Ukraine heads back into the arms of Mother Russia

Despite a dispute over fraud allegations in the wake of Sunday's presidential vote in Ukraine, pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovich is set to become the next president in what will be a dramatic shift back to pro-Kremlin policies.

Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters
A supporter of presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich attends a rally in front of Ukraine's central electoral commission in Kiev Tuesday.
Grigory Dukor/Reuters
Ukrainian Presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich talks during a briefing in Kiev Sunday.

The almost certain return of pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovich as Ukraine's president, five years after he was rejected by the country in the Orange Revolution, will be quietly savored in the Kremlin as another victory in Russia's ongoing contest with the West for dominance on the chessboard of the former Soviet Union.

Not so long ago it looked like Russia itself might be engulfed by the wave of pro-democracy upheavals, dubbed "colored revolutions," that swept over post-Soviet states Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. But after years of patient economic and political ground work and one war -- against Georgia in 2008 -- Moscow now appears headed for undisputed sway over the former Soviet region that President Dmitri Medvedev calls Russia's "sphere of influence."

Though there's little chance President-elect Yanukovich will be a Russian puppet, as some of his detractors claim, he will quickly put the kibosh on some of the quixotic anti-Moscow policies pursued by his predecessor, 2004 Orange Revolution hero Viktor Yushchenko, which included selling arms to Georgia, and recently naming Ukrainian anti-Soviet World War II guerrilla leader Stepan Bandera as a "Hero of Ukraine" -- which provoked a storm of outrage in Russia.

More seriously, Yanukovich might permanently shelve Ukraine's application to join NATO, slow down Mr. Yushchenko's plans to deepen economic cooperation with the European Union, and forget about the demands of Ukrainian nationalists to evict the Russian Navy from its historic Black Sea headquarters in Crimea.

"Geopolitical reality has shifted very markedly in favor of Russia, and Yanukovich's comeback reflects that," says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. "There's going to be a very different tone in Kiev, and Russia will be much happier with us."

Tilting toward Moscow

Even Yulia Tymoshenko, who is still refusing to acknowledge Yanukovich's electoral victory, would have adopted a more Kremlin-friendly posture if she became president.

"We know that Tymoshenko reached a wide-ranging deal with (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin when they held negotiations over Ukraine's gas debts," says Oleksiy Kolomiyets, president of the independent Center for European and Transatlantic Studies in Kiev. "She is very pragmatic, and she isn't one who would pursue unpopular principles -- such as joining NATO -- the way Yushchenko did."

Though Ukraine appeared to lurch Westward following the Orange Revolution, public support for Yushchenko's policies remained tenuous. For example, opinion polls have consistently showed that around two-thirds of Ukrainians oppose joining NATO. Though he was defeated in the presidential contest in 2004, Yanukovich's pro-Russian Party of Regions continued to score high votes in subsequent parliamentary elections, particularly in the heavily russified eastern Ukraine.

Russia's more subtle approach

The Kremlin, which had overtly backed its favored son, Yanukovich, in the allegedly rigged 2004 elections, revamped its approach to influencing Ukraine. Outright political interference was replaced by "commercial" pressure, which meant no more cheap Russian gas to power Ukraine's energy-hungry steel and chemical industries, and tougher controls on millions of Ukrainian "guest workers" seeking employment in Russia.

In a series of "gas wars" over issues of price and transit conditions for Russian gas to European customers through Ukraine's pipeline system, Moscow consistently outmaneuvered Kiev diplomatically, making Ukraine look more like an unreliable partner than a victim of Russian strong-arming.

No puppet of Moscow

Even though the Kremlin is pleased with Yanukovich's victory, it doesn't expect him to roll over on bilateral disputes such as gas supply, trade, or Russia's bid to extend its naval lease in Crimea.

"We have no illusions that any Ukrainian leader will be pro-Russian on principle," says Vladimir Kornilov, director of the Kiev branch of the Russian government-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States. "It's clear that we simply weren't able to work with Yushchenko. But if Yanukovich becomes president, there will probably be all sorts of troubles with him too."

Experts say that geopolitical tension is likely to be a permanent factor in Ukraine's domestic political discourse. The country is deeply divided, with its Ukrainian-speaking and nationalist-minded western provinces now sharing borders with -- and gazing enviously toward -- EU and NATO members Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. Heavily industrialized eastern Ukraine was part of Russia for 300 years, most of its citizens speak Russian as their first language, and they tend to look to Moscow for cultural and political cues. Since Vladimir Putin came to power a decade ago, Russia has grown far more assertive in efforts to draw Ukraine back into its orbit.

Part of Europe - or Eurasia?

"The question is whether Ukraine will be part of Europe or part of Eurasia," says Pavlo Movchan, a parliamentary deputy with Tymoshenko's bloc. "Russia is stepping up its efforts to assimilate Ukraine, and this is constantly on our minds. It's a matter of national survival."

Some Ukrainian experts say Yanukovich's arrival in power may stimulate some fresh thinking about how Ukraine can best balance relations with it's historic oppressor but current top trading partner Russia, and the NATO and EU neighbors that it hopes to eventually join.

"There is a growing view among Ukrainian security intellectuals that the best course for Ukraine might be to declare neutrality between East and West, and seek to develop dynamic relations in both directions," says Dmytro Vydrin, deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, a key presidential advisory body. "We need to be wise about this. As long as Russia views Ukrainian membership in NATO in panic-stricken terms, we probably have to keep it off the table."

And much depends on whether the current warming trend between the US and Russia continues, or descends back into the cold war-like shouting matches of recent years.

"If Washington and Moscow develop a modus vivendi, then Ukraine's place in East-West conflicts will diminish and become unremarkable," says Mikhail Pogribinsky, director of the independent Center of Political and Conflict Studies in Kiev. "But if competition between them flares up again, we'll become the object of their active interests and disputes again."

---- For more Russia stories, go to our Russia page.

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