The Empire Strikes Back! Russia and the East-West Dynamic

Article excerpt

When Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia's capital of Tskhinvali in August of last year, a bitter reality dawned on Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as he realized there would be no Western military intervention and there would be no stopping the Russian army running roughshod over his country's key infrastructure and military installations.

Western media carried interview after interview of Saakashvili recounting how Georgia had taken all the right steps in transforming itself from a repressed socialist republic into a beacon of democracy in the region, i.e., building partnerships with the UN and the WTO, stamping out corruption, and converting to a free market economy. And yet, the West extended no security, at least until the drafting of a quasi-effective 6-point peace plan ala Nicholas Sarkozy which ended Russian operations only after extensive destruction and loss of life had already occurred.

Saakashvili has been taught a lesson about the limits of Western partnerships, but was this message meant exclusively for him and his small republic, or was it a broader statement for the entire post-Soviet region about the Kremlin's newly assertive foreign policy? One country, in particular, which was certain to pay close attention to this military action, as well as a Western lack thereof, was Ukraine.

THE REASSERTION OF RUSSIAN INFLUENCE

It's no secret that Russia has felt increasingly threatened by Western institutions cutting into its sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe. No doubt the Kremlin has taken measures to push back and counter this steady progression, leaving fledgling democracies like Georgia and Ukraine caught in a constant struggle between competing influences, both internal and external. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the advance of the Western agenda and the expansion of Western institutions has been steadfast, and yet the 2008 South Ossetia war, incidentally coinciding with the global economic crisis, may have marked a turning point where faith in Western institutions has begun to wane and post-Soviet fledgling democracies have begun to turn back to their roots in the east.

As for Ukraine, starkly contrasting viewpoints on the South Ossetia War were voiced from the country's two leading politicians, reflecting two distinct mentalities driving the internal debate. On the one hand, President Viktor Yushchenko strongly condemned Russia's actions as imperialistic: he refused to recognize the independence of the two breakaway regions, canceled the visit of a Ukrainian delegation to Moscow, and even went as far as to threaten a blockade of Russia's Black Sea Fleet upon their return to the ports in Crimea shared between the two nations.

On the other hand, ex-Prime Minister and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych remained loyal to Moscow by defying his president with a public recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia--a bold move considering that the only other nations besides Russia to do so were Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the de facto independent Republic of Transnistria. More importantly, with three months until Ukraine's crucial 2010 presidential elections, pro-Russian Yanukovych is comfortably the frontrunner in all the polls, while Yushchenko, the incumbent, enjoys a pitiful four percent approval rating these days and has been written off as having virtually no chance for reelection.

One way or another, it seems Russia has been able to reassert itself as a major influence on Ukraine's domestic and foreign policy. If so, what are the implications for today's East-West dynamic? One must consider Ukraine's position as the largest country in Europe with vast economic potential, not to mention its vital strategic position as the primary energy supplier to Europe with some 80 percent of Russian gas pumped through Ukraine's pipelines. To put it bluntly, with Ukraine serving Russia's geopolitical interests, without a doubt a Russian empire will emerge once again. …