Johnson's Russia List


9 August 2006



From: Andrei Tsygankov <>

Subject: Ukraine Is Fine. For Now...


Good news is that Ukrainian government is formed, and it is a coalitional one. Not everyone is happy, yet many observers­from some cheerleaders of the Orange revolution to Victor Yanukovich sympathizers­have rejoiced at the result of the four month’s stalemate. Inside Ukraine, influential members of political class favor the outcome. Both Western leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned Ukraine’s President Victor Yushchenko to congratulate him on the settlement of the political crisis with the formation of Prime Minister Yanukovich’s cabinet. It is great news indeed, and the combination of the two Victors is the best available at the moment. Ukraine now has a chance to rebuild its political identity and address issues that have generated the crisis.


These issues are far from trivial, and working out a national unity agreement is only beginning of solving them. Time is not on the side of the new government, and Yushchenko/Yanukovich leadership must act quickly and effectively. The four most pressing issues are energy, Ukraine’s participation in the Eurasian Economic Union, status of Russian language, and NATO membership. On energy there is no escape from the fact that prices are high, and Russia is not going to be able to change that. Neither is America or Europe. As a former President Leonid Kravchuk recently put, “the price of gas will not depend on who is prime minister.” Something’s got to give, and, by now, Ukrainian leaders must understand that. Other issues are no easier. Polls show that more than 60% of Ukrainians are in favor of raising the status of Russian language; more than 50% prefer Ukraine’s union with Russia and countries of the Eurasian Economic Union; and about 55% are fully or partially convinced that “pro-Russian choice” is the best for their nation. Ukraine and Russia, while politically independent, remain closely interdependent economically and culturally. Alternatively, however, around 30% are strongly or partially in favor of integration with the EU and NATO, and oppose rapprochement with Russia.


Ukraine’s lacks of a viable political structure further complicates the situation. Now that a coalitional government representative of both eastern and western regions is formed, the key question is weather it will be functional. Divisions within the political class run deep, and the absence of a strong executive authority may exacerbate the problem. The two Victors are going to need every help they can get not just from within, but from outside the country.


Internally, they would have to appreciate the depth of Ukraine’s cultural and political divisions and act in the spirit of the national unity agreement. In reality, this means the already tested multi-vector policy practiced before the Orange revolution. Any attempts to forge some hard-core alignments­either with Russia or the West­may only come at the expense of the nation’s unity. Instead, one has to look for compromises, which might include giving Russia greater share in domestic markets in exchange for acceptable energy prices; developing ties with the Eurasian Economic Union, along with those with the European Union; working out an arrangement on status of Russian language, while encouraging younger generation to speak Ukrainian; and not pushing membership in NATO, while gradually forging stronger security ties with members of the alliance.


Externally, the new coalition will benefit greatly from big players, such as Russia, the United States, and the European Union, providing a concerted assistance or, better yet, a concerted decision not to interfere. To quote from the same interview with Kuchma, the Ukraine’s problem is that there are three bosses for every two Ukrainians, and the key challenge is to keep those bosses from pulling each other's hair out. That includes external bosses. It would be crucial to work out an agreement among great powers in the region to stop treating Ukraine as its own turf and stay out of the nation’s politics and policies. Sending the new coalitional government congratulations is not going to do it. Instead, it is necessary to address great powers’ gap in interests and values, and to learn how to treat Ukraine with respect it deserves. Given the increasingly antagonistic nature of Russia-Western interactions in the region, this will not be easy. At this point, there is simply too much negative baggage in Russia-Western relations. NATO expansion, war in Iraq, colored revolutions, competition for energy resources, and Russia’s domestic changes have already produced radically different interpretations of the situation in the former Soviet region. A new political will and a fresh approach are necessary.


Ukraine deserves nothing less. It is important that all external sides agree that not only the Orange revolution, but many confrontational developments that preceded it would have not been possible without great powers’ attempts to treat Ukraine as a geopolitical prize in the region. As known geopolitical warrior Charles Krauthammer put it during the Orange revolution, “this is about Russia first, democracy only second … the West wants to finish the job begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall and continue Europe’s march to the east … the great prize is Ukraine.”


One must recognize the formidable challenge Ukraine is facing in its nation-building. The nation has only been united in the 1930s, as a result of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which, ironically, makes Josef Stalin one of its founding father. The young nation therefore needs all the time and peace it can get to work out for itself what it wants to be. If the world finally understands that it needs a stable and predictable Ukraine, and not a Ukraine of warring clans or quasi-separatist states, the new coalitional government has a chance. If not, a strong center of gravity in Ukrainian politics may disappear within a year, and extremists from east or west of Dnipro River will have the day.