In an August 2009 video posted on his blog, Dmitry Medvedev addresses his electorate...and his Ukrainian neighbours: "Our bilateral relations with the Ukraine have never been this bad. The officials in Kiev have been pursuing an overtly anti-Russian policy ever since the military attack in South Ossetia by Mr Saakashvili, where Ukrainian arms were used to kill civilians and Russian soldiers.” The charge explicitly targets Ukrainian president Victor Yushchenko, accused of backing his Georgian counterpart Mikhail Saakashvili during the conflict between Russia and Georgia back in August 2008.

The Russian powers that be are intent on giving Mr Yushchenko a no-holds-barred thrashing, and that hardly causes a stir in the West: Yushchenko, the hope of Europeans and of many Ukrainians back in 2004, has become the pariah of Ukrainian politics, accused at once of betraying the East and failing to win over the West. So much so that, in the run-up to the presidential election on 17 January, this candidate finds himself without any money or support to run a campaign, and precious little chance of being re-elected. Since 1997 dealings between Russia and the Ukraine have been governed by the so-called “Big Treaty”, a tangle of bilateral agreements covering every possible domain (energy, economy, military, culture, humanitarian issues etc.). But the two countries retain their own political agendas, some of which conflict with the spirit of the treaty. Ever since Vladimir Putin came to power, Moscow’s foremost goal has been to boost its influence in the post-Soviet countries, especially in the Ukraine. Buoyed up by his victory in 2004, Yushchenko has incessantly riled Moscow by challenging this paradigm and taking on issues that rankle Russia.

The war of memory

The sorest spot is the Ukraine’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And yet joining NATO has been on the country’s foreign policy agenda for years now without incurring Moscow’s excessive wrath. But Yushchenko’s persistent condemnations of Moscow and his cordial relations with the United States enrage Russia, which regards the issue of NATO accession as a point of no return. And then there’s natural gas, a major European preoccupation and recurrent bone of contention between Kiev and Moscow. The 2006 and 2008 crises that led to an interruption of the gas supply to Europe have made the Ukrainian system more vulnerable than ever. The strategy is quite clear: to weaken Ukraine with a view to seizing its transit system, which is its sole remaining strategic weapon.

The “war of memories”, largely underestimated by the West, has also contributed to the degradation of relations between the two countries. Mr Yushchenko has fought to forge a Ukrainian identity founded on a revalorisation of the Ukrainian language and culture, but above all on the construct of a history “specific to the Ukrainian people” – and therefore distinct from that of other Slavic nations. The struggle for international acknowledgement of the Holodomor, the great famine of 1932–1933, is a case in point. For the presidency, the millions of Ukrainian peasants who died of starvation in the ’30s were victims of a genocide masterminded by Joseph Stalin. For the Russians, this operation constitutes an attempt to rewrite their shared history.

Can we expect a change after the presidential election? Well, the candidates are wilfully confusing the issues, complicating the rift between the pro-Russian and pro-Western sides that once formed the essential dividing line in the Orange Revolution of 2004. Victor Yanukovych, currently leading in the polls, was the big loser of the previous election. This time around he is trying to reach out beyond his traditional Russian-speaking voters, who are based chiefly in the eastern part of the country. To that end he needs to refute his image as a puppet of Moscow. Mr Yanukovych is not an ideologue by any stretch of the imagination. Many experts say the candidate has little room for manoeuvre, as his stance on Russia is influenced by the conflicting motivations of his financial backers and dependent on internal rivalries within his political organisation, the “Party of Regions”.

Tymoshenko, a fine tactician

His chief adversary, incumbent prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, is also hedging her bets, having shifted far from her original foreign policy positions (which are summed up in the article “Containing Russia” published in 2007 in the journal Foreign Affairs). The erstwhile driving force of the Orange Revolution knows that to win she needs Moscow’s support. A subtle tactician, she is oscillating between two poles. "Yanukovych has much more semantic leeway than she does,” analyses Tessier-Stail: “Tymoshenko has more rank-and-file support in the west and centre than in the east. So she can’t go on about Russian friendship, she can only talk about a Russian partner – even though in fact she is pursuing a pro-Russian policy.”

By moving the cursor eastwards, the favourites are merely following a more general movement aimed at restoring Russian leadership in the ex-Soviet sphere. "France, Germany, Italy, the United States: they all now acknowledge Russia’s importance,” opines Mr Zlemko. “And our foreign policy is not detached from global issues. Above all, the Ukrainian establishment no longer harbours any illusions about joining the European Union any time soon: the EU is losing patience with Ukraine over the absence of reforms.”