Ignore the broad smiles, firm handshakes, cheerful backslapping and toasts raised to "everlasting friendship" between well-dressed, smiling Russians, intense Germans, glib Americans and deceptive Brits.

The Second Cold War has already begun. If forced to be perfectly frank, every diplomat, spy or banker from Boston to Baku would acknowledge this.

Anyone who reads the press or watches television must have noticed by now that the most dynamic, aggressive and self-assured force in the world today is Russia. Daily reports in the media announce that Russian state-controlled gas giant Gazprom is buying a pipeline network here or a European gas company there.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is shown pleased with himself in Budapest as he offers Hungarians "reliable" gas supplies - but only if they buy from Gazprom.

It's part of his fuel diplomacy strategy, which allows Russia to influence neighbors and more distant countries through energy supplies.

There is more to Putin's arsenal. Russia is the ultimate salesman, offering weapons to Algeria, gas and oil to Beijing, and nuclear reactors to Iran. By supporting ill-fated democracies and separatist movements in Trandniester, Ossetia and the dictator-ruled Belarus, Russia maintains a strong grip of influence over neighboring countries.

Meanwhile, Russian television stations present Putin in a positive light, ensuring him stable support within his own country of 140 million. Western Europeans watch and worry, wondering whether they are doomed to cold winters if Russia cuts off their gas supplies.

The leaders of the great Western alliance, in the meantime, assure their citizens that the war in Iraq is almost won. Have patience, the masses are told, all we need is for Jeffersonian democracy to ultimately triumph in the slums of Baghdad.

Then there is Ukraine. With an indecisive chief executive who changes his views on policy issues all too frequently, the country seems to be not slipping, but tumbling back to its pre-Orange days. In Washington, London and Berlin the unpleasant little words that nobody wants to utter aloud are once again being whispered in the corridors of power - "A failed state."

Is there hope? Can Kyiv resist Putin's "Drang nach Malorossiya" or will it be trampled under the patent leather shoes worn by Russian oil and gas executives, as they lead the Russian corporate state to battle? Things look pretty grim.

Ukraine might not be a failed state, yet, but it is certainly beginning to look like a failed dream. Recall the slogans shouted on the Maidan in December 2004: "We Want to Be in Europe!" "Crooks Belong in Prison".

Now that the hype is over, it might be appropriate to remind ourselves that:
1) Europeans, for understandable reasons, are not ready to admit Ukraine into their club.
2) The shadier elements of Ukraine's elite are still at liberty, living very comfortably in penthouse suites.
Furthermore, it should be very clear that Ukraine is not only a victim of its geographic location but of its inability to conceptualize what is in its own national interests. Apparently, each section of the country cares more about its own regional interests than the well-being of the nation as a whole. This will not do.
Then there is the question of the northern neighbor.

Every evil cannot be blamed on the Russians. This moth-eaten explanation has been offered up by too many Ukrainian leaders as an excuse to cover up their own inability to govern efficiently and honestly.

Having said this, there is no doubt that many of Ukraine's problems can still be tied to Russia's imperial drive. Karl Marx, after all, once wrote that "the guiding star of Russia is world domination." He may have been right.

What awaits a vulnerable and embattled Ukrainian state during The Second Cold War? The stakes in this conflict are great - either Ukraine will survive as a nation-state or become a part of what Russian energy mogul Anatoli Chubais envisions as a "liberal Russian empire."

Within this empire, Ukrainians would be allowed to keep the blue and yellow flag, speak Ukrainian, keep their embassies, have an army and control their own borders. But the real decisions, the hardcore work, would be done for them in Moscow by hard-eyed Kremlin bosses.

During the First Cold War, Ukraine, by virtue of its membership in the USSR, was an active participant on the side of Russia and the other "socialist" republics in the ideological struggle with the West. They lost, and as a result of this defeat, Ukraine became independent.

Independence became reality not as the result of a powerful national liberation struggle with masses of oppressed Ukrainian workers and peasants on the streets with pitchforks and clubs, but through a political deal made in a forest in Belarus between two high-ranking communist internationalists, Leonid Kravchuk and Boris Yeltsin.

Suddenly, Ukrainians found themselves in charge of their own country, a role they were quite unprepared for.

It is possible that had they shed some blood for their freedom, things might have worked out differently, but that is now only speculation.

Today, as Cold War II heats up, Ukraine is virtually alone, in need of stronger leadership and without any meaningful friends, except Poland. The U.S. is preoccupied with terrorism, Iraq, and so on. The Europeans may look the other way as long as Russian gas keeps flowing.

Ukraine must rely on itself to survive. Whether it really wants to survive as a sovereign nation is at the heart of the matter.

Some people warn me not to "dramatize the situation." Ukrainians often tend to say this when they are uncomfortable with the possible end result of a given problem. It is an escapist phrase; it soothes the intellect and tells the subconscious that a solution is out there somewhere and all one need do is to seek it out.

Cold War II, however, is not only dramatic; it is a question of real survival.

Ukraine's political establishment does not seem to understand this. Maybe they don't want to face the truth, and believe they can bluff their way out of doing something preventive, the way that former President Leonid Kuchma bluffed Washington for years by making promises to reform the economy.

The time has finally arrived for Ukraine to begin behaving as a real state and not a playground for oligarchs. The victors of this high-stakes geopolitical game will not spare the losers, and the time may come when Uncle Sam will throw up his hands in frustration at the shenanigans played in the Ukrainian capital.
By Roman Kupchinsky, Kyiv Post

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