The Russia Profile Special Report is a quarterly publication that consists of a collection of articles by different staff and freelance authors dedicated to a specific central theme of the editors' choosing. Stories found in our Special Reports are the best-researched, most profound and comprehensive analytical pieces available at RussiaProfile.Org.
The Special Reports are an indispensible tool for any Russia watcher or researcher interested in taking a closer look at the pressing issues that affect the modern Russian society. The reports are a derivative of the print version of our monthly magazine that is no longer published on paper, but is available in various digital formats for the convenience of our readers.
We welcome all feedback and suggestions from our readers, so if there is a specific topic you would like Russia Profile to take a closer look at, please let us know!
President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Ukraine last week came off without a hitch – though it depends on whom you ask. Not only did Ukraine fail to renegotiate what it perceives to be a sky-high price for gas during a summit in Yalta, but Putin also embarrassed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych by showing up to the event four hours late. The incident spurred outrage on behalf of a slew of Ukrainian officials, raising old concerns that Moscow simply isn’t taking its Ukrainian partner seriously.
Putin headed to Crimea on Thursday to meet Yanukovych at Yalta’s storied Livadia Palace, the former summer retreat for Tsar Nicholas II, the site of the 1945 Yalta Conference and the consummate meeting place for international summits in Ukraine. There they were set to continue the seemingly never-ending gas talks, aimed at renegotiating the terms of the 2009 deal signed between Putin and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
As predicted, the meeting ended without a deal. But the highlight of the trip came before the talks even began: Putin grabbed headlines when he appeared four hours late to greet Yanukovych. The reason? He had stopped near Sevastopol to meet his perennial Crimean friends, the Night Wolves motorcycle club, for a chat – including with the group’s leader and apparent Russian biker legend, nicknamed “the Surgeon.”
It didn’t seem to faze Yanukovych much, though the two men did enjoy an awkward verbal exchange as soon as Putin arrived in Yalta. "We are glad to welcome you to Crimean soil – it's a little hot here, but I know that you had time on the way to chat with your friends, the bikers," Yanukovych said, according to Bloomberg News. The Russian president responded: "They're also waiting for you.” Putin has somewhat of a history with the Night Wolves, having rubbed shoulders and even ridden with them on a number of occasions.
But if Yanukovych wasn’t offended, other Ukrainian officials were. As the news broke that the visiting president was held back because of a motorcycle gang, it opened a floodgate of commentary from Ukrainian figures claiming Putin purposely snubbed them on their own soil.
"President Putin exceeded the limits of a delay. He paid a visit to the bikers and their friends, and thus showed his priorities" toward Ukraine, Emergencies Minister Viktor Baloha wrote on his Facebook page. “It turned out to be the opposite of that old song: ‘First come the girls, then the airplanes,’” referring to a classic Soviet tune which extolls the virtues of duty over pleasure. Even the former foreign minister, Volodymyr Ohryzko, weighed in: "Instead of hurrying to the meeting, he stopped to have a drink with the bikers. In my opinion, this is a diplomatic slap or rudeness," AFP reported Ohryzko as saying.
For Putin, it’s nothing too unusual. The Russian strongman has built somewhat of a reputation for keeping dignitaries, officials and journalists waiting for his arrival at various events. Most recently, for example, Putin left Western oil executives hanging for around three hours at last month’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. The general audience, meanwhile, waited for about an hour and a half for the president’s public address there.
But it nevertheless raises the recurrent question over how Russia treats Ukraine on the global stage: as an equal, or as a lost province? True, Baloha and other Ukrainian officials may have taken Putin’s gesture too close to heart. Yet still, Putin was a guest on foreign soil – and particularly in a heavily Russified region that Kiev has never quite locked down for itself. The risk for misinterpretation, it would seem, was huge.
Experts said Putin’s snub was indeed meant as a signal, but not as much to Ukraine as to its political leadership. Citing the Yanukovych regime’s perceived weakness in both foreign and domestic policy, political expert and Kremlin insider Sergei Markov said the message from Putin was clear: “Behave seriously, and as a result we’ll regard you seriously. But if you behave like political children, we cannot regard you seriously,” Markov, the vice president of the Plekhanov Russian Economic University and a member of the Public Chamber, said.
For Russia, the ostensibly pro-Russian Yanukovych has, somewhat ironically, often been a thorn in the side. In areas where Moscow was counting on his support, the Ukrainian president has buckled before the Kremlin’s eyes, especially in failing to cut a gas deal in exchange for Russian ownership of Ukraine’s pipeline infrastructure, as well as in signaling his unwillingness to join the Russia-led Customs Union. Markov added that the Kremlin is apparently turned off by Yanukovych’s political games, as well, such as the hastily passed (and politically-motivated) Russian-language bill and the swift imprisonment last year of Tymoshenko.
Ukrainian analysts, however, were quick to play down the personal animosity between the two leaders. They do, however, point to serious consequences for Ukraine’s geopolitical position. According to Mykhailo Pashkov, a foreign relations expert at the Kiev-based Razumkov Center, Putin cares more about the end game – pressuring Ukraine into its sphere of influence – than about jabbing at Yanukovych.
“For Putin, his most important policy program has always been post-Soviet integration – he has acted on this in the past and will do so in the future, and I have no doubts that this very idea will remain at the top of the agenda for discussion [between Russia and Ukraine],” Pashkov said. Besides, he noted, this meeting, in which the presidents signed off on border delimitation and agreed to other forms of partnership, “was only a preamble to future, more serious discussions about using the energy complex for further integration.”
You may place this material on your blog by copying the link.