Ukraine's Election and the Russian Resurgence
Ukrainians go to the polls Feb. 7 to choose their next president. The last time they did this, in November 2004, the result was the prolonged international incident that became known as the Orange Revolution. That event saw Ukraine cleaved off from the Russian sphere of influence, triggering a chain of events that rekindled the Russian-Western Cold War. Next week's runoff election seals the Orange Revolution’s reversal. Russia owns the first candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, outright and has a workable agreement with the other, Yulia Timoshenko. The next few months will therefore see the de facto folding of Ukraine back into the Russian sphere of influence; discussion in Ukraine now consists of debate over the speed and depth of that reintegration.
The Centrality of Ukraine
Russia has been working to arrest its slide for several years. Next week's election in Ukraine marks not so much the end of the post-Cold War period of Russian retreat as the beginning of a new era of Russian aggressiveness. To understand why, one must first absorb the Russian view of Ukraine.
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, most of the former Soviet republics and satellites found themselves cast adrift, not part of the Russian orbit and not really part of any other grouping. Moscow still held links to all of them, but it exercised few of its levers of control over them during Russia’s internal meltdown during the 1990s. During that period, a number of these states — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the former Czechoslovakia to be exact — managed to spin themselves out of the Russian orbit and attach themselves to the European Union and NATO. Others — Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine — attempted to follow the path Westward, but have not succeeded at this point. Of these six, Ukraine is by far the most critical. It is not simply the most populous of Russia’s former possessions or the birthplace of the Russian ethnicity, it is the most important province of the former Russian Empire and holds the key to the future of Eurasia.
First, the incidental reasons. Ukraine is the Russian Empire’s breadbasket. It is also the location of nearly all of Russia’s infrastructure links not only to Europe, but also to the Caucasus, making it critical for both trade and internal coherence; it is central to the existence of a state as multiethnic and chronically poor as Russia. The Ukrainian port of Sevastopol is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and Ukrainian ports are the only well-developed warm-water ports Russia has ever had. Belarus’ only waterborne exports traverse the Dnieper River, which empties into the Black Sea via Ukraine. Therefore, as goes Ukraine, so goes Belarus. Not only is Ukraine home to some 15 million ethnic Russians — the largest concentration of Russians outside Russia proper — they reside in a zone geographically identical and contiguous to Russia itself. That zone is also the Ukrainian agricultural and industrial heartland, which again is integrated tightly into the Russian core.
These are all important factors for Moscow, but ultimately they pale before the only rationale that really matters: Ukraine is the only former Russian imperial territory that is both useful and has a natural barrier protecting it. Belarus is on the Northern European Plain, aka the invasion highway of Europe. The Baltics are all easily accessible by sea. The Caucasian states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are on the wrong side of the Caucasus Mountains (and Russia’s northern Caucasus republics — remember Chechnya? — aren’t exactly the cream of the crop of Russian possessions). It is true that Central Asia is anchored in mountains to the south, but the region is so large and boasts so few Slavs that it cannot be controlled reliably or cheaply. And Siberia is too huge to be useful.
Without Ukraine, Russia is a desperately defensive power, lacking any natural defenses aside from sheer distance. Moscow and Volgograd, two of Russia’s critically strategic cities, are within 300 miles of Ukraine’s eastern border. Russia lacks any natural internal transport options — its rivers neither interconnect nor flow anywhere useful, and are frozen much of the year — so it must preposition defensive forces everywhere, a burden that has been beyond Russia’s capacity to sustain even in the best of times. The (quite realistic) Russian fear is that without Ukraine, the Europeans will pressure Russia along its entire western periphery, the Islamic world will pressure Russia along its entire southern periphery, the Chinese will pressure Russia along its southeastern periphery, and the Americans will pressure Russia wherever opportunity presents itself.
Ukraine by contrast has the Carpathians to its west, a handy little barrier that has deflected invaders of all stripes for millennia. These mountains defend Ukraine against tanks coming from the west as effectively as they protected the Balkans against Mongols attacking from the east. Having the Carpathians as a western border reduces Russia’s massive defensive burden. Most important, if Russia can redirect the resources it would have used for defensive purposes on the Ukrainian frontier — whether those resources be economic, intelligence, industrial, diplomatic or military — then Russia retains at least a modicum of offensive capability. And that modicum of offensive ability is more than enough to overmatch any of Russia’s neighbors (with the exception of China).
When Retreat Ends, the Neighbors Get Nervous
This view of Ukraine is not alien to countries in Russia’s neighborhood. They fully understand the difference between a Russia with Ukraine and a Russia without Ukraine, and understand that so long as Ukraine remains independent they have a great deal of maneuvering room. Now that all that remains is the result of an election with no strategic choice at stake, the former Soviet states and satellites realize that their world has just changed.
