Kyiv Post interview

The following is a repost of an interview I did recently with the Kyiv Post’s Ilya Timtchenko on Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the United States. I really like how it turned out.

A nation that is ‘both Ukrainian and Russian’

Dmitry Gorenburg is a lecturer at Harvard University, editor of Problems of Post-Communism and a senior analyst and director of Russian and East European Studies at CNA Strategic Studies, a non-profit think tank in Alexandria, Virginia. His is the author of Minority Ethnic Mobilization in the Russian Federation and a number of articles, including “Rethinking Interethnic Marriage in the Soviet Union.” In this Kyiv Post interview Gorenburg analyzes Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the U.S. and gives advice for Ukraine’s nation-building.

Kyiv Post: What has prompted your interest in Eastern Europe?

Dmitry Gorenburg: I think much of it had to do with my personal biography. I was born in Russia and came to the U.S. when I was a kid. Since I was fluent in Russian and the Soviet Union was in the middle of perestroika, I got interested in the region’s politics in college and continued in that field of study in graduate school. I studied ethnic politics for the first 10 years, finished my Ph.D. and went to D.C. where I started to work on security and defense issues for a think tank. I have been interested in that field ever since.

Kyiv Post: What exactly is “Problems of Post-Communism?
DG: It is a standard private non-profit and non-academic journal. The goal is to bring academic research to be published in a way that is accessible to the policy community. We strive to be at the intersection between academia and policy in a way that is more rigorous and scholarly than something like Foreign Affairs. There is more emphasis on field research but we try to avoid too much academic jargon, publishing articles that end up being interesting to both scholars and policy people.

Kyiv Post: In Failed Crusade Stephen Cohen criticizes the U.S. for approaching the Soviet Union too lightly, in the sense, that it was too optimistic of the full recovery of Russia after the Perestroika. Do you agree, and have you seen a change in Western scholarly thinking regarding the situation in post-Communist countries in the last decade? 

DG: I think it’s not quite as uniform as he portrays. There was a dominant view, but there are always those who were challenging it in terms of where they thought Russia was going. Certainly some were less familiar with the economic side of it, but on the political science side there were people challenging this idea of the inevitable transition of Russia to being just like us. There was hope and there were attempts; Steve (Cohen) would argue misguided attempts. In Russia there are many people who think this was done deliberately to weaken Russia. I don’t think anyone was being disingenuous. People had an idea on how to improve things and some of them did not favor Russian conditions. Now the pendulum has swung in the other direction and many Americans think the current Russia is the “return of the evil empire.” I think if there’s anything lacking it’s not the lack of models on how to improve relations but just an inability to understand how the other side thinks.

Kyiv Post: Do you see any potential positive results of the 2004 Orange Revolution and what should Ukrainians realize for future nation-building?

DG: It unified part of Ukraine but I am not sure if it unified the entire country.  I think it failed to transform Ukrainians and one reason is because of the infighting between Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko; they were never able to bridge that divide and bring the whole country forward. Certainly there were positive aspects in terms of liberalization and decrease in government control. But, unfortunately, I don’t think there was that much of an effort to fight corruption; new government officials would come in and do a lot of the same things. If you compare the situation with the Rose Revolution in Georgia, Georgians actually dealt with their corruption. For example, in today’s Georgia it is unheard of to give bribes to traffic police, whereas, that was a constant before. There were things that were done. For those years of Yushchenko’s presidency there was a lot of appearance of democracy and freedom but it wasn’t really institutionalized. There was no strong consensus on institutions of democracy because no one had the upper hand –there were “clans” fighting with each other. One really positive achievement that unfortunately didn’t last is the constitution that reduces the powers of the presidency. When that was repealed it again created a system that makes it easier to control a society.

Kyiv Post: How do you see Ukraine’s international position developing since the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych? Do you think Ukraine is becoming more pro-Russian?

DG: Definitely it is more pro-Russian than before. But at the same time there are limits. When Yanukovych was first elected I think there was this period of panic among the anti-Russian, pro-Western group in Ukraine where they thought he was just going to give everything away to Russia. I think he wants to have positive relations with Russia but he wants to have other options as well. In the grand scheme of things even for Moscow and certainly Washington this is just a small part of what they are interested in the world, whereas, if you are in Kyiv this is a much larger part.

Kyiv Post: In the book “Rebounding Identities” you mention that Russia is very strict with preserving the Russian Orthodox Church as its dominant denomination and religious agenda so to speak. What is your opinion on the current state of the Russian Orthodox Church?

