Word has long made the rounds in Moscow that the Kremlin would consider expansion of NATO that includes Ukraine to be an outright military threat to the Russian Federation.
This threat of a threat plays well with the current effort by the Medvedev/Putin regime to nudge Ukraine back into Russia's orbit. In more direct terms, such a maneuver effectively means Moscow gaining adequate controlling leverage over its economic and strategically important Former Soviet Union (FSU) neighbor.
One of the expectations of the "Orange Revolution" in 2004 was that Ukraine would quickly edge closer to the West. Joining the European Union and NATO was held out as a real possibility. But it didn't happen. The working relationship of Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko broke down as Tymoshenko chose the path of pragmatic relations (her term) with Russia after several friendly meetings with Putin that produced what she considered satisfactory results.
Yushchenko nurtured his well-justified antagonism toward a Moscow that he continued to view as having only exploitive aims. Meanwhile the Russophile Viktor Yanukovych has maintained his pro-Moscow stance at the same time as strengthening his political popularity mostly in Ukraine's traditionally Russia-oriented east and south.
This return of Yanukovych is less a battle won by him than a failure of the Yushchenkoites to reform the corruption by politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen against whom the original "Orange Revolution" was directed. The fact is that Ukraine is arguably more corrupt today than it was five years ago, with bribery of public officials the principal mechanism of government efficiency on all levels. In a now oft-quoted statement, the EU representative to the Ukraine said, "Corruption, red tape, administrative obstacles of every kind -- these are only things that serve the interests of those who today control the [Ukrainian] economy…"
Using their knowledge of these vulnerabilities of the Ukrainian political economy, Russian business and government operators have eased themselves back into an influential position. Even the rich, beautiful, and smart Yulia Tymoshenko has effectively given up her fight against Russian influence in exchange for a policy based on accommodation for hoped-for eventual advantage. In the meantime, Russian entrepreneurs have bought out control of one of Ukraine's major steel groups in an industry that is suffering greatly from the recession.
The movement to integrate Ukraine into NATO has all but died -- much to the joy of Moscow. Neither of the two leading contenders for the presidency (Yanukovych and Tymoshenko) favors NATO integration. Only Yushchenko still holds on to his original aim of taking the country into the Western military alliance. All three have publicly supported the idea of Ukraine joining the European Union. The forthcoming election process beginning on January 17 will point the way for Ukraine's immediate future.
From Moscow's point of view, EU membership is a pipe dream, but one it can live with so long as it's a theory that can't come to fruition. Membership in NATO is another matter altogether. As quoted in the Financial Times, Sergei Karaganov, head of Russia's Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, said extending NATO to include Ukraine would cause "a threat of large scale war in Europe."
This type of rhetoric is a serious characterization of Moscow's continued perception of its strategic need to maintain Ukraine (and Georgia) as a buffer between the Western alliance and Russia. To the Kremlin -- in this case meaning Medvedev/Putin or any combination thereof -- it is essential that Russia be alert to counter all efforts to extend NATO eastward. So far the Obama administration has carefully avoided challenging in any way this strongly held position.
Accepting Moscow's proprietary military view of Ukraine's strategic importance to Russia maintains and reinforces a precedent for the entire concept of Russian reestablishment of strategic military influence over FSU countries. Ukraine is the keystone in such a concept politically, economically and geographically. In most immediate term Ukraine is the principal route for the export of gas produced by or transiting Russia. As such this circumstance is a powerful factor in Western Europe's energy supply and clearly a security concern in East-West relations.
Putin has envisioned a reborn sphere of influence contiguous to Russia. His ultimate objective -- though perhaps not shared in the same sense by Medvedev -- is eventually to build a strategic forward defense perimeter among the FSU nations as a military buffer and political economic partner. Ukraine is essential in that calculus.
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