Ukrainians go to the polls on February 7 to choose their next president.
The last time they did this, in November 2004, the result was the
prolonged international incident that became known as the Orange
Revolution. That event saw Ukraine cleaved off from the Russian sphere
of influence, triggering a chain of events that rekindled the
Russian-Western Cold War. Next week’s runoff election seals the Orange
Revolution’s reversal. Russia owns the first candidate, Viktor
Yanukovich, outright and has a workable agreement with the other, Yulia
Timoshenko. The next few months will therefore see the de facto folding
of Ukraine back into the Russian sphere of influence; discussion in
Ukraine now consists of debate over the speed and depth of that
reintegration.

The Centrality of Ukraine

Russia has been working to arrest its slide for several years. Next
week’s election in Ukraine marks not so much the end of the post-Cold
War period of Russian retreat as the beginning of a new era of Russian
aggressiveness. To understand why, one must first absorb the Russian
view of Ukraine.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, most of the former Soviet
republics and satellites found themselves cast adrift, not part of the
Russian orbit and not really part of any other grouping. Moscow still
held links to all of them, but it exercised few of its levers of
control over them during Russia’s internal meltdown during the 1990s.
During that period, a number of these states — Estonia, Latvia,
Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the former
Czechoslovakia to be exact — managed to spin themselves out of the
Russian orbit and attach themselves to the European Union and NATO.
Others — Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and
Ukraine — attempted to follow the path Westward, but have not succeeded
at this point. Of these six, Ukraine is by far the most critical. It is
not simply the most populous of Russia’s former possessions or the
birthplace of the Russian ethnicity, it is the most important province
of the former Russian Empire and holds the key to the future of
Eurasia.

First, the incidental reasons. Ukraine is the Russian Empire’s
breadbasket. It is also the location of nearly all of Russia’s
infrastructure links not only to Europe, but also to the Caucasus,
making it critical for both trade and internal coherence; it is central
to the existence of a state as multiethnic and chronically poor as
Russia. The Ukrainian port of Sevastopol is home to Russia’s Black Sea
fleet, and Ukrainian ports are the only well-developed warm-water ports
Russia has ever had. Belarus’ only waterborne exports traverse the
Dnieper River, which empties into the Black Sea via Ukraine. Therefore,
as goes Ukraine, so goes Belarus. Not only is Ukraine home to some 15
million ethnic Russians — the largest concentration of Russians outside
Russia proper — they reside in a zone geographically identical and
contiguous to Russia itself. That zone is also the Ukrainian
agricultural and industrial heartland, which again is integrated
tightly into the Russian core.

These are all important factors for Moscow, but ultimately they pale
before the only rationale that really matters: Ukraine is the only
former Russian imperial territory that is both useful and has a natural
barrier protecting it. Belarus is on the Northern European Plain, aka
the invasion highway of Europe. The Baltics are all easily accessible
by sea. The Caucasian states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are on
the wrong side of the Caucasus Mountains (and Russia’s northern
Caucasus republics — remember Chechnya? — aren’t exactly the cream of
the crop of Russian possessions). It is true that Central Asia is
anchored in mountains to the south, but the region is so large and
boasts so few Slavs that it cannot be controlled reliably or cheaply.
And Siberia is too huge to be useful.

Without Ukraine, Russia is a desperately defensive power, lacking
any natural defenses aside from sheer distance. Moscow and Volgograd,
two of Russia’s critically strategic cities, are within 300 miles of
Ukraine’s eastern border. Russia lacks any natural internal transport
options — its rivers neither interconnect nor flow anywhere useful, and
are frozen much of the year — so it must preposition defensive forces
everywhere, a burden that has been beyond Russia’s capacity to sustain
even in the best of times. The (quite realistic) Russian fear is that
without Ukraine, the Europeans will pressure Russia along its entire
western periphery, the Islamic world will pressure Russia along its
entire southern periphery, the Chinese will pressure Russia along its
southeastern periphery, and the Americans will pressure Russia wherever
opportunity presents itself.

Ukraine by contrast has the Carpathians to its west, a handy little
barrier that has deflected invaders of all stripes for millennia. These
mountains defend Ukraine against tanks coming from the west as
effectively as they protected the Balkans against Mongols attacking
from the east. Having the Carpathians as a western border reduces
Russia’s massive defensive burden. Most important, if Russia can
redirect the resources it would have used for defensive purposes on the
Ukrainian frontier — whether those resources
be economic, intelligence, industrial, diplomatic or military — then
Russia retains at least a modicum of offensive capability. And that
modicum of offensive ability is more than enough to overmatch any of
Russia’s neighbors (with the exception of China).

When Retreat Ends, the Neighbors Get Nervous

This view of Ukraine is not alien to countries in Russia’s
neighborhood. They fully understand the difference between a Russia
with Ukraine and a Russia without Ukraine, and understand that so long
as Ukraine remains independent they have a great deal of maneuvering
room. Now that all that remains is the result of an election with no
strategic choice at stake, the former Soviet states and satellites
realize that their world has just changed.

