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Back to the future for Ukraine

Submitted by on 23 Nov 2010 – 17:36

Vladimir Putin with Viktor Yanukovych. Photo:

By Marcus Papadopoulos

Buoyed on by its status as an energy superpower, Russia has in recent years re-established itself on the international arena and confirmed itself as the dominant power in most of the territory of the former Soviet Union.  The most recent country from the latter category to come under the sway of the Kremlin is Ukraine, a strategically important country sandwiched between Russia and Europe.

Within the space of just seven months of his presidency, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has reversed the pro-Western policies of his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, and gravitated Ukraine back towards Russia in order to, as he put it to the Russian ambassador in Kiev, “continue the good, old traditions” between the two East Slavic countries.

Although under Viktor Yushchenko Ukraine was unable to leave Moscow’s orbit, President Yanukovych’s policies have already set his country on a course in which it is set to integrate so much with Russia that his opponents have warned that Ukraine’s sovereignty could be at risk.

On three levels has President Yanukovych begun to cement ties between Kiev and Moscow: economically, militarily and culturally.  While the Ukrainian leader is acutely aware of the immense economic advantages for Ukraine of having close relations with its giant neighbour, he also believes in the unity of the East Slavic peoples-Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians-and holds a favourable view of Soviet history.  Both strands of thought are entirely in line with the sentiments of the Russian leadership.

In Soviet times, the industries of Ukraine and Russia were one, and this constituted the economic powerhouse of the Soviet colossus.  As Prime Minister Vladimir Putin observed: “Our enterprises [Ukrainian and Russian] have a lot in common, and for dozens of years they worked as part of one production chain, and these ties need to be restored.”

Recently, moves have been made by the Ukrainian and Russian governments to re-establish this unity.  President Yanukovych has announced that the aircraft industries of Ukraine and Russia will merge into one.

The restoration of production ties on the shipbuilding front has also been mooted by Kiev and Moscow.  Mr Putin commented that: “When it comes to shipbuilding, Russia is interested in using Ukrainian shipyards, not only for repair, but also for building ships together.”  One of the shipyards that the Russian prime minister was undoubtedly referring to was Nikolayev, a one-time major ship building city in the old Soviet Union.  Already Russian officials are pondering the purchase from Ukraine of a Slava class missile cruiser which was launched in Nikolayev, in 1984, but was never completed as a result of budget constraints.

Energy resources, which have enabled Russia to regain much of its lost superpower status, could become an even greater foreign policy tool of the Kremlin should the Russian gas monopoly, Gazprom, and the Ukrainian state energy company, Naftogaz, merge to create a new company.  This option has been discussed by President Yanukovych and Prime Minister Putin.

The first major decision taken, however, by President Yanukovych which indicated that Ukraine’s period of flirtation with the West was well and truly over was his renewal of the lease of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, based in the Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula, for another thirty years.

Then there was the decision by the Ukrainian government to allow the return to the Crimea of members of the Russian secret police, FSB, and the announcement by the Ukrainian security service, SBU, that surveillance of FSB personnel in Ukraine had come to an end.

Culturally, Ukraine has been placed back at the heart of the Russian national consciousness by President Yanukovych.  The Ukrainian leader invited the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, to his inauguration ceremony in order to bless him.

Demonstrating his conviction that Ukraine’s future is tied to Russia, President Yanukovych abolished Ukraine’s National Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration. He also showed that his views are in line with the Kremlin’s stance on Soviet history when he averred that the famine in Ukraine, of 1932-1933, was not “genocide”, as argued by Ukrainian nationalists, but instead “a common tragedy of the Soviet people”.

So what next from President Yanukovych? Although he has ruled this out, probably because he still, for the time being, wants to maintain good bilateral economic relations with the West, the possibility of Ukraine, under his stewardship, one day joining two Russian-led organisations, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Eurasian Economic Community, should not be discounted.

The coming to power of President Yanukovych could represent a turning-point for Ukraine.  Given his conviction in the unity of the Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian peoples and his pride in Holy Rus and the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian leader may well steer his country into a future union with its eastern Slavic brothers.