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Kyiv, Moscow ratcheting up rhetorical war over many issues

    27 March 2023 Monday

    Diplomatic tensions between Kyiv and Moscow are escalating, with both sides exchanging sharp words over a growing list of disputes. Whatever happens next, bilateral relations between these two deeply intertwined neighbors are definitely in another rocky period.During a visit this weekend to the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov warned that his country could impose visa restrictions on Ukrainian visitors if Kyiv’s pro­Western leadership proceeds with plans to join the NATO military alliance.

    Ivanov’s sharp warning upped the ante in a war of words, which analysts say is rooted in Ukraine’s westward shift following the pro­democracy Orange Revolution.

    In recent weeks, both sides raised new points of contention in an informational battle that some believe will worsen in the short­term.

    Last week, Ukrainian officials publicly protested Russia’s decision to unilaterally build a chemical weapons processing facility in Bryansk, just 70 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, without prior notice. Russia shot back, threatening to cut out Ukraine as a supplier of rocket parts.

    Earlier this month, Russian officials protested Ukraine’s decision to celebrate a 350­year­old battle in which Russian invaders were repelled.

    “The dynamics of relationship between Ukraine and Russia is not optimistic to say the least,” said Oleksandr Paliy, an expert at the Institute of External Policy within the Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry.

    “It is equally obvious that the initiative to mar relations and sharpen rhetoric comes from the Russian side,” Paliy added, pointing to Moscow’s inability to accept Kyiv’s foreign policy goals of joining NATO, the European Union and integrating closer with other western structures.

    Valeriy Chalyi, an expert at the Kyiv­based think tank Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Studies, said NATO and other external issues are merely manifestations of the tension over Ukraine’s foreign policy.

    “Russia wants to keep Ukraine in the sphere of its influence, and Ukraine wants to withdraw from this influence by means of NATO and EU accession,” Chalyi added.

    Bad blood

    On June 11, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Volodymyr Ogryzko said Ukraine finds the construction of a chemical plant so close to Ukraine’s borders unacceptable. Kyiv might appeal to international institutions if the bilateral negotiations are unsuccessful, Ogryzko said adding that Ukrainian diplomats sent two notes to Russia expressing their discomfort but received no reply. Russia’s foreign ministry, in turn, responded saying it forwarded two notes to Ukraine on the chemical plant as early as August 2004 and December 2005 and called Ukraine’s foreign ministry worries far­fetched.

    While symbolic of how relations between both sides have soured in recent years, the row over the chemical plant is minor compared to assertions made in Moscow challenging Kyiv’s territorial integrity, namely its right of ownership over Sevastopol. Ukraine pushed for Moscow to begin preparations on removing the fleet from Sevastopol ahead of a lease agreement that ends in 2017. But Russian officials hinted that their country’s fleet was likely to stay beyond this period. Some Russian officials also suggested Ukraine never legally inherited Sevastopol when the USSR collapsed.

    Taras Kuzio, a visiting assistant professor of international affairs at the George Washington University, said the growing range of problem areas between Ukraine and Russia are rooted in “Russia’s assertive nationalism and the divergent transition paths of both countries” that began during Vladimir Putin’s first term in office, and accelerated following the 2004 Orange Revolution.” In his recent publication, Kuzio mentioned 11 areas that bedevil the bilateral relationship, including energy, Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) issues, borders, Black Sea Fleet, NATO, and different perceptions of history, language and others.

    Experts said Russia’s leadership is trying to impose control on Ukraine’s domestic affairs using its energy might, and encouraging negative attitudes within Ukraine’s Russian­speaking population.

    Earlier, on June 4, Russia’s parliament appealed to President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, calling for Moscow to withdraw from a friendship treaty signed with Kyiv if the southern neighbor sticks with NATO integration plans.

    “Current relations between Russia and Ukraine can not but arouse deep concern, in the first place due to Ukrainian leadership’s actions of political, military, cultural and informational character, directed towards deviation from traditionally friendly relations between Ukraine and the Russian Federation,” the Russian Duma said in its statement.

    Vladimir Kornilov, head of the Kyiv office for the CIS Institute, a pro­Kremlin think tank, said “Russia wants to pursue a strategic partnership with Ukraine, but it also conveys that strategic partnership and Euro­Atlantic integration are incompatible.”

    Paliy said Russia’s sharp rhetoric serves as a signal that Moscow could question Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sparking separatists regions in which it would hold influence such as Abkhazia, in Georgia, and Moldova’s Transdniester.

    “It might also indicate attempts to circumvent Ukraine’s European and Euro­Atlantic integration,” Paliy added.

    At stake first and foremost for Ukraine, according to analysts, is the country’s claim and ability to control Sevastopol, a strategic military harbor that yields Moscow influence in the Black Sea region.

    The Crimean peninsula was part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Russia until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Crimea remained an autonomous territory of Ukraine, but Russian officials argue that Sevastopol, as a closed military city, was separately administered from Moscow and never legally a part of Crimea.

    A month ago, during the anniversary celebration of Sevastopol, Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov said the Sevastopol issue has to be brought into international court, noting that the city was never given to Ukraine according to historical documents. Following the statement, Ukraine’s State Security Service declared Luzhkov persona non grata in Ukraine.


    Along with gas pressure and opposition to Ukraine’s NATO accession, Russian leadership has been consistently playing the Russian language card, accusing Kyiv’s leaders of persecuting Russian speakers and closing down Russian­language schools.

    “The country (Ukraine) has over the last 16 years issued more than 70 legal and regulatory acts aimed at limiting (the Russian language) in sociopolitical life,” reads the recent statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

    The Ukrainian leadership actively takes measures to oust Russian from television and radio broadcasts, pursuing “the Ukrainianization of film, conversion of the higher education to Ukrainian, introduction of obligatory tests for school admissions in Ukrainian, reducing Russian book imports, use of Ukrainian only in passenger transport services and calls to curb the expansion of foreign media,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.

    “As a result the authorities ‘have got what they wanted’: population literacy has sharply fallen, people knowing neither Ukrainian nor Russian resort to the so­called 'surzhik,' a mix of Ukrainian and Russian. All these awkward actions to de­Russify have already placed Ukraine 67th in the world for population literacy,” the Russian Foreign Ministry added.


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