Is Ukraine next?

With Georgia in pieces, Ukraine could be the next to fall to Russia's territorial ambition, separati

Ukraine's political summer season was cool and quiet, despite air temperatures in the high thirties (centigrade) and the war in Georgia, which the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, tried hard to make a matter of personal significance for each Ukrainian.

The president's speeches in defence of Georgia's territorial integrity and against Russian aggression were published regularly in the papers. Television covered the Stop Russia Now! meeting of four presidents in Tbilisi, while the idea that Russia's next target would be the Crimea sparked discussion among Ukrainian politicians and political scientists. Yushchenko put on combat gear that made him look like Fidel Castro and it was announced that Ukraine would be the first to join any international "anti-Russian" alliance - although it remains unclear how such an alliance would act, and the idea now seems to have been put on the back burner.

The political battle cries over the conflict have gradually died down. Despite protests by many politicians, Ukraine's Independence Day on 24 August was celebrated in Soviet style with a military parade down Kiev's main street. Two days later, near the country's second-largest city, Kharkiv, a huge arsenal of ammunition caught fire and, for several days, bombs and mines were exploding, firework-style, over a five-kilometre radius. The minister of defence, Yuriy Yekhanurov, was forced to admit that the ammunition was to have been sold to the government of Chad. At the same time Yushchenko, in his combat suit, was bestowing the rank of general on 117 officers and government administrators.

Thus, Ukraine begins the autumn season of 2008. The start of parliament's first sitting will be dominated by a motion, tabled by the opposition, to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Parliament will not recognise them, just as Kosovan independence is not rec ognised or even discussed. But this only underlines how stable is Ukrainians' "many-sidedness" and how split the political sympathies of the country's eastern and western territories.

For many Ukrainians, the recent military conflict was yet another phase in the ongoing personal war between the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, and the Georgian president, Mikhail Saak ashvili. The first phases of this war were purely economic. There was the ban on imports to Russia of Georgian wine (the wine war) and mineral water (the Borzhomi war, after a famous Georgian water). Then came the ban on imports of Georgian oranges and tangerines (the citrus war). After that began the countrywide campaign against Georgians residing - legally and illegally - in Russia, involving the deportation of illegal "guest workers" and the harassment of others, some of whom were very well known. One of Russia's best-known authors, Boris Akunin, whose real name is Grigory Chkhartishvili, suddenly found himself terrorised by the Russian tax authorities.

However, in response to the most recent Russo-Georgian conflict, Georgians living in Russia have banded togeth er against President Saakashvili. It is not a question of who did what and who is to blame. Georgian Russians simply want to get on with their lives in peace.

People in Ukraine also want a peaceful life, but Ukrainians have been more disturbed by the recent events in Georgia than western Europeans. Russia repeatedly declared that the Georgian army was using Ukrainian arms and that Ukrainian mercenaries were fighting on the side of Georgia in South Ossetia. Although neither charge has been proven, these repeated accusations serve to illustrate Russia's political antagonism towards Ukraine.

Moscow's politicians have repeatedly responded aggressively to Ukraine's demand that Russia prepare to remove her Black Sea fleet from Crimea in 2017, the year the contract under which Russia leases the Crimean naval base expires. The mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, once called Sebastopol "a region of Moscow", and Moscow has been financing the construction of apartment buildings in the city. Luzhkov has also demanded the return of the Crimean peninsula to the Russian Federation. (Crimea was "gifted" to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Ukraine's voluntary integration into the Russian empire.) There are many in Russia who share Luzhkov's views, and few Ukrainians believe Putin's statement, made in an interview on CNN, that Russia has no territorial quarrel with Ukraine.

The perils of Russophobia

Ukrainians note that Russia seemed to have no territorial quarrel with Georgia until the beginning of last month. The suddenness of the Georgian crisis, and that Ukraine has approximately equal numbers of pro-Russian and pro-European politicians and regions, only underlines the complexity of the situation in which Ukraine finds itself. A referendum held in 2006 showed that a majority of South Ossetians did not wish their country to remain as part of Georgia; similarly, if a referendum were held in Crimea today, it would show that most people there do not want to live as part of Ukraine.

