Dwindling Ukraine clout upsets Russia

Russia will use dirty tricks to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence after the expected victory of West-leaning candidate Viktor Yushchenko in weekend presidential elections, analysts say.

    Putin has thrown Russia's weight behind Ukraine's likely poll loser

    President Vladimir Putin and his advisers in the Kremlin are

    said to believe too much is at stake to allow the strategically

    important former Soviet republic to drift further into the western

    European orbit.

    "Moscow is quite unhappy with the prospect of a Yushchenko

    victory and, from this point of view, it would like to work against

    him by any means," political analyst Yevgeny Volk, director of

    the US-based Heritage Foundation in Moscow, said.

    "Russia's influence is quite limited but I would expect any kind

    of provocation against Yushchenko. The situation is very fragile

    because many people in the Kremlin have convinced Putin that this is

    a matter of life and death for Russia."

    Putin's elaborate efforts to influence the outcome of the

    disputed election have embarrassingly failed, with opinion polls

    showing Yushchenko well ahead of pro-Russian candidate Prime

    Minister Viktor Yanukovich in the lead-up to Sunday's repeat run-off

    vote.

    He paid two trips to Ukraine to boost Yanukovich's chances and

    publicly hailed his favourite's "victory" on the night of the first

    run-off last month, which was eventually annulled due to widespread

    fraud.

    Cold War struggle

    Analysts said they expected the Cold War-style struggle for

    influence in Ukraine to continue after Sunday's vote, even if the

    Kremlin is now resigned to a Yushchenko victory.

    "The Kremlin is desperately trying to come up with a response,"

    Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political consultant who

    advised Yanukovich during his ill-fated campaign, said.

    "

    The situation is very fragile

    because many people in the Kremlin have convinced Putin that this is

    a matter of life and death for Russia"

    Yevgeny Volk,
    Heritage Foundation

    "Yushchenko is very intelligent but he's weak and the big

    question is who will wield influence behind the scenes, and that's

    what the Kremlin is working on."

    Russia's political elite is believed to fear Ukraine eventually

    joining the US-led NATO military alliance and the European Union,

    further eroding Russia's standing.

    It will also deal a major blow to

    Putin's unstated ambition of restoring Russian dominance over the

    former Soviet empire in eastern Europe.

    Heritage Foundation's Volk said, "The problem is that Putin is a captive of Cold War stereotypes

    and his vision of the world is very black and white.

    "[Putin] understands the world according to the 'zero sum game'

    whereby anything that is good for the West is bad for Russia, and

    vice versa."

    Shock for Putin

    Andrei Piontkovsky, a Moscow-based political analyst, likened

    the West to a "gallant cavalier trying to seduce" Ukraine.

    Viktor Yushchenko is expected
    to win the forthcoming election

    "Russia behaves like an impotent rapist and this makes its

    position ridiculous. It's perfectly obvious in this situation whom

    the girl will choose," he said.

    "The events in Ukraine were a huge shock not just for Putin but

    for the majority of the Russian political elite. For the first time

    they had to recognise that Ukraine is an independent state."

    None the less, according to Volk, Ukraine's large Russian-speaking, generally pro-Moscow

    population in the east of the country, as well as its economic

    dependence on Russia, will give the Kremlin powerful leverage even

    after Yushchenko's expected victory.

    "As usual they'll try to use economic leverage to make

    Yushchenko docile. Ukraine still depends on Russian oil and gas

    supplies, and imports of its agricultural products," he said.

    Strong ties

    Volk added, "But I don't believe that relations will worsen dramatically

    because Moscow and Kiev need each other."

    "The events in Ukraine were a huge shock not just for Putin but

    for the majority of the Russian political elite. For the first time

    they had to recognise that Ukraine is an independent state"

    Andrei Piontkovsky,
    political analyst

    Yushchenko will also be restrained by the fact that more than

    half of Ukraine's population of 48 million people are Russian

    speakers with strong cultural ties to Russia, analysts said.

    After weeks of often heated denunciations of alleged Western

    meddling in Ukraine, Putin insisted last Friday that he would be

    "pleased" to see the country admitted to the European Union.

    But he said that this was unlikely to happen anytime soon.

    "If Ukraine wants to enter the EU and is welcomed there, then we

    can only be pleased," Putin said at the Kremlin, adding

    however that it was "not our business".

    SOURCE: AFP


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