DG: I think there is a very close cooperation there. The church depends on state support for promoting its agenda but the State also uses the Church for legitimacy or to increase its legitimacy because the Church is a popular and trusted institution. There have been interesting changes with Patriarch Kirill, who seems much more publicly active. He is more of a public persona I would say than Alexey was. Kirill is trying to push some church agenda items such as having chaplains in the military or courses on religion in schools. The point is that they are trying to get the Orthodoxy a little bit more embedded in society.

Kyiv Post: In your opinion how should the West develop its relations with countries like Ukraine and Belarus considering its long-term relations with Russia?

DG: These are countries that are much closer to Russia geographically and so it is inevitable that Russia cares more about its relationship with say Ukraine than the U.S. From that point of view it’s unrealistic to think that we are going to be able to shape this relationship since it is much more important for both Ukraine and Russia. Also, the U.S. is best served by taking ideology out of its foreign policy. For example, there is a lot of discussion about to what extent should we focus on pushing Russia to be more democratic and respect human rights. I think that is important but the tricky thing is not to turn it into lecturing. It’s more useful to do practical things in terms of supporting initiatives and developing positive relationships rather than making grandiose statements. There is one camp in the U.S. that thinks we need to protect Russia’s Near Abroad from Russia. We can’t do that. I would think that the focus would be more on figuring out what the interests are and pragmatically following them.

Kyiv Post: Do you find a fundamentally different thinking in Russia’s policy-making compared to the West? 

DG: I think that Russians have more doubt about Russia’s place in the world, and I think that leads to a lot of philosophizing; whereas, if anything, the U.S. has an overabundance of its certainty about its place in the world and there is less desire for reflection. There is more of “well we know what we stand for so let’s act on it.”

Kyiv Post: How do you see Ukraine’s main differences with other post-communist countries? What makes it different?

DG: I think that the division between eastern (Russian-speaking) and western (Ukrainian-speaking) is the most unique aspect of Ukraine. There are certainly other countries in the former Soviet Union like Kazakh-Russian, Estonian-Russian or Kyrgyz-Uzbek that have ethnic divisions; however, in those cases the divisions are much starker. The interesting thing about Ukraine is that you have this division but it’s much more fluid: there are people that are kind of both. You can see this in surveys where you ask about identity in Ukraine and you give more than two choices. You get a huge percentage that in some way feel both Ukrainian and Russian. That is unique. Today there seems to be division but that is something that could be reconciled and overcome with the right circumstances and the right actions by politicians to unify Ukraine. You do not have to be anti-Russian to also be pro-European or vice versa. Ukraine can really act as that bridge. That can give more hope for the future.

Russian Politics and Law, September 2011 Table of Contents

Volume 49 Number 5 / September-October 2011 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the M.E. Sharpe web site at

This issue contains:

Ukraine After Yushchenko: Editor’s Introduction p.3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Change, Transition, or Cycle: The Dynamics of Ukraine’s Political Regime in 2004-2010
Yuri Matsievski
Post-Soviet Gravitation: On the Results of the Presidential Elections in Ukraine p.34
Andrei Ryabov
The Language of Dystopia: The Ideological Situation in Ukraine p.43
Mikhail Minakov
Ukraine’s European Choice: What It Means for Russia p.55
Sergei Tigipko
The Ukrainian Revolution and the Russian Counterrevolution p.68
Vladimir Pastukhov
Orange Pills for Russian Diseases p.81
Igor’ Pantin

Ukraine After Yushchenko: Editor’s Introduction

Over the last decade, Ukrainian politics has been characterized by its volatility. The Orange Revolution brought hope of a rapid democratization, although these hopes were soon dashed because of divisions among the governing coalition. Finally, in 2010, a population that was tired of the political instability elected Viktor Yanukovych as president. Although there were concerns about the rollback of various rights and freedoms, Yanukovych’s promise of stability was convincing for the majority of the electorate.

This issue of Russian Politics and Law provides a range of viewpoints on Ukrainian political dynamics over the last few years. Some authors see the 2004 events as a true revolution, while others argue that it was not one because the country’s political system did not undergo any kind of fundamental transformation. The extent to which the authors see the Yanukovych presidency as potentially threatening to Ukrainian democracy also varies.

In “Change, Transition, or Cycle: The Dynamics of Ukraine’s Political Regime in 2004–10,” Yuri Matsievski sets the agenda for the issue. He argues that democratization inUkrainehas followed a zigzag course. He situates his analysis of Ukrainian politics in the international political science literature on regimes and revolutions. He describes the Ukrainian political system under Kuchma as a pyramid of informal, institutionalized rules for exercising power. Though the president was at the top of the pyramid, he had not succeeded in fully subordinating other members of the political and economic elite, allowing for a degree of political pluralism that resulted in the establishment of several competing political camps financed by various financial–industrial groups.

