- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 2, 2004

A Russian bid to return to superpower status is the truly big story behind Ukraine’s rigged election.

At the moment, Russia is a European also-ran, a onetime giant with deteriorating clout. However, Russia, plus Ukraine, plus Belarus, plus Kazakhstan is a geostrategic formula for a global power reborn.

This isn’t a new discovery. Before the Soviet collapse in 1991, U.S. analysts concluded the communist leadership would spin off the Baltic and Caucasus Soviet Union. At the same time, however, they saw the leaders trying to keep or link the core empire strength: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan (RUBK — pronounced “rubik,” as in the tricky, tough-to-solve puzzle called Rubik’s Cube).

In the 1991 edition of “A Quick and Dirty Guide to War,” James F. Dunnigan and I wrote that the “most likely” outcome of Soviet breakup would be a RUBK federation of some uncertain type. The book appeared before the Soviet collapse, but my coauthor and I took it as given that the Soviet Union was kaput.

Wargaming inside the Pentagon in the early 1990s reached a similar conclusion. I received that briefing after a midlevel Pentagon official read my book and wanted to discuss it.

In 1991, economics and population drove Kremlin interests in creating the RUBK. Superpower status takes money and a large population (how large is arguable, but 200 million is plausible). The common economic interests linking Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan were a potential post-Cold War positive. Russia needed Ukraine’s huge agricultural productivity. We saw Ukraine benefiting from direct access to Russian natural resources.

The population issue, however, had a dicey dimension: Russian ethnicity. Russian ethnic communities were scattered throughout the former Soviet Union, but eastern Ukraine and parts of Kazakhstan were intensely “Russified.”

In 2004, the Kremlin of President Vladimir Putin still sees the economic benefits of a RUBK federation. He also sees it as a way to bring ethnic Russians inside Mother Russia’s borders.

Belarus (“White Russia”) remains a dictatorial basket case that might as well link up with Moscow. Perplexing Kazakhstan is another column. Installing pliant, pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovych as president was supposed to be Moscow’s sneaky way of welding Ukraine to Russia. Until pro-democracy demonstrations erupted after the rigged election, Moscow did not understand the degree of change in the Ukraine.

Ukraine’s neighbor, Poland, helps explain those changes. Post-1989, Poland took the tough route to both political and economic liberalization. After 15 years, the results are dramatic. Polish political confidence is extraordinary, and the economy is a powerhouse compared to Russia. Then add Polish military competence to the mix — which I saw ably demonstrated in Iraq.

While historic divisions between western “Catholic” and eastern “Orthodox” Ukraine play a role in the contested election, it is the “Polish model” that inspires Ukrainian democrats — and the democrats include ethnic Russians. The democrats compare Russia’s corruption and economic failure to the renaissance in Poland, but it is Mr. Putin’s own spiral into one-man rule that reminds them of what they despise most about the Kremlin.

Pro-democracy groups understand modern communications. With real-time Internet coverage, they don’t expect Mr. Putin and Mr. Yanukovych to risk a Ukrainian Tiananmen Square. Involvement of Cold War figures like Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa and Margaret Thatcher boosts their confidence.

It’s a fair bet the “pro-Western” candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, would win a second presidential election, especially one conducted with even closer international scrutiny.

That would deal Kremlinites seeking superpowerdom a severe blow. It would be a useful, welcome blow — and potentially a blow for liberty and wealth in Russia. A democratic Ukraine could do for Russia what Poland did for Ukraine — provide a next-door, you-can-do-it-too example of the benefits of the rule of law and economic liberalization.

Ultimately, another organization, the European Union, provides more stability and prosperity than an antiquated, authoritarian and corrupt RUBK ever could.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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