Because Ukraine is vital to Russia's defense and survival as any kind of world power, it has become the cornerstone of the geopolitical battle between Russia and the West. Russia has many levers it could use to influence the course of Ukraine's future, though the West is not without its tools. The eventual outcome of the battle for Ukraine is uncertain.
Editor's Note: This is the third part of a series on Ukraine. Since Ukraine is essentially too internally shattered to make sweeping changes or reforms, its future is at the whim of foreign powers. Because of this — and because of Ukraine's geographic location — the country is now the chief arena for the struggle between Russia and the West.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West (particularly under the guises of the European Union and NATO) has pushed eastward, making its way toward Russia's doorstep. As the West tries to continue its advance and as Russia tries to stave it off, Ukraine has become paramount to both sides — not just as a potentially lucrative territory, but because Ukraine is the key to Russia's defense and survival as any sort of power. (click image to enlarge) Although Ukraine hosts the largest Russian community in the world outside of Russia, the battle for Ukraine is about far more than ethnic kin. Even before the Soviet era, Ukraine was integrated into Russia's industrial and agricultural heartland, and eastern Ukraine remains integral to the Russian heartland to this day. Furthermore, Ukraine is the transit point for Russian natural gas to Europe and a connecting point for nearly all meaningful infrastructures running between Russia and the West — whether pipeline, road, power or rail. Without Ukraine, Russia could not project political or military power into the Northern Caucasus, the Black Sea or Eastern Europe, and Russia would be nearly entirely cut off from the rest of Europe. Ukraine also goes deep into former Soviet territory, with borders a mere 300 miles from either Volgograd or Moscow, and the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol on the Black Sea has long been the Russian military's only deep, warm-water port. To put it simply, as long as Ukraine is in its orbit, Russia can maintain strategic coherence and continue on its path of resurging in an attempt to resume its superpower status. Without Ukraine, Russia would face a much smaller set of possibilities. This is why the 2004 Orange Revolution that brought in Ukraine's first pro-Western government was Russia's deepest nightmare. Russia knows that the Orange Revolution was a U.S.-backed project, supported by U.S. allies such as Poland. Since that color revolution, Moscow has been content with simply destabilizing Ukraine in order to ensure it does not fully fall into the West's sphere.
Russia has a slew of levers inside Ukraine to keep the country unstable. It also has quite a few tools it could use to either pull the country back into Moscow's fold or break the country apart.
Politics: Russia is the very public sponsor of Viktor Yanukovich and his Party of Regions; though in the past three months, Moscow has also started granting its favor to Yulia Timoshenko — breaking the Orange Coalition and isolating President Viktor Yushchenko and his party. The topic of how to respond to a strengthening Russia has been a constant point of contention in Ukraine's different coalitions and governments.
Energy: Since Russia supplies 80 percent of Ukraine's natural gas, energy is one of Moscow's favorite levers to use against Kiev. Moscow has proven in the past that it is not afraid of turning off the heat at the height of winter in Ukraine to not only hurt the country but also to push Kiev into the heart of a firestorm as European countries' supplies get cut off when Russia cuts supplies to Ukraine. The price Russia charges Ukraine for natural gas is also constantly being renegotiated, with Kiev racking up billions of dollars in debt to Moscow every few months.
Economics: Russia controls a large portion of Ukraine's metals industry, owning factories across the eastern part of the country, where most of Ukraine's wealth is held. Russia also controls much of Ukraine's ports in the south.
Oligarchs: Quite a few of Ukraine's oligarchs pledge allegiance to Russia because of relationships from the Soviet era, because of assets held in Russia or because Moscow bought or supported certain oligarchs during their rise. Rinat Akhmetov is the most notable pro-Russian oligarch; not only does he do the Kremlin's bidding inside Ukraine, but he is also rumored to have recently helped the Kremlin during Russia's financial crisis. Moscow controls many other notable Ukrainian oligarchs, such as Viktor Pinchuk, Igor Kolomoisky, Sergei Taruta and Dmitri Firtash. This has allowed the Kremlin to shape much in these oligarchs' business ventures and have a say in how these oligarchs support certain politicians.
