Ukraine: whoever wins, it will be a victory for Russia

It’s nothing to say that Russian governement (and probably especially Vladimir Putin) is very happy about presidential elections in Ukraine. First, it means of course that they won’t have to deal anymore with pro- Western incumbent Viktor Yushchenko. But the second source of satisfaction is to see that the two contestants are much more friendly and warm toward their big Russian brother.

Russia will be the only certain winner in Ukraine’s presidential election on Jan. 17, as pro- Western incumbent Viktor Yushchenko is expected to bow out to rivals seen as more friendly toward Moscow, analysts said.

“For Russia it can be called a win-win situation, since any result is better than the current situation,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine. “Whoever becomes the next president will be much less ideological and more businesslike.”

Viktor Yanukovych, backed by Russia in Ukraine’s 2004 election, is the front-runner with 33.6 percent support, followed by Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko with 19.2 percent, according to the Kiev-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation. The two are likely to face off in a second round on Feb. 7 if no candidate wins 50 percent of first-round votes.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who as president promoted Yanukovych in the last election, is abstaining from an endorsement this time as polls show support for Yushchenko, the hero of the 2004 Orange Revolution, at less than 4 percent.

Russian-Ukrainian relations deteriorated under Yushchenko, who needled Russia with a push to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and appeals to Ukrainian nationalism. The Kremlin has curbed natural-gas deliveries to Ukraine three times in five years, withheld a new ambassador to Kiev and accused Yushchenko of supplying arms to Georgia during Russia’s five-day war with its southern neighbor in August 2008.

‘Sincere Policy’

“We expect the candidate chosen by the majority of Ukrainian voters to carry out a responsible, open, respectful and sincere policy toward Russia,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said in televised remarks today.

Putin, who traveled to Ukraine to campaign for Yanukovych in 2004, has since forged a close relationship with Timoshenko, personally negotiating an end to last year’s gas cut with her. President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s protege, froze relations with his Ukrainian counterpart in August, blaming Yushchenko for “anti-Russian” policies.

Putin said in a live call-in show last month that he wasn’t supporting Timoshenko in the elections and reminded viewers that his United Russia party has “special relations” with Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.

“Timoshenko knows that Ukraine is turning back toward Russia and that if she does not join the pro-Russian movement, she will be crushed by it, like Yushchenko,” Stratfor, the Austin, Texas-based intelligence consultancy, said in a report today. “Russia knows that she is not a true believer in the pro-Russian cause, like Yanukovych, but that if they make it worth her while, she will support the Kremlin.”

Russia, which traces its statehood to medieval Kiev, shares close economic, linguistic and religious ties to its neighbor. Without Ukraine, Russia stops being an empire with a foothold in Europe, former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in his 1997 book “The Grand Chessboard.”

Gas Exports

Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based in Crimea and 80 percent of Russian gas exports to Europe go through Ukrainian territory. After Yushchenko’s election, Putin began to push Nord Stream and South Stream, pipeline projects to Europe designed to bypass Ukraine.

Still, Russia shouldn’t expect Ukraine’s next president to be a pushover as gas contracts and the future of the Black Sea fleet will continue to be contentious issues, according to Lukyanov.

“Anybody will be more flexible and not provoke Moscow as much as Yushchenko,” Lukyanov said. “But even Yanukovych won’t turn out to be a puppet meeting Russia’s every demand.”


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