Georgia traditionally has been the most resistant to Russian
influence regardless of its leadership, so defiant that Moscow felt it
necessary to trounce Georgia in a brief war in August 2008. Georgia’s
poor strategic position is nothing new, but a Russia that can redirect
efforts from Ukraine is one that can crush Georgia as an afterthought.
That is turning the normally rambunctious Georgians pensive, and
nudging them toward pragmatism. An opposition group, the Conservative
Party, is launching a movement to moderate policy toward Russia, which
among other things would mean abandoning Georgia’s bid for NATO membership and re-establishing formal political ties with Moscow.

A recent Lithuanian power struggle has resulted in the forced resignation of Foreign Minister Minister Vygaudas Usackas.
The main public point of contention was the foreign minister’s previous
participation in facilitating U.S. renditions. Vygaudas, like most in
the Lithuanian leadership, saw such participation as critical to
maintaining the tiny country’s alliance with the United States.
President Dalia Grybauskaite, however, saw the writing on the wall in
Ukraine, and feels the need to foster a more conciliatory view of
Russia. Part of that meant offering up a sacrificial lamb in the form
of the foreign minister.

Poland is in a unique position. It knows that should the Russians
turn seriously aggressive, its position on the Northern European Plain
makes it the focal point of Russian attention. Its location and
vulnerability makes Warsaw very sensitive to Russian moves, so it has
been watching Ukraine with alarm for several months.

As a result, the Poles have come up with some (admittedly small)
olive branches, including an offer for Putin to visit Gdansk last
September in an attempt to foster warmer (read: slightly less overtly
hostile) relations. Putin not only seized upon the offer, but issued a
public letter denouncing the World War II-era Molotov-Ribbentrop
Treaty, long considered by Poles as the most outrageous Russian offense to Poland.
Warsaw has since replied with invitations for future visits. As with
Georgia, Poland will never be pro-Russian — Poland is not only a NATO
member but also hopes to host an American Patriot battery and
participate in Washington’s developing ballistic missile defense
program. But if Warsaw cannot hold Washington’s attention — and it has
pulled out all the stops in trying to — it fears the writing might
already be on the wall, and it must plan accordingly.

Azerbaijan has always attempted to walk a fine line between Russia
and the West, knowing that any serious bid for membership in something
like the European Union or NATO was contingent upon Georgia’s first
succeeding in joining up. Baku would prefer a more independent
arrangement, but it knows that it is too far from Russia’s western
frontier to achieve such unless the stars are somewhat aligned. As
Georgia’s plans have met with what can best be described as abject
failure, and with Ukraine now appearing headed toward Russian
suzerainty, Azerbaijan has in essence resigned itself to the
inevitable. Baku is well into negotiations that would redirect much of
its natural gas output north to Russia rather than west to Turkey and
Europe. And Azerbaijan simply has little else to bargain with.

Other states that have long been closer to Russia, but have
attempted to balance Russia against other powers in hopes of preserving
some measure of sovereignty, are giving up. Of the remaining former
Soviet republics Belarus has the most educated workforce and even a
functioning information technology industry, while Kazakhstan has a
booming energy industry; both are reasonable candidates for integration
into Western systems. But both have this month agreed instead to throw
their lots in with Russia. The specific method is an economic agreement
that is more akin to shackles than a customs union.
The deal effectively will gut both countries’ industries in favor of
Russian producers. Moscow hopes the union in time will form the
foundation of a true successor to the Soviet Union.

Other places continue to show resistance. The new Moldovan prime
minister, Vlad Filat, is speaking with the Americans about energy
security and is even flirting with the Romanians about reunification.
The Latvians are as defiant as ever. The Estonians, too, are holding
fast, although they are quietly polling regional powers to at least
assess where the next Russian hammer might fall. But for every state
that decides it had best accede to Russia’s wishes, Russia has that
much more bandwidth to dedicate to the poorly positioned holdouts.

Russia also has the opportunity. The United States is bogged down in
its economic and health care debates, two wars and the Iran question —
all of which mean Washington’s attention is occupied well away from the
former Soviet sphere. With the United States distracted, Russia has a
freer hand in re-establishing control over states that would like to be
under the American security umbrella.

There is one final factor that is pushing Russia to resurge: It
feels the pressure of time. The post-Cold War collapse may well have
mortally wounded the Russian nation. The collapse in Russian births
has halved the size of the 0-20 age group in comparison to their
predecessors born in the 1970s and 1980s. Consequently, Russian
demographics are among the worst in the world.

Even if Russia manages an economic renaissance, in a decade its
population will have aged and shrunk to the point that the Russians
will find holding together Russia proper a huge challenge. Moscow’s
plan, therefore, is simple: entrench its influence while it is in a
position of relative strength in preparation for when it must trade
that influence for additional time. Ultimately, Russia is indeed going
into that good night. But not gently. And not today.

This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR. Peter Ziehan is a Stratfor analyst.