Few neighbors are closer to one another than Ukraine and Russia. Both countries are East Slavic and Orthodox in makeup, trace their origins to Kievan Rus a thousand years ago, and belonged together as one state for more than three centuries. Yet cultural affinity does not necessarily breed friendship. To most Russians, Ukraine is simply "Little Russia" -- inconceivable as a separate country. And with the Jan. 17 Ukrainian presidential election, Russia gets another chance to prove its point.
While Ukrainians are understandably preoccupied these days with their country's economic meltdown, another crisis that Russia is seemingly determined to press, perhaps as early as 2010, will be over the fate of Crimea, the peninsula extending from southern Ukraine into the Black Sea. The autonomous region of 2 million ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and Crimean Tatars is part of Ukraine for the moment, but recently, Moscow has claimed it should rightfully belong to Russia.
Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the post-Soviet Russian Federation, did what he could to fortify Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. He insisted that Russia choose a path of "internal development," not an "imperial one." So in May 1997, Yeltsin pushed through treaties with Ukraine that divided the assets of the old Soviet Black Sea Fleet between the two countries. Moscow was granted a 20-year lease on a base in Sevastopol, Crimea's best port, and Russia recognized Ukraine's borders.
Along came Vladimir Putin in 2000. From the outset, he expressed sympathy with those who sought to preserve the Soviet Union. Four years into his presidency, Putin openly supported the eastern-looking candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, in Ukraine's presidential election, while his pro-Western opponent Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin. Although no Kremlin involvement was ever proven, the resulting backlash propelled Yushchenko and his Orange Revolution to power.
Since then, relations between Ukraine and Russia have only gotten worse. In January 2006 and January 2009, Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, a key transit route to Western Europe. In 2008, when the United States campaigned for Ukraine to be admitted to NATO, Putin replied by threatening to end the country's very existence. Later that year in August, when Moscow rushed 8,000 marines from Crimea to fight against Georgia, Yushchenko vowed to block their return and supplied Georgia with missiles that shot down several Russian warplanes.
Moscow's list of grievances is long and lengthening: Ukraine sent soldiers to Georgia's defense; Ukraine wrongly expelled alleged Russian security officers; Ukraine is making wild accusations about Russia transporting heavy arms on Ukrainian territory without permission; Kiev is complaining too much about Russian installations in Crimea and is paranoid about the issuance of Russian passports in the area.
All these issues may come to a head in January. The only two plausible presidential candidates are the opposition leader (and former Putin favorite) Yanukovych and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. This time Tymoshenko appears to be Putin's preferred candidate.
Crimea is the wild card. What will Kiev do if the election ends in a stalemate? Yushchenko, the outgoing president who now prefers Yanukovych, controls the Ukrainian military and Security Service, while Moscow clearly favors Tymoshenko, who rules over the Interior Ministry. The possibilities for mischief are great, and the peninsula is fertile ground for unexpected provocations.
The Kremlin is thought to have ties to Crimea's Russian nationalist groups, which regularly organize protests. An outright military intervention is unlikely, but Russian forces from the Sevastopol base have recently had tense encounters with Ukrainian authorities, and the potential exists for violent confrontation. With Russia looking to renew its lease on Sevastopol and Yushchenko growing increasingly adversarial, having a finger in the power struggle in Kiev is a major priority for the Kremlin.
The United States is central to Crimean developments, having issued substantial security assurances to Ukraine in 1994 to induce Kiev to dismantle its nuclear forces. The good news is that in all probability it is enough for President Barack Obama to stand up for Ukraine in the face of Russian intimidation, but clearly and loudly, and in time.