The outcome of Ukraine's contentious presidential vote could have far-reaching ramifications for the US-Russian geopolitical competition in Central Asia and the Caucasus. An election victory by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who is widely viewed as Russia's preferred candidate, could embolden Kremlin efforts to enhance its position in the energy-rich Caspian Basin.
Yanukovich is set to face opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, a Western-oriented reformer, in a run-off vote on November 21. Since the first round of voting October 31, campaigning has been marked by acrimony, with both sides hurling allegations of voter fraud at the other.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's administration has made no secret of its desire to prevent Ukraine, long viewed in Moscow as Russia's "little brother," from drifting Westward. In pursuit of their goals, Russian leaders have played on the vulnerabilities of Ukrainian political leaders. In 2000, for example, President Leonid Kuchma became embroiled in a scandal after the release of a secretly recorded tape on which the president appeared to sanction the assassination of a Ukrainian journalist. Since then, Russia has provided strong political support for Kuchma, helping ensure the president's political survival. Not surprisingly, Kuchma has steered Ukraine away from NATO and EU integration in recent years.
Yanukovich has also been a central figure in Ukraine's tilt towards Russia, and the Kremlin reportedly has used its influence to help bankroll his presidential campaign. Some experts believe that, like Kuchma, Russia is exploiting Yanukovich's troubled past specifically the fact that Yanukovich served time in jail as a young man for robbery and assault. There is speculation in both Moscow and Kyiv that Russian officials may possess more "compromat," or embarrassing information, on Yanukovich that they could use in the future to coerce him. In Moscow, observers already characterize the potential relationship between Putin and Yanukovich as that of a security services case officer handling an "asset." A Kremlin source indicated that Putin, a former KGB officer, is personally disdainful of Yanukovich's unsavory past. Nevertheless, the Putin administration badly wants Yanukovich to be elected, as it would likely cement Ukraine in a position of dependency regarding Russia.
Given the high strategic stakes involved, observers in Washington believe Russia is willing to go to great lengths to secure Yanukovich's election. His victory would free Russia to devote more attention and resources to bolstering its geopolitical interests elsewhere, in particular Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Moscow is especially keen to improve its position in the competition over Caspian Basin energy. Moscow's primary opponent in this sphere is the United States, which since the September 11 terrorist tragedy has increased its strategic profile throughout the Caspian Basin. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Washington is also the main sponsor of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, an energy conduit that will break a Russia's virtual monopoly on Western-oriented energy export routes. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Of late, however, China has also entered the energy fray, working with Kazakhstan to establish a pipeline network that would transport energy to the East. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
At present, there are several points in Central Asia and the Caucasus where Russia could apply pressure in an attempt to reorder the geopolitical calculus. Some observers expect Russia to increase pressure on Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has aggressively pursued a "multi-vector" policy in recent years that is designed to play Russia, the United States and China off against each other in the energy contest. One way Moscow can attempt to influence Kazakhstani policy is to play the nationality card, stirring up discontent among the large ethnic Russians community in northern Kazakhstan.
Other analysts suggest the Kremlin's attention may turn to Azerbaijan, a country whose relationship with the United States has appeared to ebb over the past year. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Reports of infighting within the ruling party in Baku have prompted speculation that President Ilham Aliyev's authority is shaky. Russia could thus try to repeat the "Kuchma scenario" in Azerbaijan, providing strong political support that helps Aliyev to preserve and consolidate his authority. In return, Moscow would no doubt demand closer Azerbaijani cooperation on energy-related issues, as well as on the ongoing conflict in Chechnya.
Uzbekistan is another country that has experienced recent trouble in its relations with the United States, underscored by the US State Department's decision last July to sanction Tashkent because of the Uzbek government's poor human rights record. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. President Islam Karimov of late has signaled a desire to improve relations with Russia, and Moscow seems eager to reciprocate. At an October ceremony marking the admittance of Russia into the Central Asian Cooperation Organization, Karimov championed Russia's "legitimate" right to play a large role in regional developments. "We here in the region acknowledge, have acknowledged and will continue to acknowledge Russia's interests - its strategic interests and the historical aims and tasks Russia pursues in this region," Karimov said.
Georgia is another logical focus for Russian officials. However, any designs that Moscow may have on Georgia may be complicated by the continuing political turmoil in the separatist region of Abkhazia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Russian officials, without doubt, view Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, specifically his desire to reunify the country and push it into the embrace of NATO and the EU, as a threat to Russian interests. However, Russia has traditionally depended on its ability to manipulate Georgia's separatist regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia in order to exert pressure on Tbilisi. The Abkhaz turmoil would appear to deprive Moscow of this lever of influence, at least on a temporary basis.
Given the US preoccupation with the insurgency in Iraq, Washington's ability to counter Russian moves in Central Asia and the Caucasus would seem limited. In addition to the fact that Iraq is consuming most of the United States' strategic resources, American officials say their chief aims vis a vis Russia are maintaining its participation in the anti-terror coalition, and keeping access open to Russian energy reserves. These policy priorities, US officials quietly admit, act as a restraint on Washington's desire to check Russian expansionist impulses in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and co-author and editor of "Security Changes in Eurasia After 9/11," Ashgate, 2005 (forthcoming).