Russia loses another friend to the West

The Times/UK
December 04, 2004

Analysis: By Richard Beeston

PRESIDENT PUTIN faced the most serious foreign policy crisis of his
five-year rule last night after the Kremlin's efforts to install a
pro-Russian leader in Ukraine were left in tatters. With Viktor
Yushchenko, the pro-Western opposition leader, firm favourite to win
the new runoff election, Mr Putin faces the loss of Russia's
centuries-old dominance over its Slavic neighbour.

Ukraine's display of people power, which came after that in
Georgialast year, will make it harder for the Kremlin to manipulate
elections across the former Soviet empire.

The guiding principle of successive Russian leaders is that Russia can
never be a great European power without Ukraine, a country of 48
million people that in Soviet days provided raw materials, industries
and manpower for Moscow.

Mr Putin made no secret of his support for Viktor Yanukovych, the
Prime Minister, who championed strong links with Russia and
represented the interests of the Russian-speaking eastern half of the
country. The Russian leader visited Ukraine twice to campaign for the
official candidate. Moscow poured huge resources into Mr Yanukovych's
campaign. Even before the disputed results were announced, Mr Putin
contacted Mr Yanukovych to congratulate him on his victory.

Seen from the Kremlin, the revolt in Kiev and the complaints from the
West about election fraud merely confirmed suspicions that the
pro-Russian candidate was stripped of his rightful victory by Western
intelligence agencies.

Over the past few days, the increasingly desperate Kremlin had
attempted to ditch its candidate and find a more acceptable one to
stand in an entirely new election - a manoeuvre wrecked by a
compromise figure capable of uniting the divided country. But the
Supreme Court ruling, ordering a rerun of the last election, means
that Mr Yushchenko will be almost impossible to beat. The fallout from
a Yushchenko victory could have severe consequences not only for
Russia' s relations with its neighbours but also with the West.

US officials said that Washington was growing increasingly alarmed by
the behaviour of the Kremlin, which has centralised power, silenced
the media and in effect renationalised the country's largest oil
company. `Russia and the Russian Government are seeking to restore
hegemony in the old Soviet space,' a source close to the White House
said. `The Russian national security elite will never accept a
Western-orientated Ukraine.

It is hard to see how the US can carry on its current relationship
with Russia.'

Certainly attitudes in Russia are likely to harden. Mr Putin came to
power promising to rebuild Russia from the chaos of post-communism and
project Russia' s influence abroad, particularly in the former Soviet
republics now in the CIS. Yet under his rule Russia has seen an
erosion of influence in countries where its authority once went
unchallenged.

This time last year, a popular revolt in neighbouring Georgia saw the
rise of another pro-Western leader when Mikhail Saakashvili came to
power in Tbilisi. The three Baltic States, Latvia, Lithuania and
Estonia joined the European Union and Nato this year. US forces,
involved in the War on Terror, are now based in Georgia and
Uzbekistan. Oil-rich Azerbaijan remains hostile to Russia's interests
in the region and even once-loyal Armenia is having second thoughts.

A victory for Mr Yushchenko would be regarded by hardliners in the
Kremlin as the first step towards Ukraine ultimately joining Nato and
the EU. At this rate Russia would be left with only one ally in the
region, President Lukashenko of Belarus - a poor consolation prize.

Some liberal commentators in Russia have criticised Mr Putin for
mishandling Ukraine, but the criticisms have been drowned out by
nationalist calls for action to defend Russia's interests and those of
its brethren across the border.

Oksana Antonenko, an expert on the region at the International
Institute of Strategic Studies, predicted that the current crisis
would embolden the growing nationalist movement. `Everything that is
happening in the Ukraine is being portrayed in the Russian media as
the fault of the West,' she said.This will only increase the growing
power of the Right in Russia.'