Don’t mess with Russia over Ukraine?

Ukraine’s unity is at stake as Russia resists the country’s drift towards the West.

Crimea has witnessed pro-Russia protests since Viktor Yanukovych fled the country [Reuters]

Talk about a fluid situation? I am talking about the crisis in Ukraine, obviously, where every day brings news of some dramatic developments. Just a day ago, everyone was wondering where the ousted President Viktor Yanukovych was and now it turns out that he is in Russia, insisting that he remains Ukraine’s head of state and is planning to take a stand against the interim regime in Kiev.

So what was the thinking in Moscow behind giving Yanukovych a safe haven? What’s going to happen next? These were the questions I asked a friend of mine with good connections in the Kremlin.

“Yanukovych is still technically president of Ukraine,” my well informed friend told me. “The people who have ousted him are not really accepted by Moscow as legitimate. So Yanukovych has still everything to play for.”

In other words, what my source in Moscow was implying was that Russian President Vladimir Putin has reckoned that there is still enough support for Yanukovych in Ukraine to make him a serious player in the event the country splits into two parts, with the west drifting towards Europe and the south and east remaining in the Russian sphere of influence.  

The biggest mistake that so many commentators on all sides make is to say that Ukraine’s splitting up into two will have disastrous implication for its neighbours and even regional stability. Well, maybe for the western part of Ukraine that would be the case. It is totally dependent on the industrial base in the east and will have to rely on financial support from the European Union, which, it has to be said, is not at all keen on parting with substantial amounts to help out the new people in charge in Kiev.

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Meanwhile the pro-Russian east will actually survive that split, using its close economic and political links with its big neighbour. Not that it would be a great scenario, as everyone accepts at the moment, but if the worst came to the worst, it would not be the end of the world for the mostly Russian-speaking south and east.

The main problem with the new interim regime in Kiev, run by people closely linked to the recently released from prison former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko – not the most popular figure in the land by all accounts – is that they have been making all the wrong choices. This has been the case ever since they came to power as a result of violent protests which pushed Yanukovych and his government out of power. The new people in Kiev were openly hostile to Russia from the beginning and that was bound to encounter opposition in the south-east of the country. This is exactly what is happening in Crimea and other regions.

The new interim government of national unity which has now emerged in Kiev, headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a close ally of Tymoshenko, does not really come across as a uniting force. Not to mention that it suddenly encountered serious problems with finding the money to keep Ukraine going, as neither the EU or the US are keen on providing financial help at a time when  the country’s future is in serious doubt.

The situation in Ukraine remains very dangerous, with a significant possibility of a civil war breaking out and engulfing the whole of the region.

Some people in Ukraine might be forgiven for thinking that the $15bn loan that had been offered by Russia as a stabilising injection into Ukraine under Yanukovych might not have been such a bad thing after all.

The West at the moment is warning Russia about its possible military involvement in Ukraine to influence the developments there. But would the Kremlin, which sees the overthrow of the regime in Kiev as illegal and supported by the West, be really troubled by these threats?

It cannot afford to have a Western dominated Ukraine, with a possibility of it becoming a member of NATO, not to mention that it would be political suicide for Putin not to be seen in his own country as taking a tough stance against attempts to drag Ukraine away from Russia. And what can the West do anyway, if Moscow offers protection to ethnic Russians living in the south and east in Ukraine?

At the moment the Russian government is telling the world that it is up to the new interim regime in Kiev to sort out the extremist elements in Crimea and other places who are turning against the new authorities. Of course, Western governments see that as an attempt to cover up Moscow’s interference in Ukraine’s affairs.

The situation in Ukraine remains very dangerous, with a significant possibility of a civil war breaking out and engulfing the whole of the region. It’s a good time for all sides to choose their words carefully and tread cautiously. But Western leaders should not kid themselves about Moscow’s determination to protect its interests in Ukraine and even to allow a split of the country into two, if the situation gets out of control.

Grave mistake or not, as the US Secretary of State John Kerry has said about a possible Russian military involvement in Ukraine, this is not going to stop Moscow from taking drastic steps if needed. For the stakes are much too high for the Kremlin to just watch idly as its neighbour drifts into the sphere of influence of the West.

Alexander Nekrassov is a former presidential and government advisor.