The political, military and economic situation in Ukraine changes by the hour, so it’s risky to pass judgment on the most recent developments, but from an American and European standpoint the election of Petro O. Poroshenko as president may be a good thing.
The billionaire businessman is widely understood to favor stronger relationships with the West rather than with Moscow and so may be just the right individual to bring desperately needed stability to his country. However, given the prevailing pattern in Ukraine, a wait-and-see approach is advisable.
Poroshenko was widely vilified in Russia in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s voting. For example, a Moscow television station had described him as “money-grabbing, devious, a radical sympathizer” and, given the station’s close links to the Kremlin, that would appear to be the semi-official assessment.
But that was before “the Chocolate King” (as he is known for having made his fortune in the candy business) was widely recognized as the probable winner of an election that was brought about by the seemingly endless protests against the previous government that led to the February ouster of the corrupt pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych.
“We will, by all means, respect the choice of the Ukrainian people and will cooperate with the authorities that will come into power as a result of the election,” Russia’s Vladimir Putin declared the day before the voting took place.
However, in typical Putin fashion he added that he still considers Yanukovych the legitimate president of Ukraine. That position would appear to send a signal that the Russian leader is still determined to maintain his country’s considerable influence over neighboring Ukraine’s affairs.
So the new president will face a daunting challenge: Keeping Putin at a safe distance while cultivating a stronger political and economic relationship with the European Union and, by extension, the United States.
Poroshenko would appear to have the will and the wherewithal to navigate these tricky political straits. He served as foreign minister as recently as 2010 and as trade minister since then.
“I know Putin,” he told a French journalist recently. “I have extensive experience in discussions with him; he is a strong and tough negotiator.”
What’s more, Poroshenko actually has connections to some of Russia’s top business leaders and has invested heavily in their endeavors. And that may help explain why Putin and his subordinates have lately been almost kind in their remarks about the new Ukrainian leader.
But, at least with respect to Russia’s attitude, kind remarks are not necessarily as significant as they may appear.
In Monday’s New York Times, Yevgeny Minchenko of the International Institute for Political Expertise explained that “Russia does not think about individuals. Russia thinks about conditions, about moves, what they do. They are not worried about who you are; they only worry about what you do.”
Putin wants Poroshenko to pay the $3.5 billion Ukraine owes Russia for natural gas and to pay it now, not later. That could become a major issue as the future of Ukraine unfolds.
The two nations are, after all, each other’s most important trading partner, and that’s a situation that always affects political relationships. In other words, no matter how much Poroshenko (and especially the voters who put him in office) may want a much stronger relationship with the West, Russia’s interests can’t simply be ignored.
So the United States and the Europeans may be pleased with Sunday’s election results, but it is too soon to conclude that relations between the West and Ukraine will overcome Russia’s considerable influence.
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