The wave of freedom that broke over Eastern Europe swamped the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But — Russia being Russia — the thirst for empire can never be slaked. Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych — having stolen the recent election so blatantly even the EU noticed — is trying to help Russian President Vladimir Putin turn back the tide.
Ah, for the good old days when there was only the Evil Empire to worry about. Each side’s submarines played hide and seek with the other’s, East German border guards shot those trying to escape the workers’ paradise, and the spies of MI6, CIA and KGB went about their business. For Cold Warriors of the old west, the world has changed and not entirely for the better. But for their Russian counterparts, that the world has changed does not mean that the changes are irreversible. Quietly and harshly, patiently and inexorably the old Soviet crowd and a young bunch of Brezhnev wannabes are working to restore Russian military power and hegemony over former Soviet satellites.
There was a time, for a few years after the Berlin Wall fell, that the old Soviet military was literally left to rot. Many of their best soldiers were without pay or rations, left to forage among the civilian populace. The factories of Mikoyan Gurevich — makers of the MiG aircraft — and others were silent, their inventories gathering dust, engineers and scientists as desperate as the abandoned soldiery. But in the past few years they, and other Russian military industries, have been funded well enough to produce new classes of nuclear submarines that are better and — thanks to the Walker spy ring — as quiet as ours. New types of Russian fighter aircraft are as good and maybe a bit better than anything we have other than the unaffordably expensive F-22. The lesson is that while Russia isn’t an economic superpower, the Putin government is willing to spend whatever it can to restore Russian military might, and empire.
LAST WEEKEND, THE UKRAINIAN parliament threw out the hugely corrupt result that had Viktor Yanukovych, appointed to office by outgoing prime minister Leonid Kuchma, winning by a 3% margin. Opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko’s protest of the stolen election is going to be ruled on by the Ukrainian courts, but that is unlikely to end the matter. Yanukovych is supported vocally by Putin who has an eye on the eastern Ukraine’s industrial capacity as well as its possibly-restorable naval and nuclear assets.
Pravda — reverting quickly to type — has already labeled Yushchenko a “western stooge.” Wheezing a lungful of stale Lubyanka air, Pravda ranted on. It condemned Yushchenko’s tactics as “typical of the anti-democratic processes set in motion by a rampant and militant Washington, crushed in the grip on a monetarist, neo-conservative crypto-fascist clique of elitists, whose corporate greed speaks louder than the mores of international diplomacy and whose thirst to dominate the world’s resources in the lifetimes of Rumsfeld and Cheney throws any moral concept into the trash bin.” Remember, as we must, that Pravda‘s role was — and is again — to impose on us a mirror image of what the Soviets were, and Putin is, doing. (Someone needs to reopen the U.S. Information Agency. Come to think of it, we should have done this years ago. We’ve lost at least a decade in which we should have been broadcasting 24/7 into the Middle East.)
When the Soviet Union broke apart, Ukraine kept a large part of the Black Sea fleet, including a number of nuclear submarines. We don’t know how well — if at all — these boats have been maintained. Unless they have literally been left to rot, they may be susceptible of a restoration that will cost billions less than building new boats. Putin is sure to be looking at them as part of the answer to rebuilding the Russian military. Even if these boats cannot be restored to full capability, they can probably be moderately effective to project power, and highly effective as training vessels for a new generation of Russian submariners.
Between the industrialized east — where severe unemployment makes realignment with Russia seem (though falsely) a remedy to economic hardship — and the agricultural west, Ukraine is split along a line that more or less follows the Dnieper River. Western Ukrainians have been anti-Soviet, and now fear a resurgent Russia so much that they may be willing to partition the country along the Dnieper line if Yanukovych is declared the winner of the election. In the east, economic conditions are bad enough that fears of Russia may be subordinated to the phony promise of economic revival by Russian alignment. The eastern Donetsk region has already scheduled a referendum on partition for next week that plays into Russian hands too quickly. Yanukovych — who told Reuters that he opposes partition — apparently is supporting the partition vote quietly, keeping that option open should the courts decide he lost the election. His maneuvers will leave him dependent on Putin to a degree that he cannot extract himself and his country should he retain the Prime Minister’s office.
Defense sources are very concerned about the other element of Ukrainian partition. Re-alliance with Russia or partition will mean that the portion of the Soviet nuclear arsenal that remained under Ukrainian control — and whatever part of it that may remain after the Nunn-Lugar program’s disposal — would likely fall under eastern Ukrainian control. Or worse, sold in the black market. One such source opined that a Yanukovych win may be preferable because he may be able to control the nuclear remnants better. We’ll see. We and the European Union have condemned the obviously corrupt election. But there is more to do.
PUTIN, THROUGH YANUKOVYCH, is making his first open attempt to revive Russian control over its neighbors. This is consistent with Russia’s opposition to controlling Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its support of neo-Castroite Chavez in Venezuela, and its sometime cooperation with Old Europe in the U.N. The world has many moving parts, and the Russian influence on one cannot distract us from its attempts to influence the others. Putin wants his new Russia to wield power equal to that of the old Soviet Union. As we did in the Cold War, we must oppose them at every turn. In Ukraine, our opposition must be energetic, and accomplished without delay.
We should be encouraging the Ukrainian court to enforce its own laws to ensure the election’s result reflects the citizenry’s vote honestly. Yanukovych’s 3% “win” cannot be corrected by a recount because the ballot boxes were stuffed and votes for Yushchenko were destroyed. A new vote should be held with international ballot monitors participating thoroughly. Putin’s interference should be rebuffed diplomatically, with a statement from Colin Powell in terms as strong as he used to condemn the election fraud.
The Ukrainian people need to hear that the remedy for their economic problems is not to subordinate their freedom to Russia’s ambition. Russian influence in Ukraine is built on two false premises. First, as always, is fear. But Russian tanks aren’t going to be rolling down the streets of Kiev. There are reports that Russian special ops troops have infiltrated Kiev, but they could only be there to create fear. It would be reckless for Putin to order assassinations of Ukrainian judges or officials. Putin is many awful things, but reckless isn’t one of them. We need to tell Ukrainians over and over that they will remain free if they choose to. Second, they need to know — especially in the eastern regions — that Russia isn’t going to bring them prosperity. Russia’s economy, though vastly better than it was under the Soviets, is in danger of stagnating because Putin is raising taxes and dealing with industry as if the government controls it, as well it may. Russia can’t help Ukraine. It can only siphon economic life from it. Western investment in Ukrainian industry is much more likely to put Ukrainians back to work as free people.
Putin’s Russia must be contained as Soviet Russia was. Putin, like the Soviet leaders before him, counts on the fact that America’s attention can be diverted easily from Russian action. Ukraine is the first place we need to prove him wrong. It won’t be the last.
TAS Contributing Editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery Publishing).