Obama needs a pro-Ukrainian President

M.K. Bhadrakumar

Post-Yushchenko, Ukraine is poised to redraw the geopolitics of Eurasia. The defeat in Massachusetts significantly changes the political environment in Washington.

Two game-changers within a week is a rare happening in world politics. Last week was a defining moment for the Barack Obama presidency. The two elections in far-apart places — Ukraine and Massachusetts in northeastern U.S. — between January 17-20 have a lot in common.

They are both strong public rebukes handed down by furious voters who were promised change and reform and saw zero improvement in their lives. Neither is a political tectonic shift, yet they are grassroots-rebellions and watershed events. They debunked the “colour revolutions” in Ukraine in 2004 and in the U.S. in 2008. For Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, this is the end of the road. For Mr. Obama, the New England defeat bruises his presidency, which reaches a crossroads. Both the elections were about populist anger when passionate hopes and impossible expectations were belied. However, they are also game-changers for world politics. Post-Yushchenko Ukraine is poised to redraw the geopolitics of Eurasia. And the defeat in Massachusetts significantly changes the political environment in Washington, which is bound to impact Mr. Obama’s policies at home and abroad.

No matter who wins the February 7 runoff in Ukraine — frontrunner Viktor Yanukovich who won 35 per cent of ballots or Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko who garnered 25 per cent — the result of the first round on January 17 signifies a repudiation of the “Orange Revolution” of 2004, which was masterminded by the U.S. as a smart move in the containment strategy toward Russia. Mr. Yushchenko’s stunning rejection — he polled just 5 per cent of the votes — also underscores a rejection of his principal foreign policy plank of Ukraine’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. He consistently opposed any Russian participation in Ukraine’s gas transportation system. He sub-served U.S. regional policies in Eurasia — NATO’s expansion as the global security organisation, control of the Caspian and Central Asian energy sources and counter to the Moscow-led integration processes on the post-Soviet space.

Arguably, Ukraine has restated its close ties with Russia. Both Mr. Yanukovich and Mrs. Tymoshenko favour repair of ties with Moscow; neither is obsessed with Ukraine’s NATO membership; both draw political sustenance from the Ukrainian big business that is tied to Russia, especially in the all-important energy sector. But both are essentially “pro-Ukrainian”. Mr. Yanukovich said recently, “Ukraine, quite simply, has been and will be a state outside any blocs… We will not aspire to enter either NATO or the ODKB [Russian acronym for Collective Security Treaty Organisation]… We will follow a pragmatic and balanced foreign policy. We will continue to develop the process of Euro-integration. But its basis will be the modernisation and transformation of Ukraine internally.”

The Ukrainian election result provides an underpinning for the preservation of Russia’s interests in the Caucasus. The Orange coalition’s “split” in September 2008 was largely due to disagreements over Russia’s conflict with Georgia. Mr. Yushchenko sought a forceful condemnation of Russia while Mrs. Tymoshenko refused. Equally, a friendly government in Kiev will abandon Mr. Yushchenko’s aggressive drive (tacitly encouraged by Washington) to evict Russia from its Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol. A flashpoint is approaching as the Russia-Ukraine agreement regarding Sevastopol is due to expire in 2017 and Mr. Yushchenko was bracing for a showdown with Moscow. Sevastopol is critical for Russia’s effective presence as a Black Sea power. Mr.Yushckenko’s departure, therefore, amounts to a setback for the U.S. strategy to convert the Black Sea into a ‘NATO lake’. The first-ever U.S. military bases in Romania and Bulgaria already pose some challenge to Russia’s traditional supremacy in the Black Sea region.

Ukraine’s gravitation back to Russia has implications for energy security. The restoration of Russia-Turkmenistan energy ties; Russia’s forays into the Western monopoly over Azerbaijan’s energy reserves; Russo-Turkish concord over the proposed South Stream pipeline to southern Europe and the Balkans — these trends get accentuated with the regime change in Kiev. Mr. Yushchenko has been spearheading the idea of promoting Ukraine as a transit country for the Caspian energy, bypassing Russian territory. The Central European countries at present depend on energy supplies to meet 50 per cent of their requirements. The U.S. agenda of forming a cordon of “New Europeans” in the middle of Europe doggedly opposing Moscow can never gain traction so long as they remain heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies. Ukraine was a vital chip in the U.S. geo-strategy.

