The New East-West Divide


New York Times

November 29, 2004

IN Europe, geography no longer equals destiny," the secretary general of the NATO alliance said last April when seven formerly Communist countries, including the three Baltic states that used to be part of the Soviet Union, became members.

Yet geography obviously still does count for Russia's president, Vladimir V. Putin. He was insisting that the pro-Russian candidate won last weekend in Ukraine's presidential elections, while President Bush and leaders of the European Union sided with opposition charges that the vote was rigged. On Saturday, the Ukrainian parliament declared the election invalid but did not set a date for a new vote, and it was unclear whether Mr. Putin would go along with this.

So has a Ukrainian political standoff escalated to a Russian-American confrontation out of the cold war, "captive nations" and all?

Mr. Putin does appear to be insisting that the lines defining Moscow's sphere influence in eastern Europe - which have been retreating steadily over the last 15 years - will hold firm at Ukraine's western border.

Pointing to the horrors of the past, Western leaders believe that democracy itself best guarantees their own security, and Russia's. Mr. Putin appears to think that democracy is good, but that control - within Russia and over Russia's closest neighbors - is better.

So while there are no Russian tanks massed at the border and no danger of nuclear bombers flying, as there were in the cold war crises in Poland, East Germany, Budapest and Prague, there is a profound east-west gulf nonetheless. It is simply that the character of this divide is entirely new. In Mr. Putin's view, the outcome of the vote in Ukraine was "perfectly clear" - 49.46 percent for Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovich, President Leonid D. Kuchma's handpicked successor, and 46.61 percent for the opposition candidate, Viktor A. Yushchenko. Mr. Kuchma certified the results despite warnings from Europe and the United States that to do so would be a mistake. Mediation attempts, led by Javier Solana of the European Union, began in Kiev on Friday, with Mr. Kuchma and the two candidates agreeing to keep talking as thousands from each camp squared off in the streets.

That was after Washington and Moscow had taken their positions. Secretary of State Colin Powell, citing reports of fraud, said: "We cannot accept this result as legitimate." And Mr. Putin said: "We should not be deciding whether to accept or reject the poll results. That's for the people of Ukraine to decide."

But besides talk, as Stalin might have asked back in the days of the cold war, what could the United States and Europe do about all this? More important, as Truman and Eisenhower never had the luxury of asking, what could Russia really do about it?

Mr. Putin may believe that history and geography are on his side, but he could be wrong. Ukraine, divided within itself, has long been ambivalent about Russia. While Ukraine was Moscow's breadbasket under Communism, its people were proud and the Kremlin tried to keep Ukrainian nationalism in check. Nikita S. Khrushchev, who had been Moscow's proconsul in Kiev after the famine caused by Stalin's forced collectivization of agriculture, often wore embroidered Ukrainian shirts even after he took over in the Kremlin.

In this year's election, support was strong for Mr. Yushchenko in western Ukraine, which was part of Poland before 1939 and where many people speak Polish today. He promised to be less ambivalent than Mr. Kuchma was in trying to bring Ukraine into the European Union and NATO. Mr. Yanukovich placed his bets on strengthening ties with Russia, and his support came from the Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. Mr. Putin visited twice during the campaign to support Mr. Yanukovich, and congratulated him on victory even before the government certified the results.

Mr. Putin might take comfort from proximity. Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, and Washington are far away, while Russia is next door. Mr. Powell himself will soon be gone, and, as Mr. Putin may see it, Mr. Bush certainly has an interest in preserving a close relationship with Mr. Putin, the leader of the world's second biggest military power.

So this may well have seemed a moment for Mr. Putin to test his ability to control a neighbor. He and his predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin, kept tight smiles on their faces for a decade and a half as the Western values and freedoms they said they welcomed in Moscow led to unwelcome economic and strategic inroads by the West on Russia's western and southern buffer zones. Now Mr. Putin has stopped smiling about such encroachments on his turf.

Ukraine is, in fact, a special case for Russia, whose sphere of influence in Europe has shrunk steadily since 1989 - first when Germany was reunified and most recently with the expansion of the European Union last spring. None of those countries had been as close, culturally or historically, to the Russian core as Ukraine is.

On the other side of the new gulf, though, is Europe.

Many of Ukraine's 48 million people hope one day to join the new Europe and NATO as Mr. Yushchenko promised to try to do; even Mr. Yanukovich wants a decent relationship and better economic ties with the West, as Mr. Kuchma did.

A decade ago, the West had an intense strategic concern about Ukraine, but much of that was addressed when the United States obtained its cooperation in neutralizing the nuclear arsenal left there by the Soviet Union's collapse. Today's European leaders have leverage in Ukraine that is primarily economic. Ukraine's gross national product last year was still only 60 percent of what it had been before the Soviet collapse, and the European Union is its largest foreign trading partner.

Before Ukraine can build a closer relationship with the European Union or NATO, however, those institutions insist that Ukrainian shortcomings on democracy, corruption and pervasive state control of the economy all have to be overcome, to meet standards set for all members. Russia and Mr. Putin make no such demands on Ukraine or on Belarus, its northern neighbor, which has in effect turned its back on Western-style democracy and free markets and has the closest ties with Russia of any formerly Soviet republic.

Mr. Putin says he wants good relations with the West, but he insists that it take Russia on its own terms. In any event, Washington and the Europeans cannot do much to exercise moral suasion on Ukrainian officials other than threaten to hold up visas or new trade or aid agreements with the West.

But maybe Mr. Putin's options are limited, too. It is hard to imagine him contemplating direct military intervention, unthinkable since Mikhail S. Gorbachev let the Berlin Wall crumble. Only Ukrainians can resolve their political impasse, even though they will also have to live with their big neighbor next door regardless of who leads their government.

Mr. Putin will look like a bully no matter who the winner is. "One of the strange questions is why the Russians raised the stakes so high," said Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has long dealt with Russian affairs. "If Yushchenko ends up on top, it's a defeat for Putin that he didn't have to endure. If Yanukovich does, it makes Putin look worse than anything he's done domestically. It's going to be tough to turn the page."