House and its Foreign Affairs Committee means that they would be in a position to pass provocative legislation … or provide financial support and even military assistance to Georgia”—enough to disrupt and perhaps destroy the “reset.”
Moscow’s fears over the future of the “reset” may well be justified. The neoconservatives, atavistically Russophobic and unhappy with the limited “engagement” of America around the world over the past two years, hope to use the Republican majority in the House to advocate a fresh round of bear baiting. Their agenda is apparent from the prominence the neoconservative flaghship, The Wall Street Journal, gave to ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s plea (“Save Ukraine’s Democracy,” October 29) for renewed Western meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs.
Having failed to interest anyone influential the West in her ill-founded claims of foul play following the presidential election last winter, Ms. Tymoshenko has rehashed the same talking points in connection with last Sunday’s elections of regional councils and city mayors in Ukraine. “They are not just a local affair,” she warned, “[t]hey warrant international scrutiny due to mounting evidence suggesting that they will neither be free nor fair. The European Union should be wary of a neighboring country that controls the flow of gas to millions of EU households sliding into authoritarianism”:
Since President Yanukovych assumed office eight months ago, political power has been centralized and civil liberties threatened. Most notably, media freedoms have come under attack. The opposition is virtually excluded from the airwaves as a result of pressure from media barons loyal to President Yanukovych and self-censorship for fear of displeasing the administration or having their offices inspected… Western leaders can exert great pressure on Ukraine’s government, for instance by attaching conditions to the next round of IMF loans or by using negotiations on Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU as a lever… We appeal to the international community to be vigilant and safeguard the European values we hold so dearly.
What the Journal’s readers may not realize, but most Europeans who matter knosw very well, is that it was former President Yushchenko’s and Ms. Tymoshenko’s brand of “Ukrainian democracy”—the dysfunctional Orange duopoly—that brought instability of the gas flow “to millions of EU households” two years ago. It takes some chutzpah for Ms. Tymoshenko to try playing this particular card now. Her rise to prominence was entirely due to her ability to make tens of millions of euros by reselling Russian gas to Eastern Europe before the “Orange Revolution,” when she belonged to the old post-Soviet oligarchy. She swiftly turned anti-Russian after Yushchenko’s triumph by declaring loyalty to the West. When Moscow responded by declaring that Ukraine would have to pay the same price for gas as the Germans and Italian, she was quick to rediscover the advantages of being nice to the Kremlin yet again. Her tenure as Prime Minister was marked by rampant corruption at home and irresponsible posturing abroad. Her heavy-handed treatment of the opposition helped her enemies then, and makes her claim of holding European values “so dearly” ridiculous now.
Having spent a week in Kiev last June, I can attest that following the end of the Orange regime Ukraine is becoming a more normal country. Russophobic Orangism has always been a minority obsession, but after Yushchenko it is discredited as a practical project. Today it is confined to the Galician fringe in the west of the country. The rest of Ukraine is finally getting on with focusing on pragmatic solutions to real problems. That means: NATO is off the agenda, there will be no gas disputes, the Black Sea Fleet’s home base lease has been extended, lip service is still paid to the EU membership in the knowledge that it will not happen.
Ms. Tymoshenko refuses to accept that she is a failed politician devoid of new tricks. Unwilling to leave the scene, she is trying to play the role of Czechoslovakia’s Gustav Husak in 1968—as the voice of ideological orthodoxy demanding foreign intervention. Her attempt is sordid. It would be irrelevant, were it not for the Journal giving it undue prominence. This indicates that the neocons have not given up on provoking Russia. They are irritated that having good relations with Moscow is a top priority in Paris, Berlin and Rome. They would like to return to the policy of encouraging an impoverished, practically defenseless nation such as Ukraine to become their pliant tool against the superpower next door. They have learnt nothing from Russia’s response to Saakashvili’s attack on South Ossetia in the summer of 2008, when Moscow maneuvered Washington into a position of weakness unseen since the final days of the Carter presidency three decades ago. The EU and Obama are guilty of many sins, but at least they both see the need for a sane relationship with Moscow that acknowledges that Russia has legitimate interests in her “near-abroad.” Ukraine’s geographic position as the natural transit route from the oil and gas fields of Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia to Central and Western Europe is a valuable asset. The previous administration unnecessarily turned that asset into a liability and a source of periodic friction with Moscow and the EU. It failed to grasp that being a transit route for a strategic commodity is not tantamount to having the commodity itself – especially if alternative transit routes are potentially available. The issue has always been political rather than economic. The new government understands that the solution is in a plus-sum-game model of shared responsibility and shared profits.
It is ironic that the “pro-Western reformists” Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were regarded as discredited by the international financial institutions, while President Yanukovych—maligned by the neocons as a neo-Soviet autocrat—is regarded by them as solid and trustworthy.
Ukraine needs to continue reforming its energy policy, tightening fiscal discipline, combating corruption, reforming the judiciary, and ensuring free and fair elections—but the task is neither unique to Ukraine, nor more daunting than it is elsewhere.
Tymoshenko is still paying the price of her miscalculation from exactly a year ago. She could have started to build bridges with future opposition partners long before her expected defeat, but this did not happen due to her excessive self-confidence in the run-up to the presidential election. She remains blind to the fact that no consolidation of Ukraine’s opposition can be effected on the basis of Orange demagoguery of six years ago. It may take months or even years for the Ukrainian opposition to come to terms with the new realities at home and abroad, but Ms. Tymoshenko is not the one to do it.
The U.S. policy toward Ukraine has always been and remains inseparable from its relations with Russia. Yanukovich’s visit to Washington last spring marked the beginning of a genuine reset in the U.S. –Russian relations. It was Obama’s helpful signal to those in Russia, notably President Medvedev, who believe that such a reset in Moscow’s relations with the United States is possible. Premier Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov are reputed to take a more jaundiced view, having experienced the mendacity and duplicity that characterized the Russia policy of the Bush-Cheney administration. Continuing to reassure Moscow vis-à-vis Ukraine would serve the American interest in a key region, defined with realism and pursued with pragmatism.