A Russian newspaper has published a document suggesting the Russian government had very specific “integrationist” designs on eastern Ukraine – even before former president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country amid riots in Kiev last year. The departure of Yanukovych was followed by the Russian invasion of the Crimean peninsula and the Kremlin’s backing of insurgents in Eastern Ukraine.
The newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, is one of the few remaining independent outlets in Russia. It’s frequently critical of the Kremlin, and half a dozen of its reporters, including the internationally celebrated investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, have been murdered in the past 15 years.
An editor at Novaya Gazeta said the document was leaked by a Russian government official. Yet Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told The New York Times that the document “seems like a fake” and insisted it didn’t come from the Russian government. (An English translation of the Novaya Gazeta article by the Kyiv Post is here.)
If the document is authentic and actually outlines the general disposition of the Kremlin before Yanukovych’s ouster – then things did not go according to plan. Rather than positing a military solution to the increasingly westward-leaning attitude of Ukraine, it advocates a combination of economic and political incentives, along with a PR campaign. The ultimate goal was having the people in the Eastern part of the country vote in a “legitimate” referendum, seeking more independence from Kiev and more alignment with Moscow.
Notably absent from the plan are tanks, rocket launchers, “little green men,” and more than 5,000 dead Ukrainians.
It is also interesting, as Novaya Gazeta points out, that the rationale in the paper says nothing about protecting vulnerable ethnic Russians in Ukraine, or the deep historical ties between Russia and its neighbor – the main public justifications Russian President Vladimir Putin has used for his country’s interest in Crimea.
“Russia's involvement in Ukraine was never about protecting the ethnic Russian population, and so forth,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, an adjunct fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Regardless of whether this document is authentic or not, Russia has acted as an aggressor in Ukraine, and continues to play a dangerous, destabilizing role in Ukraine and more broadly in Europe,” said Borshchevskaya. “We've known this for awhile now. If this document is authentic, it would certainly provide further proof of this. Regardless, the West needs a long-term, comprehensive strategy how to deal with Russia.”
The paper suggests Russia’s primary concern about the possible re-orientation of Ukraine toward the West was economic. Much of the paper focuses on efforts to keep Crimea and eastern Ukraine independent of Kiev and economically connected to Moscow. It even suggests such an arrangement could be legally justified under existing European trade agreements. The Association of European Border Regions, for example, allows sub-state level regions – often made up of parts of more than one country -- to participate in trade negotiations. The association already recognizes several such regions that encompass parts of eastern Ukraine and southwestern Russia.
The paper contains seven sections, the first of which is an assessment of the “bankrupt” rule of Yanukovych, who is described as being of “low moral and volitional qualities.” Russia would later hold him up as the victim of a coup who was the only legitimate leader of Ukraine.
Even then, Yanukovych was “rapidly losing control” of the political situation in his country, the paper says. It appears to suggest that the unrest brewing in Ukraine was abetted by Western nations hoping to absorb Ukraine into the European Union.
The analysis urges the Russian government to be pragmatic in its attitude toward Ukraine. It says rulers will be “obliged” to intervene to protect Russia from the loss of the Ukrainian energy market and the potential loss of control of the gas distribution pipelines through that country, which carry Russian gas to markets in Southern Europe.
The Ukrainian constitution, the document notes, would make it practically impossible for the eastern regions of the country to vote to secede and join Russia. However, it suggests strengthening economic ties with the eastern part of the country to create a populace more sympathetic to Moscow than Kiev. The cost of providing economic support to Eastern Ukraine and Crimea would be considerable, the report finds, but would, in a geopolitical sense, be an “invaluable prize.”
The document goes on to contemplate various ways of facilitating “pro-Russian drift” in eastern Ukraine, including PR campaigns and what amounts to a set of talking points for protestors, directing them to portray western Ukraine as attempting to pull the country away from its traditional alliances.
It even recommends a possible slogan: “Putin 2.0 – Give us the Pereyaslavska Rada 2.0.” That’s a reference to the 1654 Treaty that made Ukraine part of Russia for some 300 years.
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