Thus, the regime change in Kiev has serious fallouts for Russia’s overall relations with Europe, although the equations are not to be seen in zero-sum terms either. A pragmatic economic-energy relationship between Ukraine and Russia that Mr. Yanukovich and Mrs. Tymoshenko espouse suits Western Europe whose priority is to avoid the repetition of the spats between Moscow and Kiev that led to “gas crisis”. Again, Mr. Yanukovich and Mrs. Tymoshenko share a common desire to foster ties with the EU but EU is reticent about getting overstretched and would rather allow Russia remain a stakeholder in Ukraine’s stability. Also, Europe is wary of annoying Russia by drawing Ukraine into the Western orbit.

Unlike in 2004 when Moscow unwisely took a public stance supportive of Mr. Yanukovich, it has been savvy enough to keep to the background. Conceivably, Moscow is equally comfortable with Mr. Yanukovich and Mrs. Tymoshenko. The surge in clan politics and Moscow’s nexus with the dominant clique of Ukrainian oligarchs ensure that Washington will be hard-pressed to rival its influence in Kiev. The oligarchic clans coalescing around a dozen or so powerful financial-industrial groups dictate Ukrainian politics. Paradoxically, this is also where Western opinion fundamentally erred in the halcyon days in 2004. The neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration propagated the Orange revolution to be some sort of a political catharsis that ushered in a seamless era of liberal democracy although in reality it was a regrouping of the oligarchic clans.

No one knows the Ukrainian oligarchs better than the Kremlin. They invariably seek Moscow’s backing. However, Moscow also faces a dilemma insofar as Ukrainian politicians cannot be called “pro-Russian” forces, either. The Ukrainian industrial-financial interests who bankroll Mr. Yanukovich and Mrs. Tymoshenko strongly defend their economic interests with both Russia and the West. Curiously, Ukraine is set to follow the same path that Russia took. As a leading Russian commentator Anton Orekh put it, “the existence of freedom of expression and free media in no way compensated for the lack of sausage and bread on the table…Russians felt sufficiently disappointed with the democrats to accept a person like Putin. Ukraine is moving in the same direction… Ukrainians already feel prepared to have their own Putinyuk, or Medvedenko [popular Ukrainian names].”

Of course, Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili must feel a terribly lonely man in Eurasia today. The Georgian constitution forbids a third term for him. The big question is whether Washington can afford to see him walk into the sunset when the power calculus in Eurasia is palpably shifting. A poll conducted by the U.S. National Democracy Institute on January 4 came up with the timely finding that 60 per cent of Georgian respondents favour another term for Saakashvili in the election due in 2013. Significantly, last week a delegation of U.S. senators led by Senator John McCain arrived in Tbilisi for a show of solidarity with the only surviving progeny of colour revolution on the planet.

However, Georgians are notoriously pragmatic. They have an old saying: “If a bear grabs you, call him daddy. If a nearby hunter does not help you by either killing the bear or rescuing you from its grip, maybe it’s better to call him daddy.” The NATO’s recent overtures to Moscow; Obama’s offer of reset U.S.’s ties with Russia; Europe’s advice to Tbilisi to resolve tensions with Russia — Georgian political class has a lot to brood about. Meanwhile, Georgian opposition has initiated a “dialogue” with Moscow. Incipient forces that give priority to ties with Russia are appearing in Tbilisi as well.

The setback in Ukraine comes at a sensitive juncture in the U.S.-Russia relations. It becomes a litmus test of Washington’s willingness to recognise Russia’s special interests in the territories of the former Soviet Union. If Washington confronts the rising curve of Russian influence in Kiev, it will derail the U.S.’s reset of ties with Russia, which Mr.Obama promised. But if it reconciles with Russia’s predominance in Ukraine, the Republican right will berate the Obama administration for failure to stand up to “revanchist” Russia. The signs are ominous. Mr. Saakahsvili conferred on Mr. McCain Georgia’s highest award in token of his rock-like support to Tbilisi’s war with Russia. Mr. McCain responded: “Of all the honours I’ve received in my life, the National Hero Award is among the most meaningful and it is one that I would cherish for ever.”

There is a Third Way for Washington to deal with Ukraine. In the highly strategic environment in which Ukraine is situated, what serves the U.S. best will be a “pro-Ukrainian” president in Kiev rather than a “pro-American” president. But it is an audacious thought and is politically risky, and the Massachusetts defeat leaves Mr. Obama vulnerable to criticism.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

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