Ukraine Walks the Tightrope between Moscow and the West

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 15 14:09:30 UTC 2007


Ukraine Walks the Tightrope between Moscow and the West

POINT OF VIEW: By Gennady Sysoyev
Kommersant, Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Ukraine authorities had to have guessed that the visit to Ukraine by
General Henry Obering, the head of the US Ballistic Missile Defense
Agency, would provoke at least some level of annoyance in Russia.
Moreover, taking into account that the general arrived in Kiev at the
height of a Russian-American war of words concerning the expansion of
America's missile defense system into Poland and the Czech Republic, the
fact that Kiev not only allowed the overseer of the US missile defense
system to visit but even received him at a fairly high level of government
was very annoying indeed for Russia. The actions of the Ukrainian
authorities do have a certain logic of their own: the ballyhoo surrounding
the question of the expansion of the American missile defense system in
Europe gives Kiev a chance to stake out its own foreign policy course, the
idea of which boils down to a balancing act between Moscow and the West.

Such a course was successfully charted by former Ukrainian President
Leonid Kuchma, who flirted with the West right up to a discussion of the
advantages for Ukraine of joining NATO, while all the while throwing
adoring glances over his shoulder at Russia. This strategy brought more
than a few dividends both for Mr. Kuchma personally, who managed to stay
at the top of the political heap, and for Ukraine as a whole, which
received cheap oil and gas from Russia while simultaneously building a
relationship with the EU and NATO. After the triumph of the Orange
Revolution in December 2004 and the coming to power of the
Yushchenko-Tymoshenko duo, Ukrainian foreign policy began to list sharply
in the direction of the West.

Eventually, however, the trend proved to be short-lived, and all Ukraine
got out of it was the title of "CIS Champion of Democracy" and a gas war
with Russia. The political pendulum in Ukraine is now swinging in the
opposite direction. Last spring Viktor Yanukovych, who since 2004 has
reliably worn the label of "pro-Moscow politician," triumphantly returned
to power when his party won the parliamentary elections. Since then,
observers both in Ukraine and abroad have been talking about Kiev's return
to the bosom of Russia. At the same time, however, both the "pro-Western"
Yushchenko and the "pro-Russian" Yanukovych understand that orienting
themselves only towards the East or towards the West is ultimately not
beneficial either for themselves or for their country, where each of them
considers himself the key figure.

Thus, immediately after assuming the position of prime minister, Viktor
Yanukovych conveniently forgot about his solemn pre-election oath to make
Russian the country's second official language. Then, during a visit to
Brussels in September, he attempted to push through EU financing for the
construction of a trans-Caspian gas pipeline from Azerbaijan to Western
Europe that would bypass Russia entirely. During his December trip to the
US, he promised not to sell Ukraine's gas pipeline network to Moscow and
lobbied for his country to join the WTO before Russia.

Meanwhile, Viktor Yushchenko got busy making overtures to Russia by firing
his vehemently anti-Russian foreign minister, Boris Tarasyuk, and
preparing for an official visit to Russia. So no matter who eventually
becomes the top dog in Ukrainian politics, the victor will unavoidably
have to strive to balance his interests between Russia and the West based
on the price that they have to offer for various concessions that Kiev
could make. The American missile defense system will raise the stakes to
tempting heights.


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