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Ukraine: Russia's Day After

Can the West help Russia adapt to new realities?

January 3, 2005

Can the West help Russia adapt to new realities?

Russia has plenty of legitimate interests in Ukraine. It will need to work hard to salvage them, after its many mistakes over the last few months.

First and foremost, Russia can consider itself lucky that President-elect Yushchenko — despite being viewed as a radical by many Russians — is in reality a political moderate. He realizes that Ukraine needs to get along well with Russia.

Nevertheless, Russia's standing in Ukraine has sunk low. Ironically, it is only with Western help that it can repair its relations with Ukraine in the way it needs. And that means a way that preserves not just some trade and correctness in overall relations — but a shared economic and strategic space.

In recent months, Moscow had constructed an "alternative reality" in its media and public discourse. In this fantasyland, the people of Ukraine were trying to elect Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych as president, but an American conspiracy was keen on overthrowing their government.

But now that Mr. Yanukovych has been defeated by a clear margin of two million votes, Russia has to adjust its collective mind — as well as its foreign policy — back to the real world.

The cost of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma's fraudulent attempts to steal the elections is that Mr. Yushchenko's rise to power has taken on a revolutionary tinge — something Russia wrongly accused him of wanting all along.

Another result is that Mr. Yushchenko today is a hero for many Ukrainians — a development that has happened before in former Soviet states.

In November 2003, the same effect went even farther in Georgia: Attempts by then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, again with Moscow’s support, at stealing the Georgian elections turned them into a battle of liberation — and Mikhail Saakashvili ended up getting 96% of the vote as a national hero.

Russia's obvious implication in the attempts to falsify the Ukrainian elections meanwhile gave the orange revolution an anti-Russian tinge.

But none of this was necessary. Had Mr. Yushchenko been declared the election winner the first time around — as he would have been had there not been massive fraud — the consequences for Russia would have been mild.

Yes, the West’s influence in Ukraine would in this case have grown somewhat. But Russia’s influence and reputation would have continued largely undiminished alongside the West's.

Instead, Russia is today viewed with suspicion by far more Ukrainians (and Europeans) than only a few months ago. Its influence in Ukraine and elsewhere thus is greatly diminished.

Looking forward, Russia now needs the friendship and help of the West to salvage its long-term interests in Ukraine.

There is a precedent for this from the early 1990s, when the United States pressured a nationalist Ukraine — freed from the Soviet Union's shackles — to be more forthcoming in dealing with Russia. The rationale was that Ukraine and the West would both benefit from good Russian-Ukrainian relations.

Today, Russia needs this kind of Western help again — and it is once again in the West's interest to provide it, despite the natural temptation to punish Russia for its brutish behavior. There are a number of ways in which Western help will be needed.

It is now widely assumed that Ukraine will eventually become a member of NATO, possibly as soon as 2007.

In that context, the West's first step should be to turn the Black Sea port of Sevastopol into a joint NATO-Russian base. This is probably the only way to allay one of Russia's greatest fears, which is that it might lose the base as Ukraine moves into NATO.

Another key step would be to coordinate the Russia-EU, Ukraine-EU and Russia-Ukraine "common space" plans — and to make them mutually compatible. This is the only way to keep the Russia-Ukraine plan alive while Ukraine moves toward the EU.

There should also be more of an effort to upgrade the Russia-NATO relationship at the same time as Ukraine is moving toward NATO membership.

The reason is simple. Russia needs to stay in the same strategic space with Ukraine, which juts deeply into the Russian heartland, leaving Russians — many of whom do not trust NATO — with a feeling of insecurity.

Ukraine's eventual move into NATO will create a fork in the road: This move will either be balanced out by Russia and NATO coming substantially closer. Or it will result in a major strategic defeat for Russia — and lead to a serious crisis in Russia-NATO relations.

Russia will have to be innovative in finding ways to upgrade its practical cooperation with NATO and the structures of the NATO-Russia Council.

In principle, NATO ought to figure out how to do this as well. But in practice, Russia will have to do much of NATO's thinking instead — just as the Eastern Europeans had to after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact.

Why should Russia make this effort, when thinking Atlanticist-style isn't something that's likely to come easily to most Russians?

The answer is that if Russia does not come to an arrangement with NATO, Russia will be left out in the cold once Ukraine joins the alliance. And Russia would find it very cold without Ukraine.

Russia also needs to undertake a major effort to rebuild its reputation in the West. This is a condition for getting the Western help it needs on the other points listed above.

For example, Russia could be a better ally in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions and do more to help Western goals.

Or Russia could help along democracy in a near-abroad country, for example, by working with the West to bring a democratic moderate to power in Belarus. Doing so could more than make up for its misguided attempts to throttle democracy in Ukraine and Georgia.

At home, too, Russia's leadership could show a more democratic face, not least by restoring genuine independence to a national TV channel and other media outlets. Russia could also stop treating it as "patriotic" to blame all its problems on the West.

As an immediate step, Russia should throw out the "alternative reality" it has built up in its mass media, which has become an instrument for leading the country down the path to one mistake after another.

What is most hopeful is that all of these steps would truly be in Russia's interest. They would also be in the Western interest, for a whole series of reasons. And Russia could take them easily enough. But will it?

The Ukrainian election has left Russia at a crossroad. Previous experience suggests that it will adjust, but half-heartedly — along a line of least resistance.

The above points may be seen as describing the lines along which it could adjust more speedily — and in alignment with its own long-term interest.