Imperial Overload
Editor's Column
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 24481505000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: (+7) 495 980 7353
Address: Office 112, 29 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 115184, Russia

The Kremlin has earmarked enormous resources to ensure Viktor
Yanukovich’s victory in Ukraine’s presidential election, in order
to prove that Russia still has influence in the post-Soviet
republic, and not because it would actually benefit from that
No matter what the outcome of the presidential election in Ukraine
is, its nationals have every reason to be proud. There is probably
no other country on the planet that could boast that the head of
another great power was taking part in its election campaign, while
that great power was ready to offer Ukrainian nationals wider
rights than those enjoyed by Russians themselves.

So what is it about a Viktor Yanukovich victory that is so
remarkable for Moscow and what makes a possible Yushchenko win so
terrible for Russia?

I will venture to assume that for Russia there is no fundamental
difference between the two candidates. The unprecedented campaign
Moscow has waged urging Ukrainians to vote for Yanukovich is not so
much about Ukraine itself as about the Kremlin’s vanity and that of
the entire Russian State.

The unpleasant feeling of seeing its sphere of influence —
which any great power is supposed to have — shrinking has long
vexed Moscow. Having officially abandoned its claims as a global
player, Russia found out that it had no monopoly on the post-Soviet
republics whatsoever, despite an abundance of instruments of

Speaking at the Foreign Ministry this summer Putin openly spoke of
this, urging diplomats to step up their efforts to remedy the

In an attempt to increase its influence in various parts of the
former Soviet Union, Moscow has resisted the West, as was the case
in Moldova last year, or experienced an unwillingness on the part
of its neighbor’s authorities to find a common language with
Russia, regardless of whether their regimes are pro-Western, like
that of Mikhail Saakashvili in Georgia, or a pro-Soviet one, as
that of Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus.

The success achieved in relations with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and
Kazakhstan sweetens the pill only partially. Rapprochement with
Central Asia can scarcely be called a breakthrough, while the
increasingly-strong Kazakh economy is playing its own game that has
not yet come into conflict with Russia’s objectives.

Moscow first voiced concern over Russia’s declining influence over
the former Soviet republics this summer, when the smoldering
conflict in Georgia’s secessionist South Ossetia province was about
to reignite. Russian politicians reasoned that there was nowhere
for Russia to retreat and the time had come for a decisive campaign
against strategic rivals, i.e. the U.S.

Fortunately, the conflict never evolved into an open war as the
aforementioned “strategic rival” dampened the ardor of the Georgian
leader who reluctantly gave up his intention of regaining control
over South Ossetia as he had successfully done in Ajaria.

The next spot on the map was Abkhazia. Russia’s attempts to
strengthen its influence there resulted in such a mess inside the
self-styled republic that it is now impossible to get out of it.
Meanwhile, Belarus’s batka, as Aleksandr Lukashenko is dubbed by
the Russian media, has effectively ignored Moscow’s calls not to
hold a referendum on the extension of his presidential term.

All those developments have made the battle for Ukraine as
important for Russia as Borodino or Stalingrad. Moreover, Ukraine
really does mean a lot to Russia, both economically and
politically, and besides, there are the close national and cultural
ties between the two countries.

Moscow’s involvement in the Ukrainian campaign — again,
regardless of the outcome — has proved Russia’s lack of
influence, even on its closest partners. In order to achieve the
desired result Russia was forced to bring in its key, sole and
unique political resource — the president of the Russian

It is hardly worth recalling Russia’s open support of Ukraine’s
Prime Minister Yanukovich, repeatedly declared over the past year.
At the height of the war waged by international terrorism against
Russia — of which Putin spoke less than two months ago —
the head of the state spent nearly three days abroad so as to
address a foreign nation and to take part in festivities

On the eve of the voting, when civil servants were enjoying a
day-off, the Russian leader instructed his parliament to
immediately launch consultations on the introduction of dual
citizenship for Russians and Ukrainians.

At the same time it was reported that Ukrainian nationals would be
allowed to stay in Russia for three months without
registration — something, which Russians arriving in another
Russian town could only dream of, because by law they have just
three days to get registered with the local authorities.

In other words, the Russian State has thrown all its power behind
Viktor Yanukovich. Since the stakes are so high, a question arises:
what comes next? What will Russia get after her favorite wins the

Perhaps the statement shedding most light on the future of
Russo-Ukrainian relations was made on Sunday by the speaker of the
Supreme Rada, who honestly admitted that after the election the
dual citizenship issue — one of the key trump cards of the
Ukrainian prime minister — “would be remembered less and less,
until it is completely dropped from the agenda, as it is a very
complicated matter”.

Those words, most likely, mean that the promises made by Yanukovich
during his campaign would be regarded not as assumed obligations to
the voters but merely as part of his campaigning.

This is by no means a sensation. Even in the most democratic
countries president-elects fail to honor all the promises they make
during their election campaigns. The voters’ right is to punish
their leader for his lies at the next election. But what will
Russia do if the promises given to it by Ukraine are regarded by
the winner merely as a part of his campaign?

It seems that it is not the powerful Russia that paves the way to
power for a candidate whose victory is of more benefit for Moscow
but certain political forces in Ukraine that use Russia to achieve
their own goals.

Lately much has been said of the problem of overexertion of
imperial might in the U.S., which has included almost the entire
world in its sphere of interest. Even such a powerful state as the
U.S. is not strong enough to bear global responsibility.

In Russia the problem of imperial overexertion is acute, too. If,
in order to achieve its goals, the state has to mobilize so many
political resources, it means the ’empire’ really is on the verge
of burning out. And next time, even the entire vertical of Russian
power may not suffice.