Medvedev fires warning shot across Kiev’s bow, but will Yushchenko pay heed?

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in an open letter sent to his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yushchenko on Tuesday, proved Moscow’s patience with Kiev’s “anti-Russian” position is over.

Medvedev’s staement was not limited to words, but was accompanied by a very symbolic action: the Russian president informed Kiev that the new Russian ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov, would only be dispatched after Ukraine toned down its “anti-Russian” behavior.

“Under the present conditions of an anti-Russian course,” Medvedev said in the open letter, which appeared on his video blog. “I have made the decision to put off our new ambassador’s arrival in Ukraine. A concrete date will be set later with due account taken of… Russian-Ukrainian relations.”

As the next line in Medvedev’s statement demonstrates, it was probably no coincidence that the letter found its metaphorical way onto Yushchenko’s desk around the first anniversary of the South Ossetian war, which began after Georgia launched an assault on the capital of Tshkinval.

“Ukraine’s anti-Russian stance in connection with the Saakashvili regime’s barbaric attack on South Ossetia has awakened a negative public reaction,” Medvedev warned.

Kiev’s “anti-Russia” behavior, however, went beyond the merely rhetorical: Ukraine is one of Georgia’s most reliable suppliers of military hardware.

“A year after those tragic events the same painful issue has arisen: civilians and Russian peacekeepers were killed in Tshkinval with Ukrainian weapons,” the Russian president said. “Those in Kiev who supplied weapons to the Georgian army and who, incidentally, continue to do so now, fully share the responsibility with Tbilisi for the crimes committed.”

Besides supplying firepower to the Georgian army, Yushchenko, appearing side-by-side with President Mikhail Saakashvili showed his solidarity with the impetuous Georgian government just hours after the people (and peacekeepers) of Tshknival were being awakened by a massive artillery barrage.

Many Ukrainian politicians, backed up by a faithful army of western think tanks, are interpreting Medvedev’s heated statement as yet another Kremlin effort to manipulate the internal affairs of Kiev. Such a myopic reading of the Russian president’s statement is nothing less than risky business for the entire post-Soviet region.

Although the possibility of Georgia launching another military offensive against South Ossetia and Abkhazia seem extremely remote, it cannot be forgotten that Saakashvili bet the entire house, with Russia dealing the cards, when he fired his missiles in the vicinity of Russian peacekeepers. In light of such a suicidal order, it would require several degrees in psychology, with a generous dash of voodoo, to predict Saakashvili’s next move. In other words, Kiev may wish to consider how it organizes its relationship with Tbilisi in case Saakashvili schemes for “the impossible” to happen once again.

Incidentally, there are rumors to the effect that Medvedev hurled off his video letter in response to Kiev’s delay in approving Zurabov as Russia’s new ambassador to Ukraine. According to diplomatic protocol, it should take no longer than one month for a country to approve an ambassadorial position; Yushchenko forced the Kremlin to wait by the telephone for 6 weeks. Although every perceived snub will be intensely magnified under the present conditions, there was probably no single straw that broke the back of Russian-Ukraine relations. Rather, it has been an accumulation of actions that finally triggered Russia’s harsh reaction.

As Russian State Duma Speaker Valery Yazev observed, the list of Russian grievances against Ukraine is long.

“Our relations in the gas and… economic sector, the Ukrainian leadership’s stance on the Black Sea fleet, arms sales to Georgia, glorification of Nazi criminals, attempts to rewrite our common history – the list of plainly anti-Russian manifestations is long. This brings no benefit to the people of our countries,” Yazev said.

From Church to NATO

Medvedev made special mention of Ukraine’s recent expulsion of two Russian diplomats. While declaring foreign diplomats persona non grata is a rather common method of expressing dissatisfaction with a particular state’s policies, Kiev chose an especially sensitive time – on the eve of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia’s visit to Ukraine – to give the diplomats the boot, a move that the Russian president called an “unprecedented provocation.” Indeed, the expulsion, which was never really explained by Kiev, emphasized Medvedev’s claim that Ukraine wants to trash every shared history between the “fraternal nations.”

“The pernicious practice of intervention of the Ukrainian state authorities in affairs of the Orthodox Church is seen clearly in this context,” Medvedev said. “The conditions artificially created in the run up to and during the visit of Patriarch Kirill… can hardly be described as favorable.”

