Failing Ukraine state plays in to Russia's hands

Failing Ukraine state plays in to Russia's hands
Ukrainian businessman, politician and presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko (L) meets his supporters during his election rally in the city of Krivyi Rih May 17, 2014.

KIEV - In late February, just two days after pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich fled Kiev, Ukraine's parliament repealed a law enshrining the rights of Russian-speakers to use their first language.

Ukraine's Russian speakers, concentrated in the east and the south where the law applied, viewed the action as vengeful. In Moscow, Russia's leaders saw an opportunity.

Ukraine's new rulers took just five days to reverse course to once again allow the use of Russian in some schools, courts and other state institutions. Shocked by the outcry it caused, Ukraine's acting president had refused to sign the legislation.

But those five days were enough for Russian President Vladimir Putin to set in motion a chain of events that have undermined Kiev's pro Western government and drawn large areas of the country back into Russia's orbit, abetted by a divided West.

While Putin has presented separatist violence in eastern Ukraine as spontaneous, interviews with Ukrainian politicians and security sources with knowledge of Russian thinking suggest months of detailed planning by Moscow.

A key plank of Russia's plan, they say, was to deepen splits in a country that has struggled to form an identity since it emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991. To that end, Russia sought to exploit its connections to Ukrainian business, youth groups, the church, politicians and criminal networks.

The sources point to a paper from June 2013, described as a Kremlin consultation document by the Ukrainian newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnia and first made public in August that year. It sets out Moscow's fear of losing influence in Ukraine and its desire to draw its neighbour into an economic union.

The Kremlin declined to comment on the document, entitled "On the complex of measures to involve Ukraine in the Eurasian integration process", and Russian officials have previously written it off as a "provocation" by pro-Western politicians in Ukraine.

Bearing no signature or stamp, it is hard to trace its provenance, but a former security source in Ukraine corroborated its contents. He said he was present during conversations about the document involving officials in Ukraine with close connections to Moscow. Like others interviewed for this article he declined to be identified because of political sensitivities.

The document indicates that as far back as early 2013 Russia was nervous about Ukraine. Yanukovich's rule was widely seen as corrupt and the Kremlin was worried the president's unpopularity could harm Putin's plan to create a Russian-led "Eurasian" economic union to reunite part of the former Soviet Union.

Many Ukrainians believed Yanukovich was a Kremlin puppet, according to the document. Moscow was worried it would lose all influence in a new Ukraine if Yanukovich and his Party of the Regions were toppled.

"This aggravates the threat of a seizure of power by forces hostile to the Russian Federation," the document said.

"As the Party of the Regions has suppressed any independent pro-Russian movement, the collapse of the Yanukovich regime would leave us in a "scorched earth" situation, without any influential political forces on which we could rely."

It said Russia should apply pressure to oligarchs who enjoyed preferential trade with Russia but at the same time publicly criticised Putin's plan to create a Russian-led economic union.

A month after the report was written, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev decided to scrap quotas for steel pipe supplies, hitting at least one prominent oligarch. Russian pipe makers had taken issue with cheap Ukrainian pipe imports.

In the same month, Russia's consumer watchdog banned imports of sweets from the Roshen factory belonging to Ukrainian billionaire Petro Poroshenko, now front runner in a presidential election due on May 25.

The watchdog cited health concerns for the ban, saying a carcinogenic substance had been found in Roshen's chocolate.

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