It is an exciting period of time to watch rapid changes taking place in Russia’s surroundings. President George W. Bush ventured to boost NATO membership chances for Ukraine visiting Ukraine 1 April and offering an open trade zone between the two countries. He also stated that Membership Accession Plan for Ukraine and Georgia is not going to be part of the trade offs with Russia in regard to another hotly disputed area – antimissile defense in Poland and Chech republic. The question about offering MAPs for Ukraine and Georgia is going to be decided in Bucharest, Romania at the NATO summit 2-4 April.
It appears Bush finally resolved to make decisive steps in order to win over Ukraine for the West. This means that the US is serious about not allowing Russia to reconstruct another Soviet Union and also it means Russia is prompted to react somehow to the changes in Ukraine.
There is a range of possible outcomes in terms of Russia’s reactions to this move. One such reaction could be confrontational – severing ties with Ukraine and the West (I personally think Russia can hardly afford this) and then it would be easier for the West to consolidate allies against Russians (“see how really bad they are?”). The other possible reaction could be change in Russia itself. With Ukraine progressing toward the West in terms of higher living standards it would bring about a change in Russia as well, because Russians would be jealous of Ukrainians getting all the “niceties of the West” before them. After all Russia and Ukraine are much more intimately connected to each other, than other CIS countries and they have comparable sizes of populations (50 m – Ukraine, 140 m – Russia). It is also important to remember that it was the Ukrainian leader Kravchuk that insisted Ukriane would leave the USSR and then Yeltsin also left it that brought down USSR itself. It was not Yeltsin, not Russia, but Ukraine, that effectively eliminated USSR.
The fierceness of the Russian opposition to “losing Ukraine and Georgia” shows that in fact Russians harboured the hopes of gathering these countries under Russian influence one day again. Russians were normally saying that while Russia is still weak, it should keep quiet about its geopolitical ambitions in order not to scare its neighbours or the West, but when it regains the power again, Russia should impose itself as a great power again.
That was simplistic strategy of Russia and Russians in the past 15 years. It worked well under Yeltsin, the West was prepared to have Russia as an intermediary and proxi sometimes for the western interests in CIS countries (focusing on absorbing East European countries instead). But as the time went on, Russia’s authority wore thiner, its appeal to the neighbours grew weaker and the danger of a possible new USSR become more evident.
So the US only had to show that it wants to be present in region, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and other CIS countries gladly accepted that wish. They fear Russia, that is what Russia achieved with its aggressive policies and rhetoric. Now it is relatively easy for the US to reap the harvest after Russians themselves have prepared it so well.