The Blog

Who Lost Ukraine?

It's not too soon to start asking.

11:00 PM, Jan 29, 2008 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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UNLESS YOU'VE BEEN hiding in a cave somewhere or posted to a UN humanitarian assistance project site in North Korea, you know that the latest contest in the U.S. election is over who can come up with the sexiest stimulus package for the economy. Both Obama and Clinton have put forth their own plans as part of campaign one-upmanship. Meanwhile, the Congress has proposed a bipartisan plan that would send checks to taxpayers to encourage extra spending and pump up the economy.

Increasing worries about the state of the U.S. economy dominated the sidebar conversations and media coverage of the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The Davos event is this odd combination of a media free-for-all that includes appearances by Hollywood luminaries and famous musicians, speeches by world leaders, and--of course--the politician-turned-movie-maker and global warming doomsayer, Al Gore.

The usual coterie of Russian oligarchs were also at Davos this year, with about 2,000 different political and business leaders taking part in this year's event. Even since Soviet times the Russian presence at Davos was for the sole purpose of proving how much that country matters to the world economic community. This year the Russian delegation's specific mission was to inundate the attendees with statistics and slick presentations demonstrating the increasing control the Kremlin has over all major business in Russia and insisting that the lack of any real free market reforms is nothing for the West to be bothered about.

If Western capitals are not bothered, one of the nations that has to worry about Russia is its neighboring former republic, Ukraine. Russia has done its best to try and keep Ukraine from spinning out of Moscow's orbit and has a long history of engaging in dirty tricks in order to make sure the now-independent nation remains a vassal state.

Under Putin some rather extreme measures were taken to keep the current pro-western Ukrainian President, Viktor Yushchenko, from coming to power. This included an attempt to kill him during the 2004 election campaign with a highly concentrated (and normally fatal) dose of dioxin poisoning--a case that has yet to be solved.

Some questions remain as to who was the actual culprit--a Ukrainian agent acting on behalf of Moscow or the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) itself. In any event the fact that the attempt failed is probably why the Russian secret services moved on to the much more lethal and radioactive material Polonium 210 when it came time to eliminate the London-based Putin critic Aleksandr Litvinenko.

What is Moscow's defense for murdering political candidates and its critics abroad? At the Davos forum First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, heir-apparent to Russian President Putin, told the assembled delegates that "We are not trying to push anyone to love Russia. But we will not allow anyone to hurt Russia."

If actions as of late are any indicator, "hurting" Russia means anything that diminishes its influence in the post-Soviet space. This includes making sure that Russian troops remain on the soil of former republics even though they are now independent nations. In 1999 President Boris Yeltsin promised at an OSCE summit in Istanbul that all Russian troops would be withdrawn from their two bases in the Republic of Georgia by January 2004.

When this 2004 deadline finally arrived, the then-Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Ivanov, was offered by the Georgians another three years beyond the deadline to complete the withdrawal. Ivanov responded with the traditional spirit of accommodation and generosity Russia has historically demonstrated in these matters and stated he needed not three more years but 11.

The reason for Ivanov having demanded more than a decade to move was a complete mystery. The total number of troops at these two bases was just 4,500 men, and most were local contract soldiers who would have no reason to leave their homes in Georgia to relocate to Russia. The non-Georgian contingent that would actually have to move back to Mother Russia totaled no more than 200. In the meantime, Moscow was doing its best to try and move military equipment on those bases back to Russia even though by the terms of the treaty dissolving the USSR most of the equipment belonged to the Georgians.

The last Russian troops were finally removed in November 2007, but Russian peacekeeping troops still remain on the ground in the Georgian breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian Air Force aircraft also continue to violate Georgian air space and one occasion even dropped an unexploded Raduga Kh-58 (AS-11 Kilter) missile that landed near a village some 60km northwest of the capital Tbilisi.