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Why Putin Worked Yanukovych's Corner

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An acquaintance of mine, a world karate champion, once told me that when you're competing on enemy territory the judges will never let you win on points. You've got to win by knockout.

Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko won the election on points and now he's going for a knockout. In the election game, a knockout is known as a revolution.

Russia was predestined to referee this bout between Ukrainian political heavyweights. But President Vladimir Putin opted to be the guy in Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's corner who hands him the towel and the spit bucket. The trainer can't be the referee. So the Ukrainians called in Javier Solana and Lech Walesa.

Why did Putin choose to work in the corner of a twice-convicted candidate?

If elected, would Yanukovych give preference to Russian businesses? Not likely. During the campaign, the government privatized the crown jewel of the Ukrainian metals industry, VAT Kryvorizhstal. Alexei Mordashov, head of Severstal and a Kremlin favorite, offered $1.2 billion for Ukraine's largest steel producer. But the company was sold to Investment and Steel Union, a company run by President Leonid Kuchma's son-in-law and a Ukrainian businessman, Rynat Akhmetov, for just $800 million.

If we're treated like that during the campaign, imagine what will happen once the election is over.

Perhaps the Kremlin was trying to keep Ukraine from joining the European Union and NATO. Who came up with the idea of cozying up to the West in the first place? Kuchma and Yanukovych, that's who. Every time Russia complained that Ukraine was stealing its natural gas, Kuchma replied: "So that's how it is. Fine. We're joining NATO."

If Russia had a different president and a different army, the results of the election in Ukraine could have led to a schism between east and west, with Russian troops rolling into the eastern part of the country to the cheers of the local residents. After all, eastern Ukraine from Odessa to Donetsk is basically Russian territory that was artificially annexed to Ukraine in the Soviet era along the line of the Russo-German front in 1918.

But that would require a different Kremlin and a different army. As things stand today, if Yushchenko wins, Russia will have backed the loser; if Yanukovych wins, we'll have backed the guy who stabbed us in the back.

So why did Russia put its money on Yanukovych? I have a theory.

You see, Yushchenko's wife is American. And she's not just any American, she's a former U.S. government official. Their first meeting was extremely romantic -- they were seated next to one another on an airplane.

Lots of people meet like this. But Putin, an old KGB man, could be led to believe that any coincidence is in fact a plot hatched by foreign agents. Belief in a CIA conspiracy against Russia runs high in Putin's inner circle. They blame it for everything from downed planes to Beslan. Following this logic, however, the heads of the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service should be the first ones suspected of spying for a foreign power.

You tell Putin that one of the candidates in the Ukrainian election has an American wife, and that they met by chance on a flight somewhere. His natural conclusion: Yushchenko is a CIA agent.

Why plant this idea in Putin's head, you ask? Very simple. The Kremlin has been making a lot of money in the political campaign business for a long time. Now the campaign business is dying in Russia, replaced by the so-called power vertical, or executive chain of command. But these people still have to make a living.

The Ukrainian election presented a huge opportunity. All they had to do was set the process in motion by convincing the higher-ups that a CIA conspiracy was involved.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.

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