Medvedev Changes His Tactics Over Ukraine
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 economic crisis didn’t have the effect on Russia that the
West was counting on. Instead of compliance, they’ve shown more
aggression. Rather than being scattered around the world, Russia’s
now focused on strengthening its position as an independent center
of gravity. In other words, it’s expanding its markets and
political influence into adjacent territories.

The zigzag of replacing World Trade Organization membership with
a customs union that surprised so many people, the new push to turn
the Collective Security Treaty Organization into a functioning
military alliance, and moving closer to Turkey are all elements of
one strategy. The new approach toward Ukraine proclaimed by
President Dmitry Medvedev last week is in the same vein.

Many people think Russia is getting involved in the Ukrainian
election campaign, which will go into full swing right after the
vacation season winds down. And likely, that’s exactly what’s
happening. But Russia’s hand will be different from the one it
played in 2004. Openly betting on a particular candidate ended in
such confusion five years ago that the Kremlin would have to be
masochistic to try it again. Now Russia’s position is formulated on
a much broader scale: No matter who wins in January — and the
Kremlin doesn’t believe in a reincarnation of Viktor Yushchenko —
the new president must immediately take into account the long list
of framework conditions set forth by Moscow.

It seems that Medvedev’s address has brought an end to the
previous approach, under which the goal was to treat relations
between Russia and Ukraine like those of any two “ordinary” foreign
countries. In reality, that was never the case, but no senior
political leaders were willing to say publicly that Kiev was for
Moscow — or that Moscow was for Kiev — something more than simply
an external partner.

To get the gist of this new approach, you need to look at both
what was said in Medvedev’s public address to Yushchenko and the
comments made on his video blog about his recent discussion with
Patriarch Kirill, who had just returned from Ukraine. The visit by
the head of the Russian Orthodox Church showed that there’s a new
public figure in Russia whose political weight and diplomatic
skills surpass those of the secular authorities. He combines tact
and kind civility with a firmness of his ideological positions, and
his address to worshippers calling for unity and reconciliation is
a demonstration of the “soft,” nonstate power that Moscow has long
been criticized for lacking.

That impression only became stronger when, a day after
Medvedev’s address, the patriarch’s press service published thank
you letters to the people he met with in Ukraine, including
Yushchenko. Not only did Kirill thank the Ukrainian leader for his
attention and help in organizing the visit, he also noted that
“despite all of the difficulties, Ukraine is successfully
consolidating its statehood.” His letter to the president
concludes: “May God’s blessing be with the people of beautiful
Ukraine, with its leaders and military, and with all of us.”

At first glance, the patriarch’s remarks sharply contrast with
those of Medvedev, who said Ukrainian weapons were used to kill
Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia. In reality there’s no
contradiction, however, since the authors of the two addresses to
the Ukrainian president are speaking from entirely different
positions. For Medvedev, Yushchenko is an unpleasant — it’s not
being hidden anymore — counterpart; for Kirill, he’s a member of
the faith, who needs to be put back on the true path if he strays
from it. And the pastor’s approach is ultimately much more likely
to have a political effect than the efforts of the presidential
administration or the Russian government.

What they have in common is that both Russian leaders —
spiritual and secular — are saying they intend to hold a dialog
with their neighbor outside the typical political channels. The
patriarch addresses his congregation, which by its very definition
should not be divided by citizenship or state loyalties. Medvedev
appeals directly to the Ukrainian people, letting them know in no
uncertain terms that the dialog with their political elite has
become unproductive. In fact, the symbolic meaning of not sending a
new Russian ambassador to Kiev also ties into this desire to reduce
official dialog to a purely technical level.

In their nearly 18 years of independence, Ukraine and Russia
still haven’t found a stable form of coexistence. They’ve tried
everything from imitating brotherhood and relying on corrupt
schemes to petty alienation and indirect military and political
confrontation. Yet their overlapping interests — from culture and
history to economics and security — are extremely tangled. Passions
are tearing through the cloth of all of these types of relations
and sparking crises for all of Europe, as happened, for example, in

Both countries are in the process of nation building within
borders that they never before occupied. That determines an awful
lot. And there’s a temptation for Russia to make use of the still
unsettled configuration of the post-Soviet space, particularly when
it involves land with a disputed history. Additionally, Ukraine is
trying to stake out a permanent claim as part of the non-Russian
world, even as its internal political environment remains unstable.
This psychological interdependence has made pragmatic ties
impossible, at the very least for now.

The Russian authorities’ attempts to build ties with Ukraine
from below, making use of its resources there, is generally
understandable since the country is lacking an accountable and
consolidated elite. But this clever plan can only work if the
Russian strategists accurately estimate Ukrainian society’s
sympathies toward Russia. It’s no secret that the policy,
maintained during Yushchenko’s presidency, of a sharp break from
Moscow and everything Russian has been unpopular with a portion —
and likely not a small one — of the Ukrainian people. It’s not
clear, however, that those same people are therefore willing to
forgo their national sovereignty, which many of them have gotten
used to over the years.

Of course, the Kremlin would most likely be satisfied if the
weight of public opinion forced the Ukrainian authorities to move
toward a policy of compromise on the most important issues for
Moscow, namely security and energy. But by resorting to “Great
Game” tactics, Russia should expect a similar response. It’s easy
for Kiev to turn the situation into platitudes that “our country’s
in danger,” with all of the resulting internal and external
consequences. Yushchenko will answer yet. And that’s when we’ll
know whether Russia’s evaluation of the situation in Ukrainian
society — and its wager on a direct appeal — was correct.

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