A Severed Head Haunts Ukraine's Leader

  • Share
  • Read Later

Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kuchma shake hands

Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma has been in deep trouble ever since his opposition released tapes purporting to be recordings of the president ordering his interior minister to "get rid" of a critical journalist whose decapitated body was discovered late last year. As pressure mounts on Kuchma to resign, he met Monday with Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Given Kuchma's flirtation with NATO in recent years, Putin's got to be loving this scandal...

Paul Quinn-Judge: All the signals are that the Russians feel that this is a good opportunity to at the very least restore a very warm relation with the leader of the Ukraine. Their big hope is that Kuchma can hold on to power, and that Russia can restore its big-brother status in the former Soviet territory. Because the opposition is even more hostile to Russia than Kuchma has been.

Although Kuchma had been supportive of NATO in recent years, he's been all over the map, politically. He came to power with the image of a dull Soviet-era factory manager, which, of course, he was. And he was clearly as comfortable speaking Russian as he was speaking Ukrainian. In Moscow, his moves toward the West in recent years have been viewed as gamesmanship

How strong are the merits of the opposition claims that they have evidence implicating Kuchma in the killing of a journalist?

It's too early to tell. It must be said, however, that the tapes are not very short. It's not five minutes of conversations. The opposition tactic has been to release more and more long tapes to prove that the recordings are not fake. And the government may have made a crucial error when they admitted that the voices on the tapes were those of Kuchma and other officials, and then fell back on the claim that the tapes had been completely reedited to have those voices say things they never actually said. The opposition believes it can easily verify that the tapes are authentic and unadulterated.

What can Putin actually do for Kuchma?

Not much, really. He could use his body language to demonstrate that he's on Kuchma's side, but Putin is not very good at that. The Russians may be poking around for a way to give him support, hoping to collect on the debt later. The Russian media, even those outlets close to the Kremlin, have signaled pretty clearly that Putin is going to try and get all the leverage he can out of Kuchma's troubles. But they haven't laid out what he can do, probably because the Russians themselves don't really know what they can do. They may have left it a little late.