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The Kremlin's Battle For Ukraine

Putin (left) seeks to see Kuchma (far right) replaced with a pro-Russia successor (archive photo)

In Crimea on 23 April, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma exchanged three treaties that had been ratified almost simultaneously shortly before the summit by the pro-presidential majorities in Russia's Federal Assembly and the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada.

The first accord was a treaty delimiting the land border of the two countries that was signed almost four years ago, but which was never previously ratified by the Duma because deputies felt that doing so would help Ukraine move closer to the EU and NATO. Those organizations will not consider for membership any countries that have disputed borders.

The second treaty concerns the border between the two countries in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. That agreement stipulates that both the sea and the strait are internal waters of both Ukraine and Russia, although a detailed delimitation of the border in the Sea of Azov will be the subject of a bilateral agreement yet to be negotiated.

Finally, the third agreement concerns the establishment of a Single Economic Space (SES) comprising Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. That agreement calls for a free-trade zone including all four countries and a high degree of coordination of their economic and fiscal policies.

The ratifications of the agreements provoked strong opposition criticism both in Kyiv and in Moscow. In Kyiv, anti-Kuchma forces -- primarily the Our Ukraine movement headed by the country's most popular politician, Viktor Yushchenko -- protested the SES, arguing that it will close off Ukraine's path to eventual EU membership. The opposition also criticized the Sea of Azov accord, saying that it restricts the country's sovereignty. The Ukrainian opposition, however, lauded the agreement on delimiting the land border.

In Moscow, the Communists, the left-patriotic Motherland bloc, and Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) welcomed the agreement on the SES, precisely because it does move Ukraine closer to Russia and away from the EU. However, they loudly protested the land-border treaty.

Nonetheless, to use the official words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the joint efforts of the two sides have "removed all the irritants between the two countries," reported on 23 April.

The reasons behind the hasty resolution of these issues -- at least from Moscow's perspective -- are clear. As Kremlin insider and National Strategy Council member Stanislav Belkovskii put it: the presidential election in Ukraine in November is a "no less serious test" than his own re-election effort in March, "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported on 4 February. Most of all, the Kremlin fears that Yushchenko, whom Moscow considers "too pro-American," could win and ease Ukraine out of Russia's gravitational field.

By completing the new treaties with Ukraine, the Kremlin has launched its battle for that country, a campaign that has been dubbed "Operation Successor," reported on 22 April. As the name implies, the goal of the operation is to install a sufficiently pro-Moscow successor to Kuchma. This topic has become the most crucial issue on the Kremlin's political agenda this year, since Ukraine is probably the last serious hope Moscow has of restoring its domination of the territory of the former Soviet Union, the website commented. And the Kremlin has apparently already chosen its man: Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the former governor of Donetsk Oblast and the favored candidate of the pro-Kuchma camp.

According to, the Kremlin operation is being run by deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov, who has a reputation for acute political resourcefulness. Surkov handled the December Duma elections for the Kremlin and is credited with successfully decimating both the right and left flanks of Russia's political spectrum and with presenting the president with a homogeneous Duma dominated by the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party.

The Kremlin has amassed considerable resources in order to counter Yushchenko, who has considerable popularity both in Ukraine and in the West, "Argumenty i fakty," No. 17, reported. Many of Russia's best political consultants have been mobilized for the campaign, including Kremlin political consultant and Effective Politics Foundation President Gleb Pavlovskii. Russian election specialists have already reportedly been combing Ukraine in hopes of registering namesakes of Yushchenko, a tactic expected to drain 2-3 percent of his support away, added the weekly.

Moscow's overall approach to the Ukrainian election is reminiscent of the 1996 Russian presidential election. In that contest, the Russian oligarchs, scared by the so-called Communist threat, undertook Herculean efforts to stop Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov, a broadly supported figure who was running against then-President Boris Yeltsin, whose own popularity rating was in the low single digits. Moscow now seems ready to repeat such efforts, and is even prepared to bring out its "big guns" -- as it is expected that Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov will visit Kyiv in May.

The Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, an influential assembly of parliamentarians, politicians, and political scientists chaired by Sergei Karaganov, discussed the Ukrainian election at its annual session earlier this month. Although the session was closed, some of the presentations and comments were released to the public, although -- in a sign of the times in Putin's Russia -- the names of their authors were withheld.

One council member said that, from Russia's point of view, the main troublemaker in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is not Belarus, but Ukraine. After the November election, he said, "this will be visible to everyone," RosBalt reported on 22 April. Ukraine is "the main battlefield in the geopolitical competition between the United States and Russia," the council member said. If a pro-U.S. candidate wins, this will mean the shift of Ukraine to the U.S. side and a catastrophic loss of Russian influence throughout the former Soviet Union, leading ultimately to Russia's geopolitical isolation, he concluded.

Another participant in the council session said that the treaties with Ukraine and the SES itself are "self-deception and face-saving exercises," since Moscow knows that integration initiatives will be determined by the outcome of the November election. "We are simply afraid that if Yushchenko comes to power, he will not sign anything at all," the council member commented.

Everyone at the council session agreed, however, that Russia has not choice but to regain its dominance of the territory of the former Soviet Union, despite the objections of the countries there and of the West. After all, this is the only region where Russia still retains its levers of influence and elsewhere its position is much weaker. "The ultimate loss of influence in the former Soviet Union will bury any possibility of [Russia implementing] a strong foreign policy," some council members said, according to RosBalt.

Belkovskii sounded an even more alarmist note in a comment that was originally published on 23 January and reposted on on 23 April. "Putin could lose power in the fall of 2004," Belkovskii wrote. "By then, the sense of Putin's power could be substantially changed, and he risks being transformed from the head of a regional power to the ruler of a second-rate country."

If Yushchenko wins, Belkovskii wrote, Ukraine will probably leave the CIS and make decisive steps toward NATO. Worse, it could become the informal leader of a new consolidation of pro-Western FSU countries, including Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova. A Yushchenko victory will mean a historic defeat for Putin's regime, the ultimate disintegration of the CIS, and the collapse of Russia's pretensions to the status of moderator of the FSU, Belkovskii said.

Belkovskii's remarks might seem overly alarmist, even hysterical. But he demonstrated his credibility amply last year when he issued a report in May that has been widely seen as the first volley in the campaign against oil giant Yukos and the oligarchs generally.