Yushchenko Plays the Anti-Russia Card

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to oped@imedia.ru, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

After more than 15 years, I still remember a fascinating conversation I had in 1992. I was visiting a Columbia University Sovietology professor at his country home 100 kilometers from Manhattan. I was introduced to an intellectual, elderly man who had been one of Czechoslovakia's leaders prior to World War II.

Among other things, he told me that Russia and Ukraine would go to war within 20 years. At the time, his prediction struck me as absurd, but I look at it very differently now. If the relationship between Russia and Ukraine continues to deteriorate, a serious conflict between the two could easily break out.

President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have made it clear that preventing Ukraine from joining NATO is one of Russia's top foreign policy priorities. In the words of one political analyst close to the Kremlin, the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO represents a threat so great that any means are justified in preventing it.

Many believe that the breaking point of the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation will be in 2017, when the leasing agreement that gives Russia the right to use Sevastopol for its Black Sea Fleet base expires. But I think it will happen before 2017. Even now, the increasing number of irritants between the two countries could provoke a rapid escalation of tensions.

Ukraine's political situation is highly unstable, and an increasing number of its politicians are trying to exploit that instability by playing the anti-Russia card. The person leading this campaign is President Viktor Yushchenko.

Yushchenko's current popularity ratings are low -- a meager 10 percent. He therefore might try to alarm Ukrainians with the Russian threat to strengthen his position. After all, Ukrainians are just as susceptible to the "besieged fortress" mentality as their Russian neighbors.

Russia's five-day war with Georgia presented Yushchenko with an excellent opportunity to exploit the anti-Russia card. After Georgia, Russia will attack Crimea, the argument goes.

To be sure, there are plenty of Russian politicians, including Mayor Yury Luzhkov and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who give Yushchenko grist for his anti-Russian mill. Not only do they suggest that Russia's fleet will stay in Sevastopol after 2017 but if Kiev doesn't extend the leasing agreement, they constantly question Ukraine's territorial integrity and its historical and legal legitimacy as a sovereign state.

Following the war in Georgia, Yushchenko issued a decree requiring that Black Sea Fleet commanders give Ukrainian authorities 72-hour advance notice of any plans to sail across Ukraine's borders, along with a list of the ships involved, their crew members and freight. For now, Moscow's military command openly ignore the order, but what if the Ukrainian president were to demand that it be obeyed? That would conceivably create a de facto military standoff between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

There are many other similar "land mines" in Crimea, including the Crimean-Tatar minority that periodically wages land-grabbing raids, as well as the significant number of residents in Crimea and the eastern portion of the country who hold both Russian and Ukrainian citizenship. The problem is that Ukraine is now considering a law that would impose five-year prison sentences on anybody holding dual citizenship.

At the same time, the Kremlin's fantasy is to oust Yushchenko from office and install a more pliable, pro-Moscow leader who will reverse the country's pro-West orientation. But that is just another Kremlin delusion.

Georgy Bovt is a political analyst and hosts a radio program on City-FM.