ROAR: “Yushchenko is more unpopular in Ukraine than in Russia”

Vladimir Kremlev for RT
Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to refrain from sending the Russian ambassador to Kiev has been interpreted by the media and analysts as Moscow’s rupture with the Ukrainian president.

Medvedev cited as the main reason behind his decision as “the openly anti-Russian stand” of the leadership in Kiev. In addition to this, new Russian ambassador Mihail Zurabov had been waiting for Ukrainian approval for some weeks.

Yushchenko recently signed an agreement for Zurabov to visit Kiev, but the new Russian ambassador still had to deliver his credentials before taking the position. Kommersant daily even wrote about a joke among Ukrainian diplomats who said that Zurabov “would be passed on to the next president.”

Now it seems that the joke has come true, and Moscow will try to mend ties with Kiev only after Ukrainians elect a new leader. “Dmitry Medvedev, in a videoblog, has reset the relations with Viktor Yushchenko,” Vremya Novostey daily wrote.

“The Russian leadership has made a principal decision to strain relations with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who is preparing to run for a second term in the presidential election in January,” the paper said.

“The Kremlin has never expressed its complaints against Yushchenko in so concentrated and tough a manner,” the daily said. “This approach is in the interests of any other presidential hopeful in Ukraine.”

Medvedev no longer considers Yushchenko the president and Moscow calls the Ukrainian policies “openly anti-Russian,” Kommersant daily wrote. “The Georgian scheme” is being used – “no relations with Mr. Yushchenko until the power changes in Kiev,” the paper said.

“Thus, Moscow has not only entered the presidential campaign in Ukraine, as in 2004, but has indicated clearly who should lose in this competition,” Kommersant wrote. However, the paper believes one of the reasons behind Medvedev’s decision could be the “latest actions of the Ukrainian president in the gas sphere, which is extremely sensitive for Moscow.”

Another daily, Vedomosti, believes that “a new gas war” is too minor a reason for such extensive statements. The paper called the argument between Russia and Ukraine “a quarrel of Siamese twins.”

“Russia depends on Ukraine not less than Ukraine on Russia,” the paper said in an editorial.

“What rational result Moscow would like to achieve by its maneuver?” Vedomosti asks. If Russia has entered the Ukrainian presidential election, as in 2004, then “this support will not add votes to traditionally pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovich,” the daily said.

At the same time “Yushchenko’s extraordinarily low rating” may go up, the paper stressed. However, Russia may “be playing some smart game in favor of [Ukrainian Prime Minister] Yulia Tymoshenko, Vedomosti assumed.

“Russia with Ukraine and Russia without Ukraine are two different forces,” the paper stressed. “Quarreling with Ukraine, Russia is losing weight, not gaining it,” the daily added. “Attempts to exert pressure (it does not matter whether in the gas sphere or psychological one) force Ukrainian politicians to insist more on confrontation with Russia.”

At the same time, Business-FM radio quoted the president of the “Polity” Foundation, Vyacheslav Nikonov, as saying that Medvedev “is making a proposal of peace to Viktor Yushchenko.”

Peter Rutland, Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, believes there is a nexus of reasons behind Russia’s step. “President Medvedev’s announcement about delaying the dispatch of the new Russian ambassador to Kiev signals his frustration with recent actions by the Ukrainian government – the two-month delay in the approval of the new Russian ambassador, the expulsion of a Russian diplomat, and bans on some movement of Russian naval equipment in Sevastopol,” Rutland told RT.

“Then there is the July 31 loan agreement brokered by the European Commission, which Medvedev said was ‘absolutely incompatible’ with Russia’s prior arrangements with Naftohaz,” Rutland added.

The Kremlin’s decision “also comes against a broader backdrop of a deliberate use of nationalist rhetoric by President Yushchenko during what will almost certainly be the final six months of his presidency,” Rutland said.

The explanations of the Russian side are clear, Rutland said. “What is not so clear is what Medvedev hopes to gain by the announcement,” he added. “To some extent it will just provide more ammunition for Western critics, who argue that Russia is out to undermine Ukraine's viability.”

“Yushchenko is politically dead, many leading positions in the Ukrainian government are empty (foreign affairs, defense, finance),” Rutland stressed. “In this context surely it would be more rational for Russia to adopt a hands-off approach. Diplomacy of empty gestures, such as refusing to send an ambassador, will achieve nothing.”

Perhaps the gesture was meant “to bolster Medvedev’s image as an assertive president before the domestic Russian audience,” Rutland said. He added, however, that it was “not a very good basis on which to conduct a nation’s foreign policy.”

Moscow’s decision seems “linked to two things: the departure of the controversial figure of [former ambassador Viktor] Chernomyrdin from Kiev and the Ukrainian presidential election campaign that is just beginning,” David Marples, a distinguished university professor at University of Alberta, said.

However, this does not seem to affect the presidential campaign much, “because Yushchenko is more unpopular in Ukraine than he is in Russia,” Marples told RT.

“It is a counter-productive move though because it only draws attention to the Ukrainian president and his position on Georgia, NATO, etc.,” Marples stressed. “And it gives the impression of Russian interference in the campaign, similar to that of then-President Vladimir Putin in 2004.

As for the efforts of both leaderships “to use history as a political tool,” Marples called them “reprehensible.”

The Ukrainian leader now has several options, analysts say. He could even “withdraw his ambassador from Moscow for a while,” Marples said.

Yushchenko also has an opportunity “to make independence and freedom from Russian intervention (especially in Crimea) as part of his election platform,” Marples added. “It was already a key element of his rhetoric, but now it appears to have more substance, which is why Medvedev's move is, in my view, a political error.”

Some 44% of Russians polled by the Levada Center at the end of July said their attitude to Ukraine is “good or very good.” In July 2001, 71% of those surveyed thought the same. Now 47% of respondents said their opinions of Ukraine are “mainly bad or very bad.”

Meanwhile, readers of the Russian president’s blog in the internet are discussing Medvedev’s statement about the relations with Ukraine. Komsomolskaya Pravda daily wrote that “most people ask the president not to go too far because the Ukrainian government is not the entire Ukrainian people.”

Sergey Borisov, RT