Following the Russian invasion of Georgia, there were growing fears that the Muscovite bear was sharpening its claws and hungrily eyeing the Ukraine for its next meal. These fears may now be put to rest. The deed has been accomplished without a single shot being fired or another gas pipeline being turned off. Neither armed threat nor spigot diplomacy will now be necessary. The Russians are back and the people of the Ukraine need not hunker down for another unheated winter. It is the West that is out in the cold.
The election as president of pro-Kremlin Viktor Yanukovich and the rejection of pro-West Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko can be explained by a number of salient factors. Ukraine has endured a crippling economic crisis for the last several years — as has much of the world, for that matter — but in this case systemic corruption and oligarchic infighting have contributed to a shrinking economy, leading to fierce public discontent. The promise of the Orange Revolution began to sour shortly after the election of Viktor Yushchenko in January 2005 and continued to deteriorate during the tenure of Ms. Tymoshenko. Add the usual, behind-the-scenes Russian meddling and something had to give eventually. For when the Russians aren’t hogging center stage, they’re busy in the coulisse.
Then there is an ethno-linguistic and geographic fact. Ukraine is split down the middle — more or less along the Dneiper River — between Russian speakers in the eastern part of the country, especially in the Crimean Peninsula, and Ukrainian speakers in the west, a state of affairs which produces a perennially divisive electorate and the inevitable schismatic destabilizations. (One gets a historical sense of this rupture from Nikolai Gogol’s celebrated 19th-century novella Taras Bulba, with one of the eponymous warlord’s sons defecting to the more sophisticated Poles — here representing the west — and the other remaining loyal to his Cossack brethren — that is, east Ukraine.) Barring separation, this is not a fissure about to be healed in the foreseeable future.
Further, the country’s potential entry into the European Union, which would have created a de facto climate of at least approximate security, proceeded far too slowly; its partnership in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) does not provide the strategic protection it would need to maintain its real independence and resist the Russian agenda.
But it can also be persuasively argued that the votes in the recent election had already been counted in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia and recognized the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The tepid response of the Western powers to this act of gross military and political misfeasance sealed Ukraine’s fate and created an electoral fact before the fact. European shuttlecraft and vacuous proclamations were music to Russian ears. A majority of Ukrainians would have understood that they could not rely on Western diplomacy or material assistance to defend them against the expansionist designs of their voracious neighbor.
This realization would have been driven home one year later when President Obama reneged on America’s commitment to its east European allies, Poland and the Czech Republic, to build a missile shield on their territory, despite Russian objections. These two countries now find that they have been cut loose. It is clear that in the event of renewed disruptions in the region, neither the EU nor NATO will intervene in any meaningful way. But far more significantly, Ukrainians are aware that the U.S. cannot be trusted to fulfill its obligations or react decisively to thwart the geopolitical and regional intentions of a resurgent Russia. Such are the rancid fruit of President Obama’s insipid and conciliatory foreign policy.
The results of the Ukrainian election, irrespective of the narrow margin of Yanukovich’s victory, come as no surprise and could have been easily foretold. The ballots were printed in Georgia and shipped to Ukraine via Poland and the Czech Republic. This is invariably the sort of thing that is bound to happen when you spurn your allies. Acts — or the failure to act — imply consequences. As for the Russians, they have been given carte blanche and will no longer need to shut down gas pipelines or send in the tanks to manipulate the internal politics of their former republics and east European “clients.” America and Europe have seen to that.