KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine fears it could be the next target of Russia’s campaign to reassert influence over countries it long dominated in the Soviet Union, with Moscow well placed to foment separatist feelings in its Russian-speaking regions.
Ukraine stood by Georgia in its war with Russia over the region of South Ossetia. President Viktor Yushchenko traveled to Georgia to show his support and announced tougher rules on Russian naval movements from a base in Ukraine.
And in a departure from his usual careful balancing act between Russian and Western interests, Yushchenko attacked Russia over South Ossetia in a way more akin to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Some political analysts say that could heighten the risk.
“When Ukraine prioritizes its national interests, it goes against Russia’s interests and, of course, there will be conflict,” said Viktor Chumak, an analyst for Ukraine’s International Centre for Policy Studies.
“And Russia has broken through a psychological barrier to start this kind of war on former Soviet territory … Georgia had created itself in the shape of an enemy of Russia, and many in Russia already see us in the same way … We probably rank third in the list of Russia’s leading enemies.”
Both born out of bloodless revolutions, one orange and one rose, Yushchenko and Saakashvili’s administrations want to join NATO, the European Union and secure close ties with the United States.
Like Georgia, Ukraine was not put on the fast-track to NATO membership at the alliance’s summit last April, but was promised it would be allowed in one day.
All of this has angered Russia which is fearful of having the Western military alliance on its doorstep.
Other former Soviet republics have also been considering their rankings. Moldova, whose Communist government has courted the West rather than traditional ally Russia, fears it has taken the same path as Georgia and has Russian peacekeepers patrolling in its separatist Transdniestria region.
Even Belarus’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko, initially distanced himself from the war, which was criticized in the West. But subsequently, at Moscow’s prompting, he praised Russia’s “wisdom” in the way it handled the crisis.
Analysts say the Crimea region in southern Ukraine could be used by Russia to destabilize Ukraine. It hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol and the majority of people living there are ethnic Russians.
Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine could also provide fertile ground, the analysts say.
Chumak said Russia could take advantage if Ukrainian politicians failed to resolve their differences and continued to let legislation slide. Yushchenko and his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, have sparred over almost all policy decisions since she came to power in December.
“In that situation then Russia will start playing games, start provoking Ukraine, especially with Crimea,” he said.
Yushchenko was quick to call on the West to protect Georgia’s territorial integrity.
“When we think about our position on Georgia, I have no doubts … The loss of sovereignty, putting into doubt the territorial integrity of Georgia — this means revising the sovereignty of all,” Yushchenko, swept to power by the 2004 “Orange revolution”, said in a statement.
Russia could also hold Ukraine ransom over its gas supplies. Moscow controls about 80 percent of Ukraine’s supplies and in 2006 Russia cut supplies to Ukraine over a pricing dispute.
“There is a reason to be wary in the short-term future, there is a threat in that Ukraine is similar to Georgia in terms of what has happened in recent years,” said political analyst Oleksander Dergachev.
“But I find it difficult to think that the threat posed is a military one. Russia relies on the fact that it has more of an influence over Ukraine economically.”
Most analysts cautioned against scare-mongering and said Ukraine could avoid confrontation by taking a pragmatic stance first and then reforming its economy in the long-term.
“If Ukraine sorts out its domestic situation and consolidates its foreign policy in terms of European and Atlantic integration and this goes at a good pace then we can avoid the South Ossetian scenario,” Chumak said.
“I mean there is no stronger enemy to Ukraine than Ukraine itself, especially its politicians.”