Matsievski then turns to the question of whether the Orange Revolution was truly a revolution or even a real change of political regime. Here, he is firmly in the camp of those scholars who argue that the events of November–December 2004 were by no means a revolution. He argues that they were not even a coup. Instead, he describes these events as a regular rotation of elites. Because the opposition elites used public protest as part of their campaign strategy, the outcome appeared to be the fall of the old regime. In reality, the positive results of the change of leadership brought about by the Orange Revolution were modest and in some respects temporary and did not amount to a change of political regime.

Under Yushchenko, the regime shifted from Kuchma’s oligarchic authoritarianism to a defective democracy that was lacking in political participation, political competition, and adherence to constitutional norms. The new leaders were unable or unwilling to rein in corruption in the political system and spent more time battling each other than conducting sorely needed political reforms. Like Kuchma’s team, Yushchenko and his colleagues focused on using their power to extract profits rather than improve governance. Matsievski argues that despite a few superficial reforms, the political system continued to be dominated by informal rules, rather than formal institutions.

At the same time, Matsievski believes that the limits on political centralization that prevented the consolidation of authoritarianism under Kuchma and hindered Yushchenko’s efforts to reform the political system will also prevent the establishment of a power vertical under the Yanukovych presidency. The same structural and procedural limitations that hindered movement toward democracy in 2005–10 will also prevent a slide toward authoritarianism from going too far.

Matsievski spells out five factors that will hinder the consolidation of authoritarianism under Yanukovych. First, the powers of the president are much reduced compared to the Kuchma period. Second, freedom of the press has been institutionalized to a much greater extent over the last five years. Third, the state has neither an effective apparatus of compulsion nor a professional bureaucracy. Fourth, societal cleavages prevent any sense of national unity from emerging. And fifth, neither the West nor Russia would benefit from having an authoritarian regime in Ukraine. As a result, while Ukraine will continue to suffer from administrative arbitrariness and corruption, it is not threatened by authoritarian consolidation.

In “Post-Soviet Gravitation: On the Results of the Presidential Elections in Ukraine,” Andrei Ryabov largely concurs with Matsievski’s assessment. He argues that despite the tone of the discussion in the press at the time, the 2010 presidential election was not actually a choice between a European and democratic path of development and the preservation of the post-Soviet model. Both leading candidates were actually representatives of the post-Soviet model who were focused on the division of resources rather than on national development. Yushchenko, in contrast, had tried to implement the political de-Sovietization and Europeanization of Ukraine, at least in the realm of foreign policy. He failed because most Ukrainians did not want to see themselves as a postcolonial nation. Furthermore, most Ukrainians had lost faith in their country’s ability to become truly European in the near term.

In this context, most voters understood that both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych had authoritarian leanings. The difference is described by one of Ryabov’s friends: “If Tymoshenko wins, things will be bad, and for a very long time. If Yanukovych wins, things will be very bad, but for a short time.” In this context, a majority of the electorate preferred a relatively weak president who will lead a government beholden to various lobbying interests to a strong populist president who might succeed in establishing an authoritarian state. In other words, Ryabov is essentially arguing that Ukrainian domestic politics under Yanukovych is likely to resemble the political situation under Kuchma.

Mikhail Minakov’s article, “The Language of Dystopia: The Ideological Situation in Ukraine,” examines Ukrainian political discourse. Minakov shows how this discourse has come to be dominated by a language that facilitates state control over a static confrontation between regionally based conservatisms, each rooted in its own historically conditioned sense of what Minakov calls ressentiment. “Ressentiment is a component of collective memory, a sort of pain of remembrance whose cause is articulated in terms of some actual, inescapably but unjustly co-present Other.” The author argues that as long as society is focused on past trauma, the state can continue to exercise control over the country. The best way out of this situation is to strengthen nonconservative political forces and social institutions that promote rationality.

The thesis that there are certain basic continuities toUkraine’s political trajectory over the last decade is reinforced in Sergei Tigipko’s article “Ukraine’s European Choice: What It Means for Russia.” Tigipko was an also-ran in the 2010 presidential election before becoming vice-premier for economic issues in the Azarov government. He argues that for Ukraine, political and economic integration with the European Union is an immutable strategic choice. At the same time, Ukraine will continue to pursue a multi­directional foreign policy that should allow Russia to see Ukraine’s leaning toward Europe as an opportunity rather than a threat. Tigipko sees Yushchenko’s foreign policy efforts as focused less on bringing Ukraine into Europe as on tearing it away from Russia. Instead, he argues for Ukraine’s potential as a bridge between Russia and Europe. To this end, he calls for a balanced foreign policy that pursues close relations with both.