In an attempt to transform the south and east of the country, Yushchenko has tried to "Ukrainianise" secondary and tertiary education in the Russian-speaking regions. This has drawn protests from the local popu lation and politicians, and the policy has only increased pro-Russian sentiment in these regions. Yush chenko, called a "Russophobe" in the Russian press, has never been so unpopular. Ukrainian polls give him only 5 to 6 per cent support, the same as the Ukrainian Communists. His chances of winning a second term in office in the 2009 presidential elections are practically nil.

The presidential race is expected to be between Yulia Tymoshen ko and Viktor Yanukov ych. Both would be acceptable to Moscow. Both would be prepared to negotiate an extension of lease for the Crimean naval base and to postpone the question of Ukraine's Nato membership - unless Nato acts swiftly to make Ukraine a member while Yushchenko is still in power.

With regard to the European Union, most Ukrainians understand that they won't get in for at least another 20 years, leaving Ukraine economically dependent on Russia for the foreseeable future. Each anti-Russian move by the Ukrainian president has resulted in the sort of economic sanctions employed by Russia against Georgia, except that now it's Ukrainian meat and dairy products that Russia has banned. Thus, American chicken and Ukrainian dried milk have been the first victims of the current stand-off between the west and Russia.

Ukraine, an industrially developed country, could be seriously harmed by Russian sanctions. Most thinking Ukrainians appreciate that the country requires super-competent politicians if it is to maintain its political independence while being economically dependent on Russia - about which Ukraine has no choice. Unfortunately, the present level of political corruption puts Ukraine a long way from seeing the necessary calibre of politician in its corridors of power. Sadly, Yush chenko has not fulfilled his central election promise to overcome corruption.

But Saakashvili, his good friend and the godfather of one of his children, seems fully to intend to carry out his own election promises. Having been re-elected in January this year, Saakashvili sought to strengthen his position by reinforcing the territorial integrity of Georgia, a task made urgent by the obligation on all countries aspiring to join Nato not to have any unsettled territorial disputes. It is my belief that, in rekindling the South Ossetian conflict, Saakashvili planned to speed up the process of his country's entry into Nato. Perhaps he hoped Nato would join in the conflict on Georgia's side. Surely he could not have imagined that Russia would not respond to artillery fire over a town where a battalion of Russian peacekeepers was stationed, or that the Georgian army could win the ensuing battle on its own. Nato remained outside this conflict, as I believe it would in the case of any military confrontation with Russia, because doing otherwise could take the world to the brink of disaster.

A Pandora's box

The Ukrainian president, like the Georgian leader, wants Ukraine to join Nato as soon as possible, and though Ukrainians themselves are less enthusiastic, right-wing politicians maintain that if Georgia had been a member of Nato, Russia would not have dared to protect South Ossetia or march into Georgian cities and ports.

However, most Ukrainians doubt that the west will put any significant pressure on Russia, and expect that any protests will be confined to hard-hitting rhetoric, along the lines of David Miliband's recent speech in Kiev. On returning to London, he admitted that Europe needs Russian gas and also noted that Gazprom needs European clients and investors.

Meanwhile, untouched by western opinion, Russia has boosted its image as a country prepared for brutal confrontation with neighbours. As Putin put it on 29 August, the west started the business of redrawing the map of Europe when it recognised the independence of Kosovo, thus "opening a Pandora's box". South Ossetia and Abkhazia are only the second and third "evils" to have flown out of that box since Kosovo. Might there be others?

For 17 years, the "independent" state of Transdnestria has existed on the boarder of Ukraine and Moldova. It is populated by Russians, Ukrainians and now well-rooted settlers from the 14th army of the USSR, which was stationed there when the Soviet Union broke up. There are other unrecognised "independent" territories, the leaders of which are now looking hopefully towards Moscow, which is ready to expand its political territory under the banner of the CIS (Confederation of Independent States), a friendly enough sounding union.

All that will be required, from Moscow's point of view, will be the recognition of these states by each other and by Russia - and, in the end, eastern Europe, the Caucasus and central Asia will be firmly within the Russian sphere of influence. The western border of this sphere could very well be drawn through the middle of Ukraine, slicing the country in two.

Andrey Kurkov is the author of "The President's Last Love" (Harvill Secker, £12.99)

Tags:Georgia