Staunton, February 25 – Three Russian analysts say that Moscow still has more levers in Ukraine that it has chosen to use so far but that by not using those that is does have, the Russian government may increasingly find itself in a position where it will have to choose between taking steps that will cost it any remaining support there or lead to a break with the West.
In an article on the “Svobodnaya pressa” portal yesterday entitled “Does Russia retain any levers of influence in Ukraine?” Aleksey Polubota surveys the opinions of three Russian analysts, all of whom argue that Russia does but that for various reasons, it has not yet employed as fully as it might (svpressa.ru/politic/article/82812/).
Moscow’s silence at the highest levels as the new Ukrainian authorities take ever more radical steps, including stripping Russian of its official status in the eastern oblasts, raises a number of questions which demand answers, the “Svobodnaya pressa” journalist suggests.
Among them are the following: How long must everyone wait for Russia “to support those forces in Ukraine which are traditionally oriented toward it?” And “Does Russian in principle retain levers of influence [in Ukraine] considering the changed geopolitical landscape” there?
Aleksandr Shatilov, a sociologist at the Russian government’s Finance University, says bluntly that “the events of recent times have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the former policy of the Russian Federation toward Ukraine,” a policy designed to “support there a relative balance of the interests of various elite groups.”
But that balance has been destroyed by the Maidan, Shatilov says, and “therefore, if Russia does not want to entirely lose it influence in Ukraine, it must take sufficiently decisive actions” because the victory of the Ukrainian West and Kyiv is rapidly spreading into “the traditionally pro-Russian regions of South-East Ukraine.”
“A counter-attack” is all the more necessary “especially if Vladimir Putin doesn’t want that something similar will take place in our country,” the sociologist says.
According to Shatilov, “our possibilities for influence on the situation in the South and East of Ukraine up to now are quite broad.” They include various “financial and administrative levers” and variants of limited force influence.” But what matters most is to identify people there who are not “gray and selfish bureaucrats” but those who are real leaders.
Shatilov suggests that what Moscow must do is carry out a kind of “casting call” in order to identify those “charismatic” figures on whom the Russian Federation could rely.
He argues that giving aid to Kyiv is not a good idea because it will not purchase the loyalty of the Ukrainian leaders. That has already been demonstrated in the case of Viktor Yanukovich. Therefore, Shatilov argues, “it is necessary to stop any handing over of financial bonuses to Ukraine.”
Despite its promises, the European Union has its own problems and won’t be delivering the kind of massive assistance Ukraine needs. Consequently, Moscow has room to maneuver and instead of providing help, it should in Shatilov’s view be “introducing certain economic sanctions.”
What might those look like? There are many gastarbeiters in Russia from Western Ukraine. Under the current conditions, “it is completely possible to close the border to them,” something that would inflict real pain on their home communities.
But what is most necessary of all, the sociologist continues, is that Moscow stop being “inert” and “demonstrate that it is a strong player in the Ukrainian political arena. Otherwise, if we again surrender our positions in Ukraine, to speak about our influence in this country will be senseless.”
He notes that in Russia itself there are already suggestions being made that “it is necessary to reach an agreement with Yuliya Timoshenko.” That is a mistake. The Timoshenko of today is “not the Timoshenko of Yushchenko’s times.” Now, she is “a figure who is strengthened by the victory of the nationalist Maidan.” And with the West’s support, she won’t be forthcoming.
He suggests that Moscow is still trying to figure out what to do because it is aware that “interference in this situation in Ukrainian processes will elicit serious dissatisfaction from the West” and that will “put at risk” the money members of the Russian elite keep in Western banks. That is something “Vladimir Putin is forced to consider.”
But the Russian president now, after the triumph of the Sochi Olympics, has “a certain cart blanche” from the Russian people. How long that will last, of course, is an open question, and if the Kremlin leader does not act soon, Shatilov suggests, the Russian opposition is certain to try to organize a Maidan in Moscow.
If Russia does introduce troops into Ukraine, there is “no doubt” that the reaction of the West “will be extremely negative.” Consequently, Moscow is unlikely to do that, at least directly. But, “if the South-East of Ukraine rises to defend itself from the expansion of the Banderites, then there will be a chance to assist it as peace keepers” as well as to provide it with “arms, finances and specialists.”
Tamara Guzenkova, a researcher at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, agrees. She say that “Russia retains levers to create a situation in its favor” in Ukraine. But she adds that there is a “but” in this regard: “Does the leadership of Russia want to do so?” It hasn’t acted yet, and she says she can only hope that this is because of the Sochi Games.
And Sergey Tolstov, director of the Kyiv Institute of Political Analysis and International Research, adds that Mosco needs to “define its goals” in such a way that they “correspond with the interests of a significant part of Ukrainian society.” If it doesn’t do that and quickly, and if Kyiv does not behave repressively, “a significant part of Ukrainians” will support the new order, further limiting Moscow’s options.
Specifically, he says, “Russia needs to be consistent regarding those groups of the Ukrainian people who place definite hopes in it. As far as political representation is concerned, this part of society is now in a poor position. The politicians who acted in its name have been discredited.”
Tolstov says it would be “senseless” to try to re-impose a customs blockade. That would only lead to “a sharp growth of negative attitudes toward Russian among Ukrainians.” At the same time, however, Moscow needs to recognize that “the new Ukrainian government hardly will enter into constructive talks with Russia.”
More economic pressure will make progress of that kind even less likely, he continues. “The deepening of the economic problems of Ukraine as a result of Russia’s position will stimulate processes of an ideological character which perhaps will be welcomed in the US but will hardly lead to any constructive relations between our countries.”
The outcome of the situation in Ukraine is still far from certain, Tolstov says, but one thing is clear: Russia’s policies must be carefully calibrated and targeted lest blunter ones lead to just the reverse of what Moscow hopes for.
As far as a possible pro-Moscow candidate in the May 25 Ukrainian presidential elections is concerned, Tolstov says, “today there is no such candidate.” The south-east of the country has been politically “beheaded and disarmed” in the run up to the voting “and cannot actively participate in political life in the near term.”
Over a longer period, however, the population of that region can engage in “a process of self-organization and self-definition.” But that will take time, and “the appearance of a strong pro-Russian candidate for president in the time remaining [before the May vote] is practically impossible.”
In sum, these three experts suggest, Moscow does have levers but these are not as effective as they once were, and many of the policy choices that appear to be under consideration in Moscow now could easily backfire making the situation in Ukraine far worse from Russia’s point of view than it is now and having a negative blowback effect on Russia itself.