Patriarch Kirill’s trip to Ukraine, which hoped to demonstrate the unity of the Orthodox Church, presented a microcosm picture of Ukraine’s general attitude for Russia: about one half of the population came out in droves to catch a glimpse of the Russian Patriarch, the personification of Orthodox unity, while the other half, carried by Ukrainian nationalists, protested the holy visit.

Although much emphasis was placed on Ukraine’s subtle sabotage of Kirill’s visit, Medvedev also mentioned other areas of concern, including the deliberate eradication of the Russian language in Ukraine.

“Further efforts are being made to remove the Russian language from public life, science, education, culture, mass media and courts,” the Russian president said, before stressing the kindred spirit that Russia feels for Ukraine.

“For Russians, Ukrainians have been for centuries not only good neighbors, but a fraternal people, to whom we will always have the kindest of feelings, with whom we share a common history, culture and religion, and with whom we are united with economic cooperation and strong blood and human ties,” Medvedev said, in a bid to pull on the heartstrings of the Ukrainian people, of whom almost 20 percent are of Russian descent.

At this point, the Russian president introduced the one perennial subject that continues to dog Russian on the post-Soviet front: the steady enlargement of NATO, the anachronistic Cold War bloc, which, despite promises to the contrary at the time of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, continues to advance on Russia’s borders.

“The political leadership of Ukraine,” Medvedev started, “ignoring the opinion of their country’s citizens – not to mention the position of Russia well known to you – stubbornly continues to pursue a course towards admission to NATO.”

Medvedev upbraids Ukraine for constantly citing the bogeyman of the “Russian threat” as the reason for needing to join NATO.

Kremlin foreign policy aide Sergey Prikhodko said that Ukraine is fomenting a negative image of Russia that could ultimately damage Russian interests, and not just in the geopolitical sphere.

“We must note targeted attempts of the highest ranks in Ukraine to form a negative image of Russia in Ukraine and outside it,” Prikhodko told reporters Tuesday.

“There is an impression that of late, as a new internal political cycle is approaching in Ukraine, the leadership… embarked on the course of radical anti-Russian rhetoric and actions, which do not meet either the moods or interests and the spirit of mutual understanding between the peoples,” Prikhodko said.”

The Russian president also made mention of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which is docked in Ukrainian territory.

“This destructive course constitutes incessant attempts to complicate the practical activities of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in violation of the fundamental agreements between our countries on the principle of its deployment in the territory of Ukraine,” Medvedev said.

Minimizing the political fallout

The Kremlin took great efforts to explain that the decision to delay the arrival of Russia’s new ambassador in Kiev does not signify a severing of relations with Ukraine.

“Any severing or freezing of diplomatic relations is out of the question,” Prikhodko stressed.

Although the Russian-Ukrainian union may be considered “too big to fail,” it seems that only with the arrival of a new Ukrainian president will Russia begin to feel comfortable with Kiev again. And with Yushchenko’s political ratings in the basement, this is a sentiment that seems to be shared amongst Ukrainians as well, who are tired of the ongoing “gas war” with Russia, and who crave some sort of predictability at the very least in their state’s relations with Moscow.

For Russia, the best-case scenario would be for Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, to emerge victorious in January’s presidential elections. In many ways, this would be the so-called orange revolution coming full circle.

In November 2004, Yanukovich was declared winner of Ukraine’s presidential elections, but eventually lost due to claims that the elections were rigged. Yushchenko was hoisted to power on a wobbly pedestal. Today, the poster-guy for change has been soiled by internal political bickering, a devastated economy and most surprising of all, perhaps, his aggressive stance toward Russia, a country that Ukrainians, as much as they would deny it, depend upon more than any other for their economic, political and personal wellbeing. For the West, Ukraine exists as nothing more than an average chess piece in a grand geopolitical game; for Russia, Ukraine is much more: Ukraine is an integral part of an entire cultural history.

As one of the leading oppositional figures, Yanukovich’s relative popularity indicates that in Ukraine’s heart of hearts, it really does want good neighborly relations with Europe’s largest nation.

Perhaps Yanukovich said what millions of other Ukrainians are thinking when he told reporters Tuesday: “Regrettably, with the present Ukrainian authorities, there is virtually no hope for normalization and improvement of relations with Russia.”

Robert Bridge, RT