Ships from Russia's Black Sea Fleet during the celebration of the fleet's 225th anniversary
Military: Russia's Black Sea Fleet is headquartered and based in Ukraine's Crimea region, in Sevastopol. Compared to Kiev's small fleet, Russian naval power in the Black Sea is overwhelming. Russia's Black Sea Fleet also contributes to the majority of the Crimea region's economy. Though imposing a military reality on Ukraine would be another thing entirely from imposing a military reality on South Ossetia and Georgia, there is little doubt that Russia — and the ethnic Russian majority in the Crimea — is committed to retaining the decisive hand in the fate of the Crimea, even if the Russian Fleet withdraws in 2017, when its lease expires.
Intelligence: Ukraine's intelligence services were essentially born from Russia's heavy KGB presence in the country before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Security Service of Ukraine originated in Moscow's KGB presence in Ukraine, and the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine sprung forth from Russia's SVR foreign intelligence agency. Many of the senior officials in both agencies were actually KGB trained and worked for them during the early days of their careers. Russia's current spy agency, the Federal Security Service (a descendant of the KGB), has a heavy presence within Ukraine's intelligence agencies. This gives the Russians a big opening they can use to serve their own interests in Ukraine.
Organized crime: Russian organized crime is the parent of Ukrainian organized crime and is still deeply entrenched in the current system (even among the oligarchs). Russia has been especially successful in setting up shop in the Ukraine involving shady natural gas deals, the arms trade, the drug trade and other illicit business arrangements.
Population: Ukraine is dramatically split between a population that identifies with Russia and a population that identifies with the West. It has a complex and multifaceted demography: A large Russian minority comprises 17.3 percent of the total population, more than 30 percent of all Ukrainians speak Russian as their native language and more than half of the country belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarch. Geographically speaking, Ukrainians living east of the Dnieper River tend to identify more with Russia than with the West, and those in Crimea consider themselves much more Russian than Ukrainian. This divide is something Russia can use not only to keep the country in chaos, but to split the country in half should the need arise.
The West's Levers and Concerns
The West, on the other hand, is split over what exactly to do with Ukraine. In 2004, during the Orange Revolution, it was the United States' time to push up against Russia; but other Western heavyweights such as Germany have never really liked or trusted any government in Kiev. Berlin would love to see a pro-Western government in Kiev to work with, but the Germans know that meddling in Ukraine costs them something, unlike the Americans. This was seen in 2006, when Russia cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine, which led to the lights going out in quite a few European countries as well. So the Europeans see the upheaval of Ukraine as yet another mess the Americans have gotten them into. Since the Orange Revolution, the West has used two main levers — cash and protection — to try to keep Kiev on a pro-Western path. It has thrown cash at Ukraine, but there are two problems with this move. First, whoever has been in charge in Kiev has squandered and mismanaged any cash given to Ukraine rather than working to alleviate the economic, financial, institutional and systematic problems the country is facing. For example, the West is offering Ukraine an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan of $16.5 billion with only a few strings — banking reform and an end to government squabbling — attached, but Kiev cannot manage these changes, and now the IMF is considering withdrawing its offer. Second, as the West faces its own financial crisis, it is not in any position currently to offer Kiev any more help. U.S. President George W. Bush (R) and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko The West's other move — again championed by Washington — is to pull Ukraine into NATO. Ukraine is ill-qualified as a potential member of the Atlantic alliance, but the move would permanently break Russia's hold over Ukraine. Years of concerted, focused and well-funded military reform could move Kiev meaningfully toward eligibility, but there appears to be no firm consensus — especially with Germany and France against it — on pushing for Ukrainian admittance into the membership action plan. Also, NATO's members have neither troops available to be stationed in the country nor the defense dollars to support such an expensive modernization and reform program. The battle for the soul of Ukraine is on. The country is shattered internally in nearly every possible way: politically, financially, institutionally, economically, militarily and socially. The global financial crisis is simply showing the problems that have long existed in the country. In the near future, there is no conceivable or apparent way for any force within the country to stabilize it and begin the reforms needed. It will take an outside power to step in — which leads to the larger tussle between the West and Russia over control of one of the most geopolitically critical regions between the two. Russia has far more tools to use to keep Ukraine under its control, but the West has laid a lot of groundwork in order to undermine Moscow, leaving the future of Ukraine completely uncertain.