Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister and former president, is not renowned for his love of literature. But on Sunday he gave Russian journalists an unexpected reading tip: the diaries of Anton Denikin, a commander in the White Army that fought the Bolsheviks after the Revolution in 1917.
"He has a discussion there about Big Russia and Little Russia - Ukraine," Russian newswires quoted Putin as saying after laying a wreath in Moscow at the grave of Denikin, who is now portrayed as a Russian patriot. "He says that no one should be allowed to interfere in relations between us; they have always been the business of Russia itself." (See TIME's person of the year: Vladimir Putin)
Putin's words are seen as the latest in an ongoing volley of pointed warnings to the West not to meddle in Ukraine, a country with such close historical and cultural ties to Russia that the Kremlin considers it firmly within its sphere of interests.
"The Russian leadership is very apprehensive about what it sees as Western moves designed to tear Ukraine away from Russia," says Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, an independent think tank in Moscow. "Their central foreign policy goal is to create a power center around Russia. Any move by the West towards the former Soviet republics is seen as damaging Russia's interests."
Moscow has reacted angrily to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's attempts in recent years to gain NATO membership, and to a recent agreement in March for the European Union to help modernize Ukraine's aging gas transport system. "This agreement is Exhibit A in Moscow's collection [of complaints]," says Trenin. "It's evidence that Europe is concluding bilateral deals with Ukraine that undermine Russia's interests."
Russian leaders have also expressed concerns about the E.U.'s Eastern Partnership program, unveiled earlier this month, which aims to deepen economic and political ties with six former Soviet states, including Ukraine. At the E.U.-Russia summit in Khabarovsk over the weekend, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said E.U. officials had "failed to persuade" him that it was not harmful to Russian interests. "What confuses me is that some states... see this partnership as a partnership against Russia," he said.
Putin's reference on Sunday to "Little Russia" - a term used during the Russian Empire to describe parts of modern-day Ukraine that came under Tsarist rule - has raised hackles in Ukraine, where many consider it demeaning and offensive.
"These comments by Putin should be taken very seriously," says Olexandr Paliy, a political analyst with the Institute of Foreign Policy at the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Diplomatic Academy. "Russia is engaged in a propaganda war against Ukraine, designed to convince the West not to support Ukraine. Russia doesn't understand cooperation with equals, only with subordinates."
Putin is not known for his tact when speaking of Russia's western neighbor, which declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In April 2008, a source told Russia's Kommersant newspaper how Putin described Ukraine to George Bush at a NATO meeting in Bucharest: "You don't understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? Part of its territories is Eastern Europe, but the greater part is a gift from us."
Two Moscow proposals last week – President Dmitry Medvedev’s suggestion that China help develop the Russian Far East and a Duma suggestion that Siberian river water be diverted to Central Asia – are adding to the outrage many Russians beyond the Urals feel, as the recent wave of protests in Vladivostok , toward the central government.
In a commentary significantly entitled “The Question: TOGETHER or IN PLACE OF Russia?” Alekandr Protsenko argues that Medvedev’s call for Beijing to invest in the Russian Far East represents a threat to Russia’s territorial integrity, especially since Moscow lacks the resources to do so itself (svpressa.ru/issue/news.php?id=9090#).
Eight months ago, Protsenko points out, Medvedev himself said that “Russia could lose the Far East if it does not take immediate measures for its development.” But now that Moscow’s strategic plan for the region is nearly ready for release, it is obvious Moscow does not have the money to invest there.
Consequently, Medvedev is looking to the Chinese. Their participation, the Russian analyst suggests, “could only be welcomed” if it occurred “TOGETHER” with Russia. But now it is clear that, given Moscow’s budgetary restrictions and plans, Chinese involvement will be “INSTEAD of Russia.”
So what does this tell us? The Russians are continuing to pull away from the West, which is obvious and was happening already. However, the Russians are going deeper into the pockets of the Chinese. Their hope is that the Chinese will help develop their regions that they lack the cash for (it does work as a model, Britain and other European nations did that for the US and other places). The Russian leadership are also hoping that together, they will be able to counterbalance the US and Europe in the world.
I don't think that this will work. The Chinese will be doing the countering...the Russians will, at best, end up as a resource exporter to China. At worst...see what I wrote 3 years ago.