Writing in a Russian publication, Tigipko argues for a close partnership between Ukraine and Russia, but one that is based on relative equality. He points out that integration that is based on a Russian takeover of key Ukrainian industries is unacceptable to Kiev. He goes on to claim that Russia needs to change its mentality, to stop treating Ukraine as a lesser country that can be ordered around by Russian leaders. He concludes by noting that Ukraine has already made its European choice and that in the end, Russia will also inevitably make the same choice.

Vladimir Pastukhov continues the theme of Ukraine’s relations with Russia but shifts the focus to domestic developments. In “The Ukrainian Revolution and the Russian Counterrevolution,” he argues that the Orange Revolution fundamentally transformed Ukrainian society. This argument is directly opposed to the first two articles in this issue. He notes that in 2010 Yanukovych is a fundamentally different politician from the one elected in 2004. Although his initial policies focused on restoring relations with Russia, the course he is now pursuing is actually focused on promoting Ukrainian national interests. To this end, Pastukhov argues that Yanukovych has gained much more than his counterparts from his initial agreements with Moscow.

In the second half of his article, Pastukhov makes the argument that Russian leaders who were haunted by the threat of a Ukrainian-style revolution implemented a series of measures that made the Russian political system dysfunctional in much the same way as the Ukrainian system was dysfunctional prior to the Orange Revolution. Just as the Ukrainian political system became rational, with conflicts being resolved openly, the Russian political system ceased to be able to react to challenges by seeking to prevent any possibility of conflict. The likely result is an increasing threat of revolution, the very thing Russian leaders were trying to avoid. The lessons Pastukhov draws from Ukrainian politics are that an unstable political system increases competition, active measures to protect against revolution are likely to cause one, and that the best way to avoid a revolution from below is to carry out a revolution from above.

In “Orange Pills for Russian Diseases,” Igor’ Pantin takes issue with Pastukhov’s analysis. He opposes Pastukhov’s description of the Orange Revolution as a revolution, pointing out that Yushchenko’s excessive focus on Ukrainian nationalism led the majority of the population to turn to Yanukovych in the 2010 election. What’s more, he thinks Pastukhov exaggerates when he thinks the Orange Revolution led Russian leaders to initiate measures to strengthen their power. Pantin also takes issue with the lessons Pastukhov draws from the Ukrainian experience. He points out that Russia already had experience with an unstable political system in the 1990s—which was not a great time for Russia. He also does not think that a revolution from above is capable of solving Russia’s political problems. For Pantin, the only solution is a political movement from below that can renew Russian governance without revolution.

The first year of Yanukovych’s presidency has shown the wisdom of Matsievski’s assessment. While there have been some efforts on the part of the government to restrict freedoms and to limit political challenges to the regime, the Ukrainian political system remains far more open and contested than that of Russia or other post-Soviet states (other than the three Baltic states and Moldova). At the same time, the ease with which Yanukovych returned to power after seemingly being completely discredited during the Orange Revolution shows that that event was a revolution in name only and did not result in fundamental political or social changes in Ukraine.


Military significance of the Sevastopol basing agreement

Much has been written in the last few days on the political and economic implications of the agreement signed by Ukraine and Russia to extend the Sevastopol naval base lease through 2042. Important as they are, I won’t reprise those arguments here. Instead, I would like to briefly discuss the consequences of the agreement for the future of the Russian military.

As I have written before, the Black Sea Fleet is essentially a dying enterprise. One recent Russian report argues that 80 percent of its ships will need to be written off in the near term. Its current order of battle consists of 37 ships. The missile cruiser Moscow (currently on an extended deployment) is the flagship. There is also one other cruiser, one destroyer, two frigates, 13 corvettes and missile boats, and 3 patrol craft. There are also 7 littoral warfare ships, 9 minesweepers, and 1 diesel sub. The average age of these ships is 28, which makes it the oldest fleet in the Russian Navy. The Alrosa submarine recently suffered an engine fire and almost sank. It is likely to be under repair for the foreseeable future. The Kerch cruiser was recently overhauled, but is old enough that it is likely to be retired in the near future anyway. All reports indicate that it cannot go out into the open sea. The other ships will last a bit longer, but by and large just about all the current combat ships of the Black Sea Fleet (with the exception of two relatively new minesweepers) will need to be retired within 10-15 years.

