When this blog began over five years ago, the disputed Ukrainian presidential election and the Orange “revolution” were among the first things I discussed. I was extremely skeptical of the significance of the “revolution,” I was very critical of the unthinking Western embrace of the criminal oligarch Viktor Yushchenko, and I was hostile to the proposed inclusion of Ukraine in NATO that Washington seemed so intent on pushing. Now a new presidential vote is taking place, and the incumbent Yushchenko has been eliminated in the first round after receiving record-low approval ratings. That is good news for Ukraine, but the damage of Yushchenko’s tenure has been done, and it is not much consolation to know that he will not have another term for even greater misrule. It is remotely possible that Yanukovych could manage to win the run-off, but it is much more likely that Tymoshenko will be the new president. As Douglas Birch writes today, both candidates recognize the reality that the relationship with Russia is crucial to Ukraine.
Late last year, a survey of post-communist countries showed that Ukrainians were one of two nations with abysmally low levels of support for democratic government and capitalism. Given the dire financial straits in which Ukraine finds itself and the disastrously dysfunctional government they have had over the last five years, it is not surprising that Ukrainians have soured on both. The absurdly high and unrealistic expectations for internal reform and charting a “pro-Western” course following Yushchenko’s victory have been dashed, and Ukrainians appear to be experiencing the acute disillusionment with Western models that Russians experienced during the 1990s. There is not much reason to expect that the regional and personal antagonisms that have done so much to cripple effective government in Ukraine will go away, but the good news is that tensions with Moscow are likely to be reduced and any disputes over gas pipelines, Crimea or the Black Sea Fleet are less likely to escalate into a crisis.
What this should teach us is that neighbors of a major power are going to be bound by their economic ties with and dependence on that power, and that the major power is naturally going to exercise political influence over its neighbors. Attempts to halt or reverse this lead to political paralysis or military confrontation, and the major power ends up retaining its influence anyway. It is the general population of the countries that Washington has been trying to “free” from Moscow’s orbit that suffers the consequences of these ill-advised, unnecessary and provocative attempts to pull Russia’s neighbors out of that orbit. The remarkable thing is that the attempt to take Ukraine and Georgia out of Moscow’s orbit has resulted in tying both even more closely to Russia, and it has made the neighboring states’ chances of charting independent courses in the near future far worse. Perhaps if Yushchenko and Saakashvili had not received such enthusiastic, blind and reckless support from the West, and perhaps if Westerners had not been so ready to encourage all their worst instincts by showering them with unthinking approval, the causes they claimed to represent might not be as politically moribund as they now are. What’s more, perhaps the countries Western sympathizers thought they were helping with their foolish enthusiasm might not be as badly wrecked as they are.