A Letter From Moscow

This article first appeared on Vladimir Frolov's Russia Profile Weekly Expert Panel (August 21, 2009):

In a July 26 interview with the NTV, President Dmitri Medvedev outlined what looked like a contour of Russia’s new diplomatic approach vis-à-vis its neighbors, including CIS countries.  A quote is warranted here:

“…under difficult circumstances, we must be able to give a response.  Sometimes, a tough one; sometimes, very tough.  But only when the interests of our citizens are threatened.  In all other circumstances, we should be predictable, strong and comfortable partners to our neighbors.” 

Medvedev spoke specifically about Ukraine too:

“…much depends on these relations [between Russia and Ukraine] because our countries are very close, our people are, as they say, brothers, and our economies are tightly intertwined.  Certainly, we expect that in the future, these relations will be better than now.  Much better.”

It’s hard to deny that the spirit of Medvedev’s August 11 letter to the president of Ukraine, Victor Yushchenko, didn’t match what he said to NTV’s Kirill Pozdnyakov.  Besides, it isn’t immediately clear what has happened between July 26 and August 11 that precipitated such a “tough” shot across the border.  What interests of Russian citizens have been threatened over this period of time?  (I’ll return to the timing of the letter later). 

To me, the most troubling part of the letter is Medvedev’s lightly-veiled threat not to deal with Yushchenko until his term in office expires. 

Ukraine seems to be joining a list of countries whose leaders Russia doesn’t want to have any relations with.  The first country to enter the list has been Georgia, as Medvedev repeatedly insisted that Moscow will have no dialogue with the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili.  Saakashvili is a war criminal and doesn’t deserve any better.  Yet, Moscow makes no serious attempts to engage any other part of Georgia’s political class.  What is Moscow hoping for?  That Saakashvili will be soon gone?  Hardly: all the signs indicate that Misha will be around until 2013.  And what if the next Georgian president will be Irakli Alasania, whom Moscow doesn’t like, either?  Will any meaningful relations between Russia and Georgia be postponed until 2018?

True, Yushchenko has almost zero chances to get re-elected.  However, in politics, miracles do happen (and actually happen more often than in “real” life).  Besides, it’s not beyond our imagination that the next Ukrainian president will come from the Yushchenko camp and will continue his anti-Russian policies.  Then what?  Wait until 2015?

Although Russia’s troubled relations with Ukraine and Georgia can be viewed as an exception, it’s no secret that not much love flourishes between Russia and the rest of its neighbors.  Will Moscow stop talking to each of them – one after another – should the leadership of these countries pursue what the Kremlin would interpret as anti-Russian policies?  From here, one could see a short path to Russia sitting in a “diplomatic vacuum”, i.e. surrounded by countries it doesn’t want to deal with until more Russia-friendly regimes are established there.  Hopefully, this is not how President Medvedev sees the future of the country’s policy in the “near abroad.”

Other than that, I don’t think that Medvedev’s letter will have any long-term effect.  Certainly, not on the outcome of the presidential election in Ukraine.  The election is still months away, and in the heat of the inevitably nasty campaign, the letter will be safely forgotten (on the assumption, of course, that Medvedev will restrict himself to only one letter to Yushchenko).  Besides, any election in Ukraine, especially presidential, is, first and foremost, about money.  Big money.  Relations with Russia, however important, will be considered by any presidential candidate as a secondary matter – to be dealt with after it’s decided who’s in charge of state revenues. 

Which brings us back to the question: why has this letter been aired in the first place and why did it happen on August 11?

The explanation that the letter was a “warning” to the Prime Minister of Ukraine, Yulia Timoshenko, and the Head of the Party of Regions, Victor Yanukovich – both are leading presidential candidates — doesn’t strike me as particularly credible.  Timoshenko will be in Moscow in a few weeks, and both Medvedev and Putinwill have all the time in the world to deliver their “warnings” in person – without creating yet another PR blunder.  And I take it for granted that the Kremlin has channels of communication with Yanukovich too.

The explanation that I favor is different.  Medvedev has used the letter to announce that he’s delaying sending to Kiev Russia’s new Ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov, whose appointment the president made official two days later, on August 13.  The position of Russia’s Ambassador to Ukraine is considered to be of special importance to Gazprom(some call this post, only half-jokingly, “Ambassador of Gazprom”, and the previous Ambassador, the former Chairman of Gazprom, Victor Chernomyrdin, fitted this description perfectly).  One can speculate that Zurabov wasn’t a person Gazprom wanted to see in Kiev and that Gazprom used its closeness to Medvedev — the former Gazprom Chairman himself – to effectively block Zurabov’s appointment, at least temporarily.

The notion that Medvedev would use a “foreign policy” letter to intervene into domestic corporate turf wars might appear cynical.  But not to those who always remember the famous quote: “All politics is local.”



About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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