Along with the lease extension, several Russian officials and experts have stated that the Black Sea Fleet will now receive a number of new ships, including the first two Gorshkov-class frigates, currently under construction in St. Petersburg, two new corvettes (presumably Steregushchiy-class), and 2-3 diesel submarines. The likelihood of the fleet receiving all of these ships in the near term is close to zero. First of all, completion of the Admiral Gorshkov has been repeatedly postp0ned. A recent report indicates that it is still only 28% completed, despite having been under construction for four years already and having an expected commissioning date of 2011. The second ship’s keel was laid in 2009. Even if construction speeds up, it seems to me that the BSF will not get either ship before 2013 at the absolute earliest, with 2015 a more likely target. The Steregushchiy class of corvettes seems to be more successful, and given the expected completion dates of ships currently under construction, the BSF could well get two of those within the next two years. As for the submarines, the first sub of the Lada class has had a lot of problems during sea trials. It was finally delivered to the Navy last weekend, six years after it was launched and 13 years after construction began. Construction of the first Lada that is destined for the BSF began in 2006. Even if the process is far smoother than with the St. Petersburg, I would expect it to enter the fleet no earlier than in 2013.

Finally, there’s the speculation about the Mistral. I have previously argued that Russia would be unlikely to place a Mistral ship in the Black Sea Fleet. I still think that’s the case, though if it purchases/builds 3-4 of them, it may potentially consider placing one in each fleet, as command ships and for the prestige value. But again, not only has construction not started on these ships, but the deal has not even been finalized. Given the construction tempo of  Russian shipyards (and assuming that at least some of the ships will be built in Russia), the third ship of this class is unlikely to be completed much before 2017.

But even if this shipbuilding program is carried out in full, this will still mean that the BSF ten years from now will be significantly less powerful and numerous than it is today, even though today’s fleet is already just a shadow of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. The Gorshkov is a fine frigate, but it’s still a pretty small ship by comparison with the cruisers and destroyers that the fleet has had until now, not to mention the United States’ Arleigh Burke and Zumwalt destroyers.

Furthermore, the current deal has left unclear the question of whether new ships will be allowed to be based in Sevastopol. The 1997 treaty prohibited the basing of new ships there, so all new BSF ships have been based in Novorossiisk. The new agreement does not explicitly address this question, but does state that it is simply an extension of the 1997 treaty. This implies that the basing of new ships in Sevastopol will still be prohibited. I would imagine that either a side deal will be made in fairly short order to allow the basing of new ships or (less likely) such ships will simply be sent to Sevastopol without an explicit change in the rules. In either case, though, this will cause another round of political strife in Ukraine and provide the opposition with another opportunity to cast President Yanukovich as a traitor.

Overall, the military capabilities of the BSF will remain relatively low and will continue to decline over the next decade, though the agreement does allow for the possibility of a revitalization sometime down the road. I will address the strategic implications of this agreement for Black Sea security in my next post.

The Future of the Sevastopol Russian Navy Base

The following article recently appeared in the Russian Analytical Digest.[1] Some of the research for this article was carried out under the auspices of CNA Strategic Studies.

The recent election of Victor Yanukovich as president of Ukraine has brought the future status of Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol back to the forefront of Russian-Ukrainian bilateral relations. When Victor Yushchenko was president, it was clear that the Ukrainian government would firmly oppose any possibility for extending the basing agreement. While many Russian analysts believe that the election of Yanukovich means that the likelihood that the lease will be renewed is substantially higher, the calculus is potentially more complicated, with constitutional, political and economic issues all standing in the way of a renewal.

The Recent History of the Sevastopol Basing Issue

The current agreement on the status of the Russian Fleet’s Sevastopol Navy base was signed in May 1997. According to the agreement, the Soviet Black Sea Fleet (BSF) was initially divided evenly between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine subsequently transferred most of its portion of the fleet back to Russia. In the end, Russia received 82 percent of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet’s assets. The agreement recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty over Sevastopol and its harbor facilities, but allowed Russia to lease the bulk of the fleet’s Sevastopol facilities for 20 years for a payment of $97.75 million per year. Russia also retained criminal jurisdiction over its troops in the city.

The agreement expires in 2017, though there is a clause stating that it will be automatically renewed for a further five years unless one of the parties gives one year’s advance notice in writing that it wishes to terminate the accord in 2017. While the official position of the Ukrainian government has always been that the agreement would not be renewed, the political tension caused by the summer 2008 war in Georgia brought this issue to the fore. Ukrainian politicians stated that the Russian Navy should begin preparations for withdrawal from the base and provided the Russian government with a memorandum on the timing and steps necessary to withdraw the fleet in a timely manner. The official Russian position is that the Russian Navy would like to negotiate an extension of the lease, but is planning for the possibility that it will be forced to leave Sevastopol at the end of the agreement. The Russian government has stated that it will not consider withdrawal plans prior to the agreement’s expiration.

