Despite living separately for the last 17 years, Russia and
Ukraine are still inextricably intertwined. Events in one country
inevitably have an impact on the other. In fact, two of Vladimir
Putin’s greatest foreign policy failures were linked to Ukraine.
The first was in 2004, when then-President Putin personally meddled
with Ukraine’s presidential election process and his preferred
candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, lost under shameful circumstances.
The second flop occurred early last month when Prime Minister Putin
temporarily halted gas supplies to Europe in the heat of the gas
war with Ukraine, a move that will have negative long-term
consequences for Russian-European political and economic
At the same time, Moscow’s defeat does not signify a victory for
Kiev. As President Viktor Yushchenko’s term in office approaches
its end, Ukraine is poised on the brink of a severe economic and
political crisis that will most likely be worse than Russia’s.
Ukraine’s deep recession stems as much from the global crisis as
from the state’s inept management of the economy. What’s more,
Kiev’s leadership is constantly mired in political struggles that
go deeper than the most visible battle between Yushchenko and Prime
Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The main political factions have lost
credibility with voters and lost respect from the international
community. Moreover, the rule of law and independence of the court
system has been severely eroded under Yushchenko’s presidency.
In addition, few of the foreign policy goals set by champions of
the Orange Revolution have been achieved. The hope of joining NATO
has amounted to nothing, and the prospects for integration with
Europe have all but disappeared. To make matters worse,
Russian-Ukrainian relations have never been as bad as they have
been during the past four years.
What are the reasons for these dismal results? Is it because the
country’s political elite are too inexperienced or inept?
Paradoxically, the roots of today’s problems can be traced to the
2004 Orange Revolution itself. The initial euphoria over the
«democratic revolution» drew attention away from the election
violations surrounding Yushchenko’s victory. After the first vote,
which was held in November 2004, the Central Election Commission
declared Yanukovych the winner. Then thousands of Yushchenko
supporters protested in the streets, alleging that the vote was
rigged. In response, the Ukrainian Supreme Court annulled the
results and ordered a repeat of the second election, which was held
a month later. Logically speaking, if the first election results
were annulled, there should have been a completely new election
open to all candidates; under these conditions, perhaps there would
be have been people running in the race. Instead, there was simply
a rerun of the old election between Yushchenko and Yanukovych,
which Yushchenko won. This is a vivid example of Ukrainian legal
nihilism, and to this day Yushchenko is fond of manipulating the
Constitution and court system to strengthen his own political
In addition, outside forces played an important role in shaping
Ukraine’s internal political process. It is true that Russia
intervened by supporting Yanukovych, but the West’s intervention
was more powerful, including the support of nongovernmental
organizations within Ukraine and developing a global PR campaign in
support of Yushchenko.
After Yushchenko became president, the Orange coalition declared
their new strategy of aligning with the West. This strong,
pro-Western orientation, unprecedented in Ukrainian politics,
complicated its relations with Moscow.
With practically no chance of joining the European Union,
Ukraine has been left without a well-defined goal. It is now
difficult to take seriously the popular slogan of Ukraine’s
One of Yushchenko’s most important political goals was gaining
Ukraine’s membership in NATO, and this immediately became a source
of heated contention with Russia. Moreover, Yushchenko tried to
play the Ukrainian nationalism card, but this was clearly a flawed
approach in a country with so many different ethnicities and
According to a recent Public Opinion Foundation-Ukraine Internet
rating, if the presidential election were held today, only 1.9
percent of the poll participants would vote for Yushchenko. In any
event, the 2009 presidential election campaign promises to be
heated, and this could ultimately complicate relations with the
country’s neighbors, particularly Russia. The recent gas war with
Russia has shown that the Ukrainian president is willing to take
risks and that he can skillfully provoke Moscow to make the Kremlin
look bad. The biggest risk would be for Yushchenko to provoke
Moscow on the issue of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, based in
Sevastopol, but this could lead to a conflict much more serious
than the gas war.
Considering Ukraine’s important geopolitical position, events in
the country have direct repercussions for Russia and Europe. Kiev’s
politicians, however, do not fully appreciate this fact as they are
more caught up in internal battles and the struggle for their own
political survival. This shortsightedness will not change until a
new, more pragmatic generation of politicians come to power.
For their part, Ukraine’s neighbors have yet to figure out how
best to deal with Kiev. Moreover, they continue to believe in
myths: Europeans like to believe the fairy tale that Ukraine is
building a European democracy, and Russians like the myth that
Ukraine — or at the very least its Russian-dominated eastern half —
will one day return to the Russian empire.