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Russian President Lashes Out at Ukraine

By Jonas Bernstein
Moscow
11 August 2009

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has strongly criticized Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and his government, accusing them of everything from supporting Georgia in last year's war to suppressing the use of the Russian language in Ukraine. He also announced he is postponing sending a new ambassador to the former Soviet republic.

In a "video blog" posted today on the Kremlin's website, the Russian president said he had outlined his views in an open letter to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. Dmitri Medvedev said bilateral relations between Russia and Ukraine have hit an "unprecedentedly low" level and that tensions between the two countries have "gone off the scale."

Mr. Medvedev said naming an exact date for Russia's new ambassador, former Health Minister Mikhail Zurabov, to commence his duties will depend on whether there are "positive dynamics" in bilateral relations.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine have been at odds over a number of issues, including Ukraine's moves to join NATO, Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which is based in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, and Ukraine's failure to meet payments for Russian gas supplies.

In his letter, Mr. Medvedev criticized what he called Ukraine's "anti-Russian position" with respect to what he called Georgia's "barbaric attack" on the breakaway region of South Ossetia one year ago.

The Russian president reiterated that point and others in his video statement.

Mr. Medvedev charged that in last year's war over South Ossetia, Georgian forces used Ukrainian arms to kill civilians and Russian peacekeepers. He also accused Ukrainian authorities of interfering in the operations of the Black Sea Fleet and of carrying out a campaign to exclude the Russian language from Ukraine's media and schools.

In addition, the Russian president criticized efforts to have the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s, which was engineered by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, recognized as genocide.

Mr. Medvedev accused Ukraine's government of falsely claiming to be threatened by Russia in order to gain NATO membership. He also accused Ukraine's government of trying to engineer a "rupture" in economic ties with Russia, particularly in the energy sector.

The Russian president said he hopes a new Ukrainian leadership will be ready to improve ties. Ukraine is set to hold presidential elections in January.

Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, says domestic political considerations may have been among the motives for Mr. Medvedev's harsh criticism of his Ukrainian counterpart.

Ryabov says Mr. Medvedev has been criticized for displaying both a lack of independence and "softness" in foreign and domestic policy and that the Russian president has been taking steps to counter that image.

Just days before his statement on Ukraine, Mr. Medvedev marked the first anniversary of the war with Georgia with a statement emphasizing that he alone was responsible for the decision to send the Russian military into South Ossetia.

Some observers say the Russian president's expression of hope for a new leadership in Kiev after next year's presidential election is a signal that Moscow is ready to help opponents of Mr. Yushchenko, who is currently trailing in Ukrainian opinion polls.

But the president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments, Alexander Konovalov, says he is not sure such signals of support will work.

Konovalov says statements of this kind by Russia's government tend to have an effect opposite to what was intended.