The Kremlin's influence in Ukraine is increasing rapidly. This is the impression one gets when visiting Ukraine after the election that brought pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych to power.
The country's assets are being sold, deliberately and steadily, to oligarchs in Moscow who back powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Hypermarkets, sovereign economic facilities and even the very integrity of Ukraine are being marketed to Russia. The ratifying of the agreement extending the deployment of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea until 2042 was the latest blow to Ukrainians who resent Moscow's influence. It was also the clearest sign of the new cohesion between Kiev and Moscow since the so-called "stepson" of notorious billionaire businessman Rinat Akhmetov took over as president from his western-leaning predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko.
In return for allowing the Russian navy to remain in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, Russia has agreed to discounts of almost 30 per cent on gas supplies. Russia's main port on the Black Sea, Novorossiysk, could have been expanded if the fleet was required to leave Sevastopol in 2017. The extension saves the Kremlin this expense and gives it time to re-evaluate the strategic benefits of the fleet, given that most of its ships will not be seaworthy within 10 years. Moreover, Russia is keen to restore its traditional influence over former Soviet republics, especially since the American-backed ‘colour' revolutions in the region erupted in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia between 2003 and 2005.
By extending the deployment of the Russian fleet in Sevastopol, Yanukovych risks inflaming the hostile and fractional sentiments that have plagued Ukraine since the Orange Revolution in late 2004, following allegations of electoral fraud. Maps of a Ukraine divided in two have already been brandished by protesters. Opponents to the extension argue that it could trigger a deeper split in Ukrainian society between the ethnically Russian east and south, which sees Moscow as a big brother figure, and the western regions where nationalism is strong and people regard the military presence as an occupation.
Yet it is not only the fleet, and its accompanying 16,200 troops, that stands as evidence of the deep division between the citizens of this country. Ironically, on Ukraine's Day of Unity, Yushchenko awarded Stepan Bandera, leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement during the Second World War, the title of Hero of Ukraine, infuriating ethnic Russians who dismiss Bandera as a Nazi collaborator. Many Ukrainians glorify Bandera as a liberator and there are streets named after him in the western provinces. Later, the administrative court in Donetsk — Yanukovych's birthplace in eastern Ukraine — ruled the award illegal.
Yanukovych did not waste any time retaliating. In Brussels, he showed his pro-Russian nature by stating that the Stalinist famine of the 1930s that killed millions should not be considered a genocide against Ukrainians.
Consequently, nationalist Ukrainians see the extension of the Russian fleet's presence in Sevastopol as the first step on the road to a divided Ukraine. They predict that this will be followed by trouble from the Russian minority over the status of Crimea, the only autonomous republic in the country. Crimea was part of Russia until then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ceded it to Ukraine in 1954. The region maintains a significant Russian-leaning population and represents a potential demographic time bomb that could explode at any time.
Ukraine's future appears quite gloomy, with the prospect of a war breaking out in Crimea, similar to the one that occurred in the breakaway Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008. The chances of this occurring are increased by the unyielding efforts of the Kremlin to grant Russian citizenship to ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
While those who oppose the decision on the Russian fleet argue that at least half of the country is against the deal, supporters fire back at them that this logically means half of Ukraine backs it. This is the East-West dilemma faced by Ukraine.
Rauf Baker is a Dubai-based journalist who specialises in Eastern European Affairs.