August 21, 2009
New York Times Op-Ed
Russia's president, Dmitri Medvedev, has had a busy August.
On Aug. 8, he met with Russian troops, who a year ago had, according to the Kremlin Web site, repelled "Georgian aggression against South Ossetia."
On Aug. 10, he introduced a bill in the Duma to allow him to send Russian troops abroad to defend Russian citizens or prevent aggression against another state.
On Aug. 11, he wrote to the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, announcing his decision to delay - indefinitely - the dispatch of the new Russian ambassador to Ukraine. Mr. Medvedev explained his decision by citing Mr. Yushchenko's anti-Russian policies. He also hinted that the decision might be reversed after Ukraine's presidential election in January, when the country will have "new political leadership."
Few things can give Mr. Yushchenko, up for re-election with barely 3 percent support in the polls, a better boost than an attack from the Kremlin. But that was probably not Mr. Medvedev's intent. The letter contains ominous warnings that suggest Russian intentions to escalate already tense relations after the latest gas cutoff last January.
The list of Mr. Medvedev's complaints about Kiev's policies covers virtually every aspect of Russian-Ukrainian relations: Mr. Yushchenko's government supported Georgia in the war with Russia last year and supplied it with weapons. Kiev interfered with Russia's Black Sea fleet based in Sevastopol; it disrupted Russian natural gas deliveries to Europe; it used the specter of a Russian threat to seek NATO membership; it mistreated Russian investors; it engaged in historical revisionism in the glorification of Nazi collaborators; and it even tried to disrupt the visit of the Russian Patriarch to Ukraine.
The alleged offenses are so grave that Medvedev's letter leaves little room for defusing the tensions. If the letter is "merely" an attempt to interfere in Ukraine's domestic politics and warn voters that they should not re-elect the Western-leaning Mr. Yushchenko, it would not be the first time. During the 2004 presidential election, which preceded Ukraine's "Orange revolution," the Kremlin intervened heavily on behalf of Mr. Yushchenko's opponent, Viktor Yanukovich. But Moscow's intervention backfired, and Mr. Yushchenko emerged as the nation's democratic leader, propelled to victory in part by widespread resentment of Russian actions.
But what if Mr. Medvedev's letter is not simply a replay of 2004? Relations between the two countries have been so bad for so long that everyone has become used to fiery exchanges between the two capitals. In this regard, the situation is reminiscent of Russian-Georgian relations on the eve of the war a year ago. Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi had been so bad for so long, and signs of increasing tension had become part and parcel of Russian-Georgian relations to such a degree, that even many close observers were taken by surprise when the war began.
Who would have predicted that Georgia's tiny military could go to war against the Russian Army? And Russia, conventional wisdom held, would not attack Georgia for fear of damaging its relations with the West.
Is Mr. Medvedev's letter a sign that Russian patience with Ukraine is running out, that Russia is preparing to take drastic action - to reclaim the Crimean peninsula, for example, with its ethnic Russian majority?
Conventional wisdom holds that such a move would cause irreparable harm to Russian relations with Europe and the United States. Conventional wisdom also suggests that the bill Mr. Medvedev introduced on Aug. 10 on the use of Russian troops abroad is probably just a routine piece of legislation intended to fix glitches in existing Russian laws. Russia, after all, moved against Georgia without such legislation.
Conventional wisdom further argues that Russian leaders would not be so careless as to use military force in Crimea, where ethnic Russians reportedly have been obtaining Russian passports and where Russian naval personnel serve at the Sevastopol naval base. And conventional wisdom argues that Ukraine could pose a greater challenge for the Russian military than did Georgia, thus acting as a further deterrent.
Conventional wisdom is reassuring. But relying on conventional wisdom can lead to unimagined results, as last year's Russian-Georgian war demonstrated. Mr. Medvedev's letter to the Ukrainian leader is an occasion to engage in unconventional speculation as to what might be the real reason behind it, and an opportunity to exercise our collective imagination in pursuit of a course of action that would boost our confidence in conventional wisdom.
Eugene B. Rumer is a senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Washington. David J. Kramer is senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington and served as a deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova in the George W. Bush administration.