There is an old Russian anecdote that would shock most people in the West, but it reflects the mores here all too well.
A man comes home from work and no sooner does he step through the doorway than he wallops his wife with such a backhand that it sends her sprawling on the floor.
“Vanya, what was that for? I didn’t do anything wrong,” she asks.
“I know. If you really had done something wrong, I would have killed you!” he replies.
I was immediately reminded of this joke after hearing President Dmitry Medvedev’s video address posted on his blog Tuesday. Out of the blue, Medvedev struck out against President Viktor Yushchenko and announced that he would postpone sending Russia’s new ambassador to Kiev, a political demarche that is roughly equivalent to recalling an ambassador entirely.
Everybody was left scratching their heads and wondering, “What could have prompted such a disproportionately harsh speech by Medvedev?” The only thing worse than this would have been to break off diplomatic relations with Ukraine entirely, as Moscow did with Georgia last year and with Israel over 40 years ago. Recall that when Israel trounced its Arab enemies in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Soviet Union, which had placed all of its political eggs for that region in the Arab basket, broke off diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv out of spite.
This example is a good illustration of the consequences of such reckless and poorly thought-out policies. For the 24 years during which the Soviet Union had no diplomatic relations with Israel, the Kremlin lost almost all influence in the Middle East. (Official relations were restored only in 1991, just weeks before the Soviet Union’s collapse.) Today, Russia is formally a sponsor of the Middle East peace process, but that is probably more a weak consolation prize from the other participants in the negotiations than recognition of Moscow’s actual influence in the region. Unfortunately, the same fate awaits Russia in the Caucasus. Just like with Israel, Moscow will one day — perhaps in 24 years? — need to establish normal diplomatic relations with Georgia once again.
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And the same scenario could unfold in Ukrainian relations if the Kremlin continues its inflammatory rhetoric. The arguments Medvedev used to defend his diplomatic attack against Kiev do not hold water. All of the problems the president mentioned do exist, but they first appeared long ago and most had arisen even before Yushchenko took office. They include the disagreements over the transit of Russian gas through Ukrainian territory, the future of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, the status of the Russian language in Ukraine, conflicting interpretations of Russian-Ukrainian history and difficulties encountered by Russians doing business in Ukrainian markets, to name a few. Moreover, Medvedev clearly inflated the importance of these problems. They hardly justify the president of one country leveling such scathing statements at the president of a neighboring country.
What is really going on?
One conspiracy theory holds that Yushchenko violated some type of secret agreement between Moscow and Kiev concerning the only issue that Russia truly cares about — gas shipments. But this theory has not yet been substantiated.
Another version of the conspiracy theory — which seems bizarre at first glance — suggests that Medvedev is actually trying to help Yushchenko’s re-election bid by publicly lambasting him just before Ukraine’s presidential election. According to this theory, by interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, Medvedev will help increase Yushchenko’s popularity by giving credence to his anti-Russian platform. After all, Yushchenko is practically the only presidential candidate who speaks openly about the so-called Russian threat to Ukraine’s national independence.
Yushchenko’s critics have always held that he suffers from paranoia, but Yushchenko has had little hard evidence to support his alarmist anti-Russian statements. In this sense, Medvedev’s speech is a huge gift for Yushchenko. Now he can say, “Look, I told you so. Russia is openly threatening us and trying to dictate our policies.”
The obvious question is: What does Moscow have to gain from this approach? However paradoxical it might seem, the so-called anti-Russian Yushchenko may actually be advantageous for Russia. Moscow views Yushchenko as a weak politician, but this presents an excellent opportunity that Moscow can exploit to its advantage. Yushchenko can do the Kremlin’s work for it by continuing to paralyze Ukrainian politics through his constant bickering with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and other opposition politicians. In addition, Yushchenko has always supported RosUkrEnergo, the shady intermediary for gas transports between Moscow and Kiev.
True, this theory does have one major flaw: Yushchenko’s electoral support is so low that Medvedev’s help would probably be too little to boost Yushchenko’s miserable ratings. Interestingly enough, in 1996, former President Boris Yeltsin had about the same level of support when he started his successful re-election campaign. The big difference, however, is that Yushchenko lacks Yeltsin’s charisma and his notorious administrative resources. As former President Leonid Kuchma famously said, “Ukraine is not Russia.”
Therefore, it remains to be seen how Ukrainian voters will react to Moscow’s new anti-Ukraine campaign. But if Medvedev’s strategy is successful, we might see an amazing, come-from-behind victory for Yushchenko in January’s presidential vote.
Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst and hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.