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Russia Gets Duped Again

The Duke of Wellington used to say some victories are worse than defeat. I suspect that President Dmitry Medvedev’s “brilliant diplomatic victory” in Kharkiv on behalf of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet will in reality create very serious problems for Russia in the future.

After inflating gas prices for Ukraine a few months ago, Moscow has now graciously agreed to reduce them by 30 percent in exchange for Kiev’s agreement to extend the lease on the Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol through 2042. The Kremlin thereby resolved an important strategic problem. Only a few years ago, the Black Sea Fleet, which is virtually locked in by the Bosporus, seemed like a deadweight and a throwback to the Cold War era. But the increasingly unstable situation in the Caucasus and Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 have given the Black Sea Fleet a new meaning. It gives Russia the ability to deploy its forces rapidly into a region where crises are most likely to develop. In addition, the Kremlin believes that keeping the Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea symbolizes Russia’s continuing influence over Ukraine. ? 

Russian leaders have been burned more than once by the rulers of former Soviet republics who promised Moscow military and political perks in exchange for financial assistance. That happened with the now-dethroned Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who received more than $500 million from Moscow in return for his promise to close the U.S. military base at Manas, located just outside of Bishkek. Bakiyev announced he would close down the U.S. base, but several months later, it turned out that the base was still operating; it was simply renamed as a “transit center.”

It has been the same story with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has repeatedly found ways to exploit the militaristic rhetoric of Russian leaders. As soon as Moscow raised the alarm of a military threat from NATO, the Belarussian leader immediately began beating his chest and shouting that his country would do everything it could to repel a U.S. or NATO attack on Russia. Obviously, in the midst of this generous display of “Slavic brotherhood” and solidarity, it would have been inappropriate for Moscow to haggle with Minsk over such a petty and mundane issue as the price for Russian oil and gas.

? But when the Kremlin nevertheless has raised that question, Lukashenko switches from a warm “Slavic brother” to a nasty blackmailer, threatening to?  kill key joint defense and economic projects that are of strategic importance to the Kremlin. In this way, he once refused for some months to sign an agreement with Moscow for the creation of a collective rapid reaction force.

Mindful of how they got burned by Bakiyev and Lukashenko, Medvedev and Putin decided not to fall in the same trap with Yanukovych. But this is exactly what happened. With the lower gas prices to take effect immediately, Ukraine can now save roughly $4 billion annually, whereas the lease extension will only take effect only after the current agreement expires in 2017.

At the same time, Ukrainian opposition parties have made it clear that once they come to power, they will annul the agreement. On one hand, Ukrainian law affirms the country’s neutral status and clearly prohibits the presence of any foreign military presence. At the same time, however, so-called “transitional articles” of Ukraine’s constitution state that “the use of existing military bases on Ukrainian territory for the temporary presence of foreign military forces is permissible on a lease basis in a manner determined by the international treaties of Ukraine ratified by the Verkhovna Rada.” This means that the fate of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet will depend directly on the next Ukrainian president’s political leanings and how the leader chooses to interpret the law.

At the same time, Yanukovych has already made the Kremlin a hostage to his hold on power — and he has been in office for only two months. Now Moscow has a deeply vested interest in seeing that Yanukovych or another member of the Party of the Regions remains in power right up through 2042. And the $4 billion per year in gas discounts that Russia has already promised Ukraine could turn out to small potatoes compared with the sums Yanukovych could demand from Russia in the years ahead, knowing that he has the upper hand in the relationship.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.

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