The presidents of Russia and Ukraine have met for the first time since Vladimir Putin’s re-election. This is a strange period in bilateral relations: nothing seems to be happening and there are no public conflicts between the two countries, yet occasional statements coming from both sides clearly point to mutual dissatisfaction and strain in the relationship.
Two years ago, Dmitry Medvedev and Viktor Yanukovych signed the “fleet-for-gas” agreement in Kharkov, under which Ukraine receives a large discount on Russian gas in exchange for allowing Russia to station its Black Sea Fleet in Crimea until 2047. The agreement promised major strategic changes and qualitatively new bilateral relations, but there has been no follow-through. In retrospect, it appears the Kharkov agreement was a one-time deal. Russia’s proposals for integrating the two countries’ energy, aircraft manufacturing and defense industries have not come to fruition.
There are two reasons for this. First, despite a seemingly pro-Russian president, Ukrainian society and political elites are divided on Russia and hence cannot set a clear course towards rapprochement with Moscow. And second, there is the objective fear that Russia, a stronger country both economically and politically, could co-opt Ukraine.
The pause has lasted for approximately a year, a period of internal political struggle in Ukraine that culminated in the sentencing of Yulia Tymoshenko. Out of the charges that could have been brought against the former prime minister, the authorities chose the least convincing and the most politically damaging issue: the gas contracts she signed with Russia.
Kiev probably hoped that Tymoshenko’s sentence would persuade Russia to revise the gas price. Instead, relations with Moscow rapidly cooled.
In its efforts to secure a discount, Ukrainian officials made erratic statements, ranging from threats and demands to offers of cooperation. Russia suppressed a desire to harshly rebuke Ukraine and adopted a wait-and-see approach, which definitely served the country well.
Ukraine’s international standing has deteriorated since last summer. Its relations with the European Union have been soured by the Tymoshenko case, and the gas talks with Russia have not yielded any positive results. Russia has refused to budge, and its legal standing on the matter is entirely solid. The sides cannot reach a compromise either, because Russia said it would cut prices only if Kiev agreed to share its gas transportation system or joined the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
In the meantime, Russia has been building new gas pipelines to Europe, which would allow it to completely end gas transit via Ukraine.
The logic behind Ukrainian policy is elusive. It often seems that Yanukovych’s personal attitude to Yulia Tymoshenko outweighs any possible political and economic benefits. The other day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Ukraine was a “dictatorship” and likened it to Belarus.
This is clearly an exaggeration but a telling one. Although the EU does not want Ukraine to grow closer to Russia, it cannot disregard the problem with Tymoshenko either.
The Ukrainian authorities have not won Russia’s support on that issue. Although its reaction has been more restrained than that of the EU, Putin and Medvedev have nonetheless made harsh statements concerning Tymoshenko’s sentence and imprisonment.
Last summer there was no question of Ukraine ever joining the Customs Union. Since it gained independence, Ukraine has been unwilling and unable to make a clear choice between a pro-European and a pro-Russian course. All attempts to move closer to either side have ended badly, as evidenced by the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko. Leonid Kuchma, who was Ukraine’s smartest president, always maintained sufficient room for maneuver in both directions.
However, the situation has taken an unusual turn. It looks as if Kiev has deliberately limited its own room for maneuver, thus pushing itself towards Russia. Ukraine’s economy is in shambles and it badly needs a partner who can help. But Moscow has taken a wait-and-see approach, believing that at this rate Kiev will eventually have nowhere else to turn but Russia.
Ukraine’s membership in the Customs Union would greatly improve the quality of this organization, which is only an interesting and promising prototype so far. With Ukraine on board, the Customs Union would eventually become the Eurasian Union, a powerful structure with a huge internal market and diversified economy.
As such, one of Vladimir Putin’s priorities will definitely be to win over Ukraine, but the tactic has gone from pounce to a siege.