Well what can you say. New Russian president, old Russian tactics.
Since Mr Putin has reinstalled himself in the Kremlin, and I have nothing against that per se, he probably was the most popular politician even if it is not necessarily a good thing for Russia, several interesting events have occurred in relation to Ukraine.
Russia ended its “cheese war” with Ukraine just prior to his inauguration which was seen as a generally positive move. Ukrainian cheese can now be imported into in Russia again. A welcoming carrot from the new Russian President prior to taking office it seemed. Now however, maybe it was a goodbye carrot offered by the out-going Mr Medevedev.
Why do I say that? Well since Mr Putin’s taking office (again), the only Ukrainian oil rig currently being moved around the Black Sea, was banned from Russian waters, despite in doing so it meant a far more hazardous route via Turkish waters. Not an especially nice gesture from the “new” Kremlin administration.
Ah – It’s energy politics and just Russia showing its displeasure at Ukraine finding its own (and alternative) sources of oil and gas, I hear you say. Well yes maybe so.
Only a few days ago, President Yanukovych was invited to an “informal” meeting of the CIS nations by Mr Putin. Once again the Ukrainian president pooh-poohed the idea of any form of consortium involving the Ukrainian gas transport system that did not involve the EU as well. In effect if there is to be foreign involvement and investment in the Ukrainian GTS, it is going to involve producer (Russia), transporter (Ukraine) and end user (EU). To be fair to President Yanukovych, that has been his position since taking office and it has not altered despite intense Russian pressure.
Once again at this “informal” meeting, President Yanukovych repeated the Ukrainian position, reaffirming it had not changed. Neither had Ukraine’s position relating to an EU rather than Eurasia Union direction changed either. To be quite honest, without Ukraine I fail to see just how Mr Putin’s Eurasian Union will actually become a reality in anything other than name.
So, having met with the “new” Russian President and stated once again (and it is a record that the Russians must be tired of hearing by now), the Ukrainian position on various subjects, President Yanukovych returned to Kyiv having given very little good news to Mr Putin over his major projects and ideas when it came to Ukrainian inclusion.
Rather unsurprisingly then, on Friday 18th May, Russia’s Supreme Court decided to ban all Ukrainian Associations, (a Ukrainian NGO in Russia) from lawfully existing. Now there is one month to appeal this ruling, or should I say there is one month for Ukraine to submit to Mr Putin’s will, or Ukrainian NGOs in Russia will suffer.
This puts Kyiv in a difficult position. It cannot simply allow Russia to close a Ukrainian NGO like the Ukrainian Association. To do so will upset a lot of voters (who probably wouldn’t vote for the current majority anyway, but you never know) in the run up to the Ukrainian parliamentary elections in October. The nationalists and opposition parties simply won’t allow it to go unnoticed that Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian NGOs are under severe pressure in Russia and the current government are doing nothing about it.
Also the current government do not want to appear weak. However they also do not want to appear to bend to Mr Putin’s will. The question Kyiv now faces is how to pacify Mr Putin without compromising Ukrainian interests abroad, in particular in a neighbouring nation. If the price to pacify Mr Putin is simply too great, then Ukraine will have to take some retaliatory action. Simply doing nothing is not an option given an election on the horizon.
Retaliation however, may (or may not) upset a large number of the Russian speaking Ukrainians in the East who generally vote for the current government and not the opposition.
A difficult position for Kyiv given both the domestic politics here and Ukrainian/Russian relations already mired with gas problems on numerous fronts.
This issue could well turn into a bellwether for bilateral relations in the next month. If the Russian Supreme Court changes its decision, we have to ask why? If it doesn’t, we have to see how Ukraine reacts and what the consequences of that retaliatory action will be.
Will Ukraine/Belarus relations suddenly take a turn for the worse when Mr Putin makes Belarus his first official visit abroad as President of Russia? For sure Belarus has nothing left to sell/give to Russia by way of State owned infrastructure, but it does have a border and does trade with Ukraine.
Keep an eye on this story as it has the potential to be far more important that it initially seems!