The U.S. foreign policy establishment, known for its support of the Orange Revolution, now seems to have a case of the Ukraine blues. It's not difficult to surmise why journalists, think-tankers and government officials inside the beltway are so deflated.
In January elections, Viktor Yushchenko's drive to integrate Ukraine into Euro-Atlantic structures went the way of the dodo, and the "Orangeists" were finally ejected from power. Viktor Yanukovich has since taken the helm and initiated a rather sensible policy of not antagonizing Russia.
Yanukovich has taken specific actions with this policy in mind. He has dissolved Ukraine's state committee for NATO membership, and this Tuesday the Rada agreed, with plenty of theatrics from nationalist/pro-Western factions, to extend the Black Sea Fleet basing agreement with Moscow until 2042. While the government in Kiev has always been a dysfunctional entity, Yanukovich is pursuing actual Ukrainian interests. In return for keeping the Russian navy in Sevastopol, the new Ukrainian administration secured a 30% markdown on natural gas imports (to be covered by Russian reserves).
Ukraine's realignment with Russia frustrates Washington's strategic objectives in wider Eurasia, or as The Washington Post delicately puts it, "presents other challenges for U.S. goals in the region." The country is undoubtedly the central element in American geopolitical plans for the former Soviet space. If Ukraine were to fall into the Western orbit and host NATO forces on its territory, just pull out a map to see what that would entail for the Russians. Moscow is 490 km from its western frontier with Ukraine. Effective Russian control of the Caucasus would evaporate, since Moscow's interior lines would be severely compromised by a NATO force posture in the Crimea. U.S. strategists know this- people in the Pentagon and NSC are paid to understand and exploit these sorts of things. The Orange Revolution generated such enthusiasm among the foreign policy community because of its subversive potential in both political and strategic terms.
Aside from its concerns about Western encroachment, Moscow needs a friendly Ukraine to restore the Russian state as a major regional power, and not only in the politico-military sense. Kiev is the birthplace of Eastern Slavic civilization and Russian Orthodoxy; cultural bonds between the two nations remain strong, given that eastern Ukraine and Crimea heavily identify with Russia. There is already a high level of integration between Russia and Ukraine in the economic sectors of agriculture, natural gas transport, nuclear energy and armaments production.
Established American perceptions of Russia's relation to its near abroad betray a profound lack of self-awareness on the part of U.S. policy elites. Yesterday's WP article provides some interesting examples of this phenomenon, beginning with this excerpt:
Some also warn that the deal could boost those determined to restore Russia's influence over its neighbors and could complicate NATO plans to use the Black Sea as a base against potential foes in the Middle East and Central Asia. The Pentagon, for example, has considered putting part of its missile shield against Iran on ships in the Black Sea.
Russia seeks to reconsolidate influence over countries it borders to form a viable sphere of interests. Imagine! Would it ever occur to the article's author to question what business the United States has in stationing its forces in the heart of Eurasia? That perhaps Washington has its own strategy for achieving dominance in the region?
Then there is the matter of "using the Black Sea as a base" for NATO operations in the Middle East and Central Asia. This is indeed the U.S. plan. Ukraine would not only serve to undermine Russian power, it would be the northern component of a New Silk Road under Washington's control. NATO troops would be sent eastward, as far as former Soviet Central Asia's borders with Xinjiang, to "stabilize" the neighborhood and secure its energy resources. The U.S. could then oversee the westward flow of oil, natural gas, migrants and Afghan heroin into Europe. This East-West corridor stretching from the Black Sea to beyond the Caspian would be a critical feature of American hegemony in Eurasia.
The Post then quotes Freedom Agenda veteran David Kramer, someone who's not shy about his enthusiasm for the global democracy project in the former Soviet Union.
David J. Kramer, a George W. Bush administration official who is now at the German Marshall Fund, said the deal could "feed some of the worst instincts in Russian psychology' about the former Soviet Union, especially after an uprising in Kyrgyzstan toppled a government opposed by the Kremlin.
"They may feel they're on a roll, and usually, before too long, the Russians overplay their hand and do it in an unhelpful, unproductive way," Kramer said.
One wonders what these terrible instincts in Russian psychology are. Could they relate to the notion that a Eurasian power like Russia might have more of a role to play in ordering its strategic space than the United States?
We are then told that Moscow can act arrogantly while "on a roll." Major states pursuing their interests are well known for such behavior, but Kramer fails to see the irony in his statement. It's especially rich coming from an official of the shamelessly triumphalist Bush II administration. After all, it was George W. Bush who proclaimed the color revolutions on Russia's frontiers as victories in the worldwide march of freedom.
Ukraine may be a sovereign land, but given its deep civilizational fault lines, a struggle for the country was just about inevitable. Russians see Ukraine not only as the cornerstone of Moscow's geopolitical integrity, but also as the ancestral homeland of the Rus' tribes and the Orthodoxy they have professed for over 1,000 years. Things are much simpler from Washington's angle- it's just a node of the open market and open society, as well as a highway for power projection into Eurasia.