Recently, some nationalistically-minded politicians and retired admirals have made statements indicating that Russia has no intention of ever leaving the Sevastopol base.  For example, former Black Sea Fleet commander Admiral Igor Kasatonov at one point stated that 2017 is a significant date only for “Russophobic” politicians. “The Black Sea Fleet is in Sevastopol forever… It will retain its base in Sevastopol, another will be built in Novorossiisk, Tuapse, maybe also in Sukhumi, if there is a need.” More recently, Mikhail Nenashev, a Russian State Duma deputy who serves on the Duma’s Committee on Defense and also heads the Russian movement to support the navy, argued that Moscow plans to continue to develop the Black Sea Fleet’s infrastructure, both in Russia and in the Crimea.

The Impact of Recent Political Developments

While President Yanukovich certainly has a more pragmatic attitude toward Russia than his predecessor, this does not necessarily mean that he will be eager to extend Russia’s lease on its naval base. It is after all a very controversial political issue in Ukraine and he may not want to take any actions that exacerbate existing regional and ideological divisions. One poll, conducted last fall, indicates that only 17 percent of Ukrainians support an extension, while 22 percent want the Russian navy out even before the agreement expires in 2017. For a president who is seen by a large part of the population as excessively pro-Russian and who was elected with less than fifty percent of the total vote, going against public opinion on this issue may prove tricky.

Second, there is the constitutional issue. The Ukrainian constitution prohibits the placement of foreign military bases on Ukrainian territory. The current Russian navy base is permitted because of a separate article that allows for the temporary placement of foreign bases as part of a transition period that was designed to smooth the process of Ukraine solidifying its independence in the mid-1990s. As one of his last acts, President Yushchenko asked the Ukrainian Constitutional Court to rule on the contradiction between these articles. Regardless of the impact of any future court ruling based on this request, there is widespread consensus in Ukraine that the renewal of the basing agreement would require a constitutional amendment, which would in turn require a two-thirds vote in the Ukrainian parliament.

Finally, there are economic issues. The initial signals given by Yanukovich in his first weeks in office indicate that he is willing to discuss the future status of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, but only in the context of a wide-ranging negotiation that includes a whole set of issues. Without doubt, he will ask for a significant increase in the amount paid by Russia to lease the base – Russian sources believe that the absolute minimum that Ukraine would agree to is $1 billion per year (i.e. a tenfold increase), while the Ukrainian side may ask for as much as $5-10 billion per year. In addition, Yanukovich is likely to seek additional Russian investments in regional infrastructure. He may also tie other issues, such as an agreement on border delimitation and even favorable terms on natural gas transit and import pricing, to a positive outcome on the basing issue. On the other hand, the departure of the Russian fleet is likely to lead to significant economic dislocation in Sevastopol, where it is one of the largest employers. This may in turn lead to social protests and even anti-government political agitation among the mostly pro-Russian population. Thus, even if the basing agreement is eventually renewed, it will not be an easy process and is likely to result in significant tension with Russia.

Alternative Basing Options

Given the relatively poor relations between Russia and Ukraine during the Yushchenko presidency, it is not surprising that in the last few years Russian naval officials and military analysts began to discuss possible alternatives for basing the Black Sea Fleet. One obvious alternative is the existing naval base at Novorossiisk, which has been expanded over the last several years and currently hosts a variety of smaller ships, including the fleet’s two missile hovercraft, some small anti-submarine warfare ships, and the fleet’s newer minesweepers. The commander of the BSF argues that while it would be theoretically possible to expand this base to house all the BSF ships, the reality is that doing so would have a negative economic impact on the region by creating bottlenecks at Novorossiisk’s busy commercial port. The resulting delays could lead commercial shippers to increase their use of Ukrainian ports at Russia’s expense. Russian commanders also contend that the base is unsuitable because of climate conditions in the area. An additional base at Temriuk will only be useful for smaller ships and has the disadvantage of being located on the Azov Sea, making it easy in the event of hostilities for enemy navies to trap ships there by blockading the Kerch Strait.

Some analysts propose building an additional base near Novorossiisk, either to the northwest on the Taman peninsula or to the southeast at Tuapse or Gelendzhik. These would both be possible locations, though the expense of building a new naval base from scratch would be quite significant, especially if it becomes necessary to buy out tourist infrastructure along the coast. Another, even less likely, possibility is to establish a second base at a foreign location. Two such locations have been proposed: Ochamchira in Abkhazia and Tartus in Syria.

