By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
If someone is tempted to ignore we are living in a fudgy post-Cold war atmosphere, suffices to look at Ukraine’s presidential elections. Those have been turned into a geopolitical game by outsiders, but also by the candidates. Part of that singularity is linked to the country’s war condition, but only part.
The main outside actors in the situation are the Russians of course, and the Westerners who can be divided between the European Union, the United States and Nato. Since the end of the Soviet Union, the West has been using Ukraine as a card in a never ending post-Cold war game, which gained new intensity after Maidan 2 and subsequent Russian interventions on Ukrainian territory.
Paradoxically, confronted with the Ukrainian presidential elections, those «insiders-outsiders” face the same question – “Which candidate is the least bad option”.
For Westerners, Petro Poroshenko has the merit of being known. The problem is just that they also know only too well what an embarrassing partner he might be, driven by his belief that he is the defender of European security from Russian “revanchism” and claiming to be a key inspirator of Western policy towards Russia. Those elements have been part of his electoral campaign, as well as declarations and promises that are far of being those of a pacifier, when the West is, in different degrees, keen to move on to repair relations with Russia without forgetting Ukrainian interests and rights.
The alternative is also problematic, for other reasons. Zelensky is a new face, with a large support among the young generations, untainted by past scandal, who can be a game changer. But his lack of political experience is frightening, and he has made few efforts to inspire confidence, for instance by presenting young technocrats and skilled diplomats who might constitute his future team.
Geography, history, and geopolitics make Americans keener on a reelection of Poroshenko. Thanks to him, they have gained a foot on the European continent, they put their hands on archives and personal dossiers ensuring close control on Ukrainian politics. Maidan 2 opens the country to American investors, army instructors, intelligence agencies, and financial aides that Ukraine is in no position to pay back soon. American influence is illustrated by the involvement of US ambassadors in Ukrainian political life and the role of a former one of them, Kurt Volker, now counselor for Ukrainian affairs in the Trump administration. In fact, Ukraine per se is not important for America, a country many Americans cannot even point out on a map. What matters is the balance of relations inside a triangle consisting of US-Russia-China.
The Europeans’ attitude is more complex. Their support to Ukraine is based on principles and values obliging them to help a country which is victim of foreign interferences. They have provided important aid and programs to Kiev, but are frustrated by the slow pace of reforms by Poroshenko and his will to interfere in decisions of an organisation of which he is far from being member. The Europeans share American analysis concerning the danger of Russia, but many countries, including Germany and France, both involved in the Minsk process, want to be able to develop good relations with both Russia and Ukraine. Hence the suspicion that the EU might be the West’s weakest link, ready to concede on Crimea if Russia is gets entirely out from Lugansk and Donetsk. Indeed, the EU would have been less unhappy with Tymoshenko because she looked more open to a deal with everyone.
The importance of Ukraine is obvious for the third Western actor, Nato. The Russian invasion of Crimea provided it with arguments to stay relevant at the moment it was withdrawing from Afghanistan and looking for a new mission.
The recent celebrations of its 70 th anniversary show the importance of Ukraine for the Alliance. Members states discussed plans to penetrate further into former Soviet territory closer to the Russian borders. This includes bolstering NATO “surveillance” in the Black Sea and insuring the security of the Ukrainian navy in the Sea of Azov. No matter that the idea of NATO “deterring” Russia in the Black Sea goes against geography and history.
All that explains the prominence given to the question of NATO and EU memberships in the election campaign. Poroshenko wants to reap electoral benefit from his role in advancing prospects for memberships and has promised quicker moves. He has announced NATO membership by the end of the year. Zelensky too has been obliged to step on the question. Knowing how NATO membership is divisive, he has spoken of a referendum on both NATO and EU “because Ukrainians need to know more about what they would enter into”. And only after being invited “I never go visiting people who did not invite me.. I do not want to feel a minor guest”.
While being suspected of the worst intentions to disturb Ukrainian elections, andeven of preparing an invasion of Europe by the Ukrainian intelligence services, the Kremlin has adopted a low profile. Not out of virtue, but by lack of choice: for the first time since independence, Moscow has nobody to bet on. And Putin is in the same position that the West – facing the unknown. Moscow would certainly be happy to see the back of Poroshenko. Not because of his pro-Western direction, but because he is a divisive person and in consequence a source of chaos. Moscow is not against a certain level of instability if it facilitates its control, but not chaos in its neighborough. Zelensky is untested. Tymoshenko is out as president. So Putin is condemned to observe and wait for the results, keeping an eye on the kind of forces that will rally around the winner and on the preparation of October parliamentary elections. Moscow takes also seriously the risk of a third Maidan. Already, nationalist milieux and some Poroshensko allies declare that they consider that only a fraud orchestrated from abroad can defeat him. Supporters in the West share that approach, and the website Apostrof quoted a famous expert of Chatham House according to whom Russia could murder Zelensky to destabilise the situation in Ukraine. But supporters of Zelensky can also protest in case Poroshenko comes back to win despite his huge retard, and all the polls that were right on the first tour cannot be that wrong for the second. In both cases, Russia will be accused of creating chaos.
It is true that most Russians consider Poroshenko a “president of war” supported by the US. But relations with Ukraine are larger than the person of Poroshenko. Clearly Russian elites and the population have moved a long way from the time when they were convinced that Ukraine was “ours” and could not to be given to the West. Ukraine is seen as an outpost of NATO, reinforcing the feeling of encirclement and justifying measures to answer the threat. But, despite the armed conflicts and the Western turn of Ukraine, family links and cultural proximity still matter. Attitudes among people on both sides seem to be thawing, according to a poll by the Levada Centre in Moscow and the Kiev Institute of Sociology conducted in February. It shows that 77% of Ukrainians said they have a positive attitude toward Russians, while 82% of Russians felt similarly disposed toward Ukrainians. As far as their overall feelings toward Russia go, some 57% of Ukrainians said they felt favorably, up from 30% in May 2015.
Hence the apt qualification by the Russian analyst Gleb Pavlosvky, hardly a friend of Putin, of “destructive codependence” to describe the relations between Ukraine and Russia. According to him, since independence, Russia and Ukraine have been intertwined in a “geopathological embrace”, becoming strategic satellites of one another, bound together as “an involuntary dyad in which each side sees the other both as a model and as an adversary”.