Russian President Vladimir Putin is drawing new battle lines to protect his Eurasian Union project, which aims at integrating the former Soviet republics under Moscow’s leadership. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s “all or nothing” threat to Ukraine to cease flirtations with Europe and revert its eyes eastward is telling: Russia is concerned that the “defection” of its biggest neighbor will undermine ambitions to build more strategic depth.
In politics or diplomacy it is seldom, if ever, that anything could be reduced to a matter of “all or nothing”. Yet that’s how Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev saw the choice before Ukraine.
He was laying down the stark choice Russia would give its biggest neighbor (population 46 million) in the post-Soviet space. The context was the momentous decision by the Ukrainian government to approve the text of the country’s Association of Agreement with the European Union.
Moscow had fought a rearguard battle to preempt the development. The future trajectory of Ukraine’s EU enterprise is poised to become a fateful issue in Russia’s troubled relations with the West. Medvedev used blunt language:
The situation is quite simple: accession to the Customs Union will be practically closed for our Ukrainian colleagues if they sign the Association Agreement with the EU states.
The Ukrainian leadership hopes to sign the Association Agreement at the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit due to be held in Vilnius, Lithuania, on November 28-29.
Ukraine is not a member of the Moscow-led Customs Union (at present composed of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia), but Medvedev added that that even the grouping’s special partnership regime will not apply to Ukraine after its EU integration. Moscow had envisaged that the regime would incrementally lure Ukraine into the Customs Union tent.
The Customs Union is Ukraine’s number one trade partner, with a two-way turnover of US$63 billion last year, which accounted for 36% of its overall exports.
Evidently, Moscow is drawing new battle lines. The Russian calculus shows that the war is not yet lost, and Moscow cannot afford to lose, either. The EU is an elusive enemy, which slithers away in daylight but then is also never too far away, leaving Moscow guessing how tenacious it could be when it comes to Ukraine. Besides, the EU also happens to be Russia’s partner.
All the same, Moscow would factor in that the Ukrainian public opinion is divided over the issue. Half the population supports the EU integration but there is an ethnic and regional divide here with the Russian communities in the eastern regions bordering Russia opposed to the gravitation away from Moscow toward Brussels.
This contrarian nature of national opinion finds reflection within the ruling Regions Party and the Communist Party and gives a plausible basis for Moscow to work on as the next presidential election approaches in 2015. Then there are the Ukrainian oligarchs who make big money in Russia and there are invisible cords that tie them to corridors of power in Moscow.
Ukraine’s geography becomes crucial for Russia’s perennial need of a buffer zone vis-a-vis the West and the fear is that alongside the EU integration there could also be membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Moreover, Moscow’s Eurasian Union project, which aims at integrating the former Soviet republics under its leadership, loses its shine without Ukraine’s inclusion.
Over and above, Ukraine is a key interlocutor in the transcendental Orthodox unity of Eastern Slavs, which in turn provides stimulus for the Kremlin’s ideology of conservative nationalism – an ideology that also seeks a distinct international role and, therefore, becomes a template of Russian foreign policy.
Lest it got overlooked, it was on the Dnieper that the original baptism of Rus was held in 988 when Grand Prince Vladimir accepted Orthodox Christianity as the religion of his lands. Vladimir’s conversion also began a tradition that has run virtually unbroken throughout the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, namely, of religion serving political interests.
Suffice to say, Russia can be expected to use all its powers of persuasion – and coercion if need be – to sway Ukraine toward Eurasia. But then, this runs into the West’s geopolitical agenda of extending the NATO alliance system to Ukraine, which was the after all raison d’etre of the US-sponsored color revolution in Kiev in 2006.
The objective is to create on Russia’s western doorstep – indeed, in the very heart of “Rus” – a western liberal democracy that will also be a NATO member country.