Published: December 30 2004
The conflict over Ukraine may not herald a second cold war, but it could signal the start of a prolonged cold peace between Russia and the west. Although US and European officials have studiously avoided portraying the Ukrainian upheaval as a west-east conflict, this is exactly how it has evolved at two critical levels: political and strategic.
If "the west" means transparent democracy, civil society, open media and the rule of law, and "the east" is synonymous with authoritarianism, statism and centralisation, then these two distinct systems are battling over Ukraine. The US government, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the European Union have promoted democratic institutions in Ukraine, while Russian authorities endeavoured to uphold a corrupt proxy government in Kiev - one that has now been decisively rejected by voters. This is not a "clash of civilisations" but a collision between distinct socio-political structures.
At the strategic level, Ukraine is also caught between west and east. If "the west" signifies a system of collective security based around Nato, a strong relationship with the US and a confederal Europe that stimulates prosperity, and "the east" means that the Kremlin determines the security arrangements, foreign policies and economic relations of its neighbours, Ukraine has reached a crossroads as an independent state.
The "Orange Revolution" that ensured the election of Viktor Yushchenko has many causes. It is a popular struggle for participatory democracy and against arbitrary government and a political struggle between rival elites and power centres. But above all, it is a national struggle for liberation from increasing Kremlin domination. Moscow's central objective was to ensure a vassal regime that will follow Russia's foreign policy directions, and it has employed several strategies to achieve this goal.
The first failed dismally. President Vladimir Putin openly supported Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine's prime minister, in the initial presidential ballot, calculating that he would be more accommodating to Russia and more resistant to joining western institutions. When it became obvious that Mr Yanukovich's cohorts had massively falsified the vote and public protests escalated, Mr Putin's officials employed a second option, the separatist ploy.
Kremlin envoys, including the mayor of Moscow, participated in meetings with regional leaders in eastern Ukraine to raise the spectre of partition. Anti-American propaganda crafted by Russian advisers to Mr Yanukovich was intended to divide Ukrainian society in preparation for a possible fracture similar to the Moldovan model. The secessionist strategy was designed to coerce Kiev while enabling Moscow to assume the role of mediator and ultimate guarantor of Ukrainian integrity and security.
With Mr Yushchenko triumphant in the re-run ballot, Moscow may now employ a third strategy through a tactical political truce with Kiev. Using its extensive political, ethnic, economic, energy and security instruments, Mr Putin may calculate that sufficient control over the new government can be assured while undercutting Mr Yushchenko's western aspirations and eroding presidential powers. The battle for Ukraine may disappear from television screens but will continue in different guises. Mr Putin will not easily surrender Ukraine to the west, as he would then lose his credentials as the restorer of Russia's international power.
Mr Yushchenko seeks to deal with Moscow as a normal partner and not as a subordinate. Russia will remain a key neighbour as the main energy supplier and economic market for Ukrainian exports for the foreseeable future. But Mr Yushchenko wants to limit the political leverage that can accompany these economic links. He also intends to bring this pivotal east European country closer to Nato, the EU and the US, understanding that only such a policy can ensure lasting security and prosperity and prevent the realisation of any future Kremlin ambitions.
Ukraine's neighbours remain deeply concerned about the country's instability and Russian motives throughout the region, especially in Belarus, Moldova and Georgia. They are equally worried by relative US passivity in dealing with Mr Putin, who evidently thought he had a green light from Washington to bring Ukraine more firmly within Moscow's orbit. While Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, made several pointed statements about the crisis, the US administration has avoided shining the spotlight on Mr Putin as a new Russian imperialist who destabilises his neighbours.
Poland, America's staunchest central European ally and a new EU member, has been closely involved in mediating the election crisis through its president, Aleksander Kwasniewski. Indeed, it seems that Warsaw and other central European states have injected more backbone into EU policy towards Russia. They are now trying to convince Brussels to offer more than the EU's limited "good neighbour" approach to a pro-western Ukrainian government.
The Ukrainian emergency has also presented an opportunity for the US and the EU to restore greater cohesion in transatlantic foreign policy. Moscow needs to be reminded by a united alliance that any forcible intervention, political manipulation or economic destabilisation will have serious repercussions for west-east relations. For the longer haul, both Nato and the EU must offer Kiev a viable prospect of membership, so the new administration has a destination in its difficult reform programme. This will also enable Ukraine to defend itself more effectively against future Russian pressures.
The writer, director of the east European project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is the author of Cold Peace: Russia's New Imperialism (New York/ London: Greenwood/CSIS)