Georgia traditionally has been the most resistant to Russian influence regardless of its leadership, so defiant that Moscow felt it necessary to trounce Georgia in a brief war in August 2008. Georgia’s poor strategic position is nothing new, but a Russia that can redirect efforts from Ukraine is one that can crush Georgia as an afterthought. That is turning the normally rambunctious Georgians pensive, and nudging them toward pragmatism. An opposition group, the Conservative Party, is launching a movement to moderate policy toward Russia, which among other things would meanabandoning Georgia’s bid for NATO membership and re-establishing formal political ties with Moscow.
A recent Lithuanian power struggle has resulted in the forced resignation of Foreign Minister Minister Vygaudas Usackas. The main public point of contention was the foreign minister’s previous participation in facilitating U.S. renditions. Vygaudas, like most in the Lithuanian leadership, saw such participation as critical to maintaining the tiny country’s alliance with the United States. President Dalia Grybauskaite, however, saw the writing on the wall in Ukraine, and feels the need to foster a more conciliatory view of Russia. Part of that meant offering up a sacrificial lamb in the form of the foreign minister.
Poland is in a unique position. It knows that should the Russians turn seriously aggressive, its position on the Northern European Plain makes it the focal point of Russian attention. Its location and vulnerability makes Warsaw very sensitive to Russian moves, so it has been watching Ukraine with alarm for several months.
As a result, the Poles have come up with some (admittedly small) olive branches, including an offer for Putin to visit Gdansk last September in an attempt to foster warmer (read: slightly less overtly hostile) relations. Putin not only seized upon the offer, but issued a public letter denouncing the World War II-era Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty, long considered by Poles as the most outrageous Russian offense to Poland. Warsaw has since replied with invitations for future visits. As with Georgia, Poland will never be pro-Russian — Poland is not only a NATO member but also hopes to host an American Patriot battery and participate in Washington’s developing ballistic missile defense program. But if Warsaw cannot hold Washington’s attention — and it has pulled out all the stops in trying to — it fears the writing might already be on the wall, and it must plan accordingly.
Azerbaijan has always attempted to walk a fine line between Russia and the West, knowing that any serious bid for membership in something like the European Union or NATO was contingent upon Georgia’s first succeeding in joining up. Baku would prefer a more independent arrangement, but it knows that it is too far from Russia’s western frontier to achieve such unless the stars are somewhat aligned. As Georgia’s plans have met with what can best be described as abject failure, and with Ukraine now appearing headed toward Russian suzerainty, Azerbaijan has in essence resigned itself to the inevitable. Baku is well into negotiations that would redirect much of its natural gas output north to Russia rather than west to Turkey and Europe. And Azerbaijan simply has little else to bargain with.
Other states that have long been closer to Russia, but have attempted to balance Russia against other powers in hopes of preserving some measure of sovereignty, are giving up. Of the remaining former Soviet republics Belarus has the most educated workforce and even a functioning information technology industry, while Kazakhstan has a booming energy industry; both are reasonable candidates for integration into Western systems. But both have this month agreed instead to throw their lots in with Russia. The specific method is an economic agreement that is more akin to shackles than a customs union. The deal effectively will gut both countries’ industries in favor of Russian producers. Moscow hopes the union in time will form the foundation of a true successor to the Soviet Union.
Other places continue to show resistance. The new Moldovan prime minister, Vlad Filat, is speaking with the Americans about energy security and is even flirting with the Romanians about reunification. The Latvians are as defiant as ever. The Estonians, too, are holding fast, although they are quietly polling regional powers to at least assess where the next Russian hammer might fall. But for every state that decides it had best accede to Russia’s wishes, Russia has that much more bandwidth to dedicate to the poorly positioned holdouts.
Russia also has the opportunity. The United States is bogged down in its economic and health care debates, two wars and the Iran question — all of which mean Washington’s attention is occupied well away from the former Soviet sphere. With the United States distracted, Russia has a freer hand in re-establishing control over states that would like to be under the American security umbrella.
There is one final factor that is pushing Russia to resurge: It feels the pressure of time. The post-Cold War collapse may well have mortally wounded the Russian nation. The collapse in Russian births has halved the size of the 0-20 age group in comparison to their predecessors born in the 1970s and 1980s. Consequently, Russian demographics are among the worst in the world.
Even if Russia manages an economic renaissance, in a decade its population will have aged and shrunk to the point that the Russians will find holding together Russia proper a huge challenge. Moscow’s plan, therefore, is simple: entrench its influence while it is in a position of relative strength in preparation for when it must trade that influence for additional time. Ultimately, Russia is indeed going into that good night. But not gently. And not today.