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Russian President Vladimir Putin with his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kuchma
"Russian democracy ends on the border with Ukraine" is an oft-repeated maxim among the Ukrainian political elite. It was reputedly coined by Volodymyr Vynnychenko, one of the leaders of the 1918 Ukrainian national revolution, after Lenin sent the Red Army to reconquer Ukraine after the fall of the Tsarist Russian empire.
In recent years, Russia has sought to revive its historical influence over Ukraine. This is closely related to the emergence of a new Russian imperial idea, which roughly coincides with the election of Vladimir Putin as president in 2000.
Prior to Putin's accession, talk of Russian interference in the affairs of its neighbors was left to a few communist ideologues and Russian chauvinists.
Russia did not interfere in Ukraine's 1999 presidential election. While Leonid Kuchma, running for his second term in office, played the "Russian card" in the eastern regions of Ukraine, this was mostly limited to pledges to make Russian the second state language in Ukraine. These promises were immediately forgotten once the election was won.
However, by 2001, Putin had adopted a much more aggressive policy toward Ukraine. On 10 May 2001, the president appointed Viktor Chernomyrdin, the former head of Gazprom, to be the Russian ambassador to Kyiv. A new position was also created for Chernomyrdin: special presidential envoy for the development of Russian-Ukrainian trade and economic ties.
The appointment was a clear signal that Russian policy had undergone a substantive change in its geopolitical goals.
In an article on strana.ru on 11 May 2001, analyst James Sherr noted that: "Not only did Putin announce the appointment before its approval by the Russian State Duma, he did so before receiving Ukraine's consent. As Anatoliy Hrytsenko, president of Ukraine's Center for Economic and Political Research noted, 'I do not think Putin would have acted this way with any major Western country.... It is roughly the same way Putin appoints his governor generals.... Obviously, somewhere in the subconscious, Ukraine is still perceived as a kind of southwestern special federal district of Russia.'"
By 2003, Russia began applying pressure on Ukraine to agree to a number of modifications in the management of oil and gas pipelines carrying Russian energy to Europe. In April 2003, Gazprom upped the ante on Ukraine by signing a 25-year agreement with Turkmenistan to buy virtually all of Turkmenistan's natural gas output, thereby forcing Ukraine to buy the 36 billion cubic meters of gas it needs yearly from Gazprom rather than directly from Turkmenistan. By 2004, Gazprom came under state control when state oil company Rosneft was ceded to Gazprom in exchange for shares in the gas monopoly.
To build on existing ties, Single Economic Space agreements, which were proposed by Putin in early 2003, were signed by Kuchma in April 2004. This body, created at President Putin's initiative, seeks to first coordinate and then merge the economic might of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan into a "customs union" or a "free trade zone." Others see it as another example of Russian economic imperialism.
Putin's backing of Viktor Yanukovych in this year's presidential election was no surprise. The Russian president set the tone of future Russian behavior when, at a 26 July Ukrainian-Russian summit in Crimea, he told reporters that: "The intelligence networks of our Western partners are trying in every way to hamper our movement towards each other."
Putin has often seemed more interested in exercising power over Ukraine than in maintaining good neighborly relations with Washington or the European Union.
The full extent of Russia's neo-imperial ambitions is still unclear. But the statements coming out of Moscow often seem unequivocal. On 28 September, Anatoliy Chubais, the head of Russia's Unified Energy Systems, appearing on the television program "Vremya," told the audience that Russia must become a "liberal empire."
"If this is so, I believe we must be frank and straightforward and assume this mission of leadership, not just as a slogan but as a Russian state policy. I believe this mission of leadership means that Russia is obliged to support in every way the expansion of its business outside Russia."