Putin’s Error in Ukraine

Business Week asks: Was meddling in Ukraine’s election Putin’s biggest blunder?

An excerpt:

Is Russian President Vladimir V. Putin losing his touch? Once admired for his steely efficiency, Putin suddenly doesn’t seem to be able to get anything right. He has managed to alienate Russian Big Business and many foreign investors by destroying oil company Yukos. September’s terrorist attack on Beslan left him looking weak and ineffective and exposed the disorderly state of Russia’s security forces. His bureaucratic reforms have led to administrative chaos, while cuts in the social benefit system have sparked Russia’s biggest public protests in years. But when future historians come to write the history of Putin’s presidency, they may well conclude that his biggest mistake was his disastrous policy in Ukraine, where he has just suffered a failure of epic proportions.

Putin clearly imagined he was promoting the obvious winner when he interfered so heavily in Ukraine’s presidential election in favor of Viktor Yanukovych, the candidate backed by outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Yet the millions of protestors on the streets of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities, and the collapse of the government’s authority have made it impossible for the Nov. 21 election result — which had Yanukovych winning by 49.46% to 46.61% — to stand. If there is a fair reelection, the candidate demonized by Russia, pro-Western opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, will almost certainly win, just as he would have won the Nov. 21 runoff but for massive ballot-stuffing, documented in detail by international observers. There’s a risk that pro-Yanukovych regions in eastern Ukraine will refuse to accept Yushchenko as President, in which case Ukraine could split apart.

Either alternative will represent a massive blow to Putin… A divided Ukraine would lead to instability in a region where Russia has important economic interests — 80% of the gas Russia exports to Europe goes through Ukraine — and would be a permanent point of tension between Russia and the West. If the country remains united, as now seems likely, Putin’s goal of linking Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus in a new economic union dominated by Russia looks like a pipe dream. A Yushchenko government is not likely to be great friends with Russia after Putin’s blatant interference in the election. And if Kuchma and Yanukovych figure out a way to retain power, a deeply unpopular regime in Kiev would hardly be a stable partner for Russia…

Putin would have been wise to hedge his bets in Ukraine, not least because Yushchenko was always the favorite to win a fair election. Instead, the Russian President made the election in Ukraine a personal priority, pulling out all the stops to secure a Yanukovych victory. Russian advisers and election funds flooded Ukraine, Russian state TV, which is widely received in Ukraine, unleashed a wave of pro-Yanukovych propaganda, and Putin himself appeared on Ukrainian TV to endorse Yanukovych. All these efforts failed to win over proudly independent Ukrainian voters. “Russian political advisers and spin doctors simply don’t understand the situation in Ukraine,” says Kost Bondarenko, an independent political consultant in Kiev.

The irony is that Russia could quite easily have lived with a Yushchenko victory….

The damage to Russia’s interests goes well beyond Ukraine. Putin’s interference further alienates opinion in the West, which is increasingly inclined to see the Russian President as a throwback to an earlier, scarier era. Despite its present anti-Western rhetoric, Russia obviously can’t afford a new Cold War. As the terrorist attack on Beslan in September showed, Russia’s security is already in a perilous state, which is why Russia needs all the cooperation from the West it can get…

Read it all here.

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