In the aftermath of the Georgia War, Sergei Bagapsh, the President of Abkhazia, offered to have Russian ships based at Ochamchira. While this offer was initially taken up as a serious possibility by the Russian media, subsequent discussions led Bagapsh to issue a clarification in which he said that Abkhazia will not become a permanent base for the Black Sea Fleet, though facilities could be developed to host BSF ships when necessary to counter potential Georgian attacks. In any case, the harbor at Ochamchira is too small to host more than a few Russian ships. For this reason, the basing agreement signed last month between Abkhaz President Bagapsh and Russian President Medvedev will provide the Russian Navy with the opportunity to temporarily base some ships in Abkhazia. At least two patrol craft belonging to the maritime border guard will be permanently based at Ochamchira, but there will not be a permanent Russian naval presence there for the foreseeable future. At the same time, it is possible that the Russian Navy will at least temporarily base its missile ships there after 2017 if forced to relocate from Sevastopol while an alternative base is prepared. This would free up pier space for the larger ships in Novorossisk.

Even before the Georgia War, the Russian government announced that it was cleaning and upgrading its existing base in Tartus, Syria. This base served as a refueling and repair station for the Soviet Navy’s Mediterranean squadron, but has been largely vacant since 1991. It has facilities to house several large ships. Speculation about the relocation of all or part of the Black Sea Fleet to Tartus in 2017 arose in conjunction with the Syrian President’s visit to Moscow in mid-August 2008. Bashar Assad’s strong support for Russian actions in the Georgia War and offer to further develop the Russian-Syrian military partnership led to speculation that a number of Black Sea Fleet ships could be relocated to Tartus. Efforts to expand Russia’s naval presence in Syria continue, as made clear in a recent semi-official review of Russian military policy toward the region, which indicated that the potential closure of the Sevastopol base was one of the factors that obligated Russia to further develop the base at Tartus.[2] However, the base currently only has three piers, which would be insufficient for more than a small part of the Black Sea Fleet. Any expansion would face large construction costs plus the likelihood of high fees for the lease of additional land. It is far more likely that Tartus will resume its role as a maintenance and supply base for the Russian Navy, especially given government promises to expand the Navy’s presence in the Mediterranean and perhaps even to reestablish the Mediterranean squadron.

Prospects for the Future

Russian leaders are not willing to openly discuss the likelihood of the fleet’s departure with considerable time remaining on the existing deal since they believe that in time they can reach agreement with Ukrainian leaders on a renewal. At the same time, for Yanukovich there is little political benefit, and potentially a high cost, to compromising. Given that seven years still remain on the lease, while President Yanukovich’s current term will end in five years, it seems likely that little progress on resolving the basing issue will be made before 2015.

By that time, the Black Sea Fleet’s situation could be very different. Most Russian navy specialists believe that the fleet will have few seaworthy ships left by then. The deputy mayor of Sevastopol recently noted that the Russian and Ukrainian Black Sea Fleets combined currently have less than 50 combat ships, compared to over 1,000 in Soviet times.[3] By 2017, most of the remaining ships will have exceeded the lifespan of their engines by a factor of three or four. As one Russian expert indicated, Russia does not currently have the capacity to rebuild the fleet by 2017 given the state of its shipbuilding industry. In this light, there may not be any need to build a new base in Novorossiisk or anywhere else, as the current facilities there will be more than sufficient to house the remaining seaworthy ships. Accordingly, the most important goal for the Russian Navy is to restore its domestic shipbuilding industry, a step that it is now starting to take by contemplating building French-designed ships under license in St. Petersburg.

For Ukraine, the most important goal is to design and enact a program for the economic development of the Crimea in general and Sevastopol in particular. The Russian Navy’s eventual departure will leave a giant hole in the region’s economy. Ukrainian politicians would be well served to be prepared to fill this hole before it leads to social unrest among the largely pro-Russian population of the region.

[1] The Russian Analytical Digest is a bi-weekly internet publication jointly produced by the Research Centre for East European Studies [Forschungsstelle Osteuropa] at the University of Bremen and the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), and the Institute of History at the University of Basel. It is supported by the German Association for East European Studies (DGO). The Digest draws on contributions from the German-language Russland-Analysen, the CSS analytical network on Russia and Eurasia, and the Russian Regional Report.

[2] The other factors included its potential to support anti-piracy operations in the Horn of Africa and the political need for an enhanced Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean.

[3] This seems an obvious exaggeration, as the total number of combat ships in the Soviet Navy at its peak in the mid-1980s was 2500, and the Black Sea Fleet was the third largest of four fleets. Nevertheless, the total number of combat ships has declined by approximately a factor of ten.

The following article recently appeared in the Russian Analytical Digest.[1] Some of the research for this article was carried out under the auspices of CNA Strategic Studies.

[1] The Russian Analytical Digest is a bi-weekly internet publication jointly produced by the Research Centre for East European Studies [Forschungsstelle Osteuropa] at the University of Bremen and the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), and the Institute of History at the University of Basel. It is supported by the German Association for East European Studies (DGO). The Digest draws on contributions from the German-language Russland-Analysen, the CSS analytical network on Russia and Eurasia, and the Russian Regional Report.

Stratfor’s expanding ignorance

Stratfor, the company that provides  “global intelligence” to the world, seems to have completely lost its collective mind. It is currently in the middle of publishing a four part series on “Russia’s Expanding Influence.” (The reports are only accessible through the website to subscribers, though they are being reprinted in Johnson’s Russia List.) No author is listed, so I must assume this means it is a collective product that has the imprimatur of the entire corporation.

To summarize briefly, the introduction indicates that because of its geographic indefensibility, Russia needs a buffer zone around its borders to be a stable and strong state. The next part is the core of the argument and worth quoting in full:

First are four countries where Russia feels it must fully reconsolidate its influence: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Georgia. These countries protect Russia from Asia and Europe and give Moscow access to the Black and Caspian seas. They are also the key points integrated with Russia’s industrial and agricultural heartland. Without all four of them, Russia is essentially impotent. So far, Russia has reconsolidated power in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, and part of Georgia is militarily occupied. In 2010, Russia will focus on strengthening its grasp on these countries.

This analysis is so wrong as to be funny. To say that Russia has reconsolidated its influence in those three countries is to be completely ignorant of current events. Belarus has recently turned away from Russia and is trying to get closer to the EU. Kazakhstan is primarily focused on developing its economy and is turning more and more to China in the economic and even inthe security sphere. And anyone who thinks that Yanukovich will do whatever Russia wants will be sorely disappointed. All signs in Ukraine point to him driving a hard bargain and making Russia pay for what it wants — it won’t be the knee-jerk anti-Russianism of Yushchenko, but he won’t meekly submit either.

Furthermore, as Keith Darden has shown in great detail in his recent book, for most of the last 20 years, Belarus and Kazakhstan have been spearheading re-integration efforts in the former Soviet space, efforts that Russia has repeatedly resisted. The story of the Belarusian efforts to increase political integration with Russia is instructive in this regard. After years of getting nowhere on implementation, Belarusian President Lukashenka has finally given up and has turned to the EU to balance his previously completely Russia-focused foreign policy. With Kazakhstan, Stratfor discusses  the gradually increasing Chinese influence but underplays its current role in the country and in Central Asia as a whole. In fact, rather than Russia having “reconsolidated power” in Kazakhstan, there is a three-way competition for influence in Central Asia between Russia, China and the United States. Russia is for the moment the strongest player in this competition (and the US is clearly the weakest), but its influence is waning while China’s is increasing. Kazakhstan, just like the other states in the region, is quite happy to play off these three powers against each other to preserve its own freedom of maneuver.

Anyone who thinks that the result of the recent Ukrainian elections means that Ukraine is returning to Russian orbit will be in for some nasty surprises in the coming months. As we saw as far back as 1994, Ukrainian politicians who campaign on pro-Russian themes are likely to adopt a more middle-of-the-road foreign policy once they get elected. Yanukovich’s early signals indicate that he is likely to follow the same trajectory as Kuchma did more than 15 years ago. Even analysts who are deeply suspicious of Russia, such as Jamestown Foundation’s Vlad Socor, believe that Yanukovich will try to balance Russia and the West in order to preserve his own freedom of action. In today’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, Socor writes:

The Brussels and Moscow visits have probably set a pattern for Yanukovych’s presidency. He is moving almost without transition from a pro-Russian electoral campaign to a double-vector policy toward Russia and the West. Meanwhile, Yanukovych has no real popular mandate for new policy initiatives, having been elected with less than one half of the votes cast, and lacking a parliamentary majority (although he and Donetsk business may cobble together a parliamentary majority). For all these reasons, the president is not in a position to deliver on any agreements with Russia at this time.

Ukrainian-Russian relations will certainly be less strained than they were over the last five years, but by no means does this mean that Russia is anywhere close to controlling Ukrainian politics.

Overall, I find this analysis puzzling. I can’t imagine that the folks at Stratfor are so clueless that they don’t already everything I wrote above. The only alternative, though, is that they are distorting the situation in the region in order to pursue some kind of political agenda dedicated to resurrecting the Cold War-era confrontation between Russia and the United States. I find this possibility even more disturbing than the possibility that they are actually unaware of the political situation in the region.

Update: I just read part 2 of this series, which includes a section about the Baltics. While I have no desire to go into it at length, the following sentence was just too amusing not to note: “Estonia is also mainly Ugro-Finnish, which means that Russians are surrounded by Ugro-Finns on both sides of the Gulf of Finland.” Now I can’t quite get the image of Russia being surrounded by Estonia and Finland out of my head.