On Point: Ukraine and the Russian Wish to Return to Super-Power Status

by Austin Bay
November 30, 2004

A Russian bid to return to super-power status is the truly big story behind Ukraine's rigged election.

At the moment Russia is a European also-ran, a one-time giant with deteriorating clout. However, Russia, plus Ukraine, plus Belarus, plus Khazakstan is a geo-strategic formula for a global power re-born.

This isn't a new discovery. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, U.S. analysts concluded that the communist leadership would spin off the Baltic and Caucaus Soviet Union. At the same time, however, they would try to keep or link the core empire strength: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan (RUBK - pronounced "rubik," as in the tricky, tough to solve puzzle called Rubik's Cube.)

In the 1991 edition of A Quick and Dirty Guide to War James F. Dunnigan and I wrote that the "most likely" outcome of Soviet breakup would be a RUBK federation of some uncertain type." The book appeared before the USSR collapsed, but my co-author and I took it as a given that the Soviet Union was kaput.

Wargaming conducted inside the Pentagon in the early 1990s reached a similar conclusion. I received that briefing after a mid-level Pentagon official read my book and wanted to discuss it.

In 1991, economics and population were the driving Kremlin interests in creating the RUBK. Super-power status takes money and a large number of people (how large is arguable, but 200 million is a plausible figure). The common economic interests linking Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan were a potential post-Cold War positive. Russia needed Ukraine's immense agricultural productivity. We saw Ukraine as benefiting from direct access to Russian natural resources.

The population issue, however, had a dicey dimension: Russian ethnicity. Russian ethnic communities were scattered throughout the former USSR, but eastern Ukraine and parts of Kazakhstan were intensely "Russified."

In 2004, the Kremlin of President Vladimir Putin still sees the economic benefits of a RUBK federation. He also sees it as a way to bring ethnic Russians back inside the borders of Mother Russia.

Belarus ("White Russia") remains a dictatorial basket case that might as well link up with Moscow. Perplexing Kazakhstan is another column. Installing pliant, pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovych as president was supposed to be Moscow's sneaky way of welding Ukraine to Russia.

Until pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in the aftermath the rigged election, Moscow did not understand the degree of change in the Ukraine. Ukraine's neighbor, Poland, helps explain those changes. After 1989, Poland took the tough route to both political and economic liberalization. After 15 years the results are dramatic. Polish political confidence is extraordinary and the economy is a powerhouse compared to Russia. Add Polish military competence to the mix-which I saw ably demonstrated in Iraq.

While historic divisions between western "Catholic" and eastern "Orthodox" Ukraine play a role in the contested election, it is the "Polish model" that inspires Ukrainian democrats - and the democrats include ethnic Russians. The democrats compare Russia's corruption and economic failure to the renaissance in Poland, but it is Putin's own spiral into one-man rule that reminds them of what they despise most about the Kremlin.

The pro-democracy organizations understand how to use modern communications. With real-time Internet coverage of events they are betting Putin and Yanukovych won't risk a Ukrainian Tiananmen Square. The involvement of Cold War celebrities like Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and Margaret Thatcher adds to their confidence.

It's a fair bet the "pro-Western" candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, would win a second presidential election, especially one conducted with even closerinternational scrutiny.

That would deal Kremlinites seeking super-powerdom a severe blow. It would be a useful, welcome blow -and potentially a blow for liberty and wealth in Russia. A democratic Ukraine could do for Russia what Poland did for Ukraine-- provide a next-door, you-can-do-it-too example of the benefits of the rule of law and economic liberalization. Ultimately, another organization, the European Union, provides more stability and prosperity than an antiquated, authoritarian, and corrupt RUBK ever could.

Read Austin Bay's Latest Book

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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