Russia’s balance of power
In the post-Soviet era, Vladimir Putin is trying to restore his country’s influence
over former Eastern bloc countries while building ties with the West
Since coming to power, Putin has sought to restore Russian power through two
contradictory policies: developing closer ties with the West, supposedly on the basis of
common democratic values, and restoring Russian influence over ex-Soviet republics by
whatever means were required.
The Russians consider the effort to recover their control in the former Soviet
Union to be in part a defensive response to the eastward expansion of the EU and NATO,
and the Western penetration into the Caucasus and Central Asia, including the export the
area’s hydrocarbons through non-Russian pipelines.
The two Russian policies came into collision in the recent presidential election in
Ukraine when Putin, in order to keep Ukraine in the Russian camp, made available
political advisers, provided publicity on Russian television, intervened personally with
visits and a television speech, assisted in harassing the opposition, and supplied financing
for Russia’s favoured candidate, Viktor Yanukovych.
The negative implications of Yuschenko’s victory for Russia are considerable.
It will likely kill Ukrainian participation in the economic confederation of
Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine that Russia was setting up. It may ruin the Russian
attempt to achieve a controlling interest in the oil and gas pipelines through Ukraine so as
to restore substantial Russian control of the oil and gas shipments to Western Europe.
From the leadership’s point of view, Yuschenko’s Orange Revolution can
threaten Russian political stability. Russia is opposed to the prospect of Ukraine joining
In the view of certain Russian conservatives, Ukrainian membership would leave
European Russia largely defenceless. It would also threaten Russia’s major Black Sea
base at Sevastopol in Crimea.
The Russians will not have been assured by a recent article in the Washington
Post by Richard Holbrooke, the former US Ambassador to the United Nations, calling on
President Bush to back steps to get Ukraine into NATO by 2007.
There is a danger that Russia will respond to Yuschenko’s victory by seeking to
destabilize or split Ukraine. The means it possesses for doing so are considerable.
Russia is in a position to do substantial economic harm to Ukraine. It controls all
of Ukraine’s sources of oil and gas. Russia might consider that economic pressure would
remind Yuschenko what public opinion polls in Ukraine have in the past shown, namely
that, while only at the most one third of the electorate, and that mostly in the west, has
supported EU and NATO membership, up to two thirds, and overwhelmingly in the east,
have wanted to see special relations with Russia.
Russia may seek to do as it has done in other recalcitrant former Soviet republics -
support secessionist movements. The incorporation of the east of Ukraine and Crimea
into Russia has long been battle cry for certain conservative Russian politicians. Voices
raised in the east and Crimea during the election campaign in favour of separation in case
of a Yuschenko victory may give the Russians grounds for hope.
While the substantial means of pressure that Russia possesses on Ukraine should
be, for a new Yuschenko government, an inducement to caution, the chief brake on
Russian policy will be the Russian analysis of Western intentions towards Russia and the
effect that an aggressive policy towards Ukraine would have on the prospects for the co-
operation it still needs with the West.
For the moment, Putin appears to be trying to balance his own concern at the
implications of the victory of Yuschenko, including the pressures he is under from an
anti-Western political elite, with his desire to preserve Western economic support.
For the long term, Putin is ostensibly seeking to build economic, and, possibly
eventually political, alliances with China, India and others to lessen Russia’s dependency
on the West. This policy may turn out to be primarily intended for domestic consumption.
When he first came to power, Putin pursued similar goals, and achieved little.
Nevertheless, the upset in Ukraine adds to a growing list of East-West political frictions
arising from the West’s support for democracy and independence in the former Soviet
Union, and Russia’s attempt to preserve its zone of influence.
The list includes Russian complaints of Western expansionism, and Western
concern at Putin’s increasing authoritarian and imperial tendencies, including Chechnya
and Russian troops and support for separatist movements in Moldova and Georgia.
As the list lengthens, the danger for miscalculation on one side or another,
especially on Ukraine, grows. To cool the temperature, the West may have to show
restraint in areas of strong Russian interest, including the timing of any Ukrainian
admission to NATO, and look for ways of increasing economic co-operation in return for
Derek Fraser, a former Ambassador to Ukraine, is a senior research associate at
the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria.