Ukraine's deepening relations with Russia raises Western concerns02-07-2010 15:16:01
By Nick Amies
Deutsche Welle, July 2, 2010
KIEV - After years of animosity, relations between Ukraine and Russia are improving significantly. But not everyone is happy with Kyiv's new alignment with Moscow. Western powers are watching the deepening ties with concern.
In the months that have followed Viktor Yanukovych's election as president of Ukraine, the former Soviet state's relationship with Russia has been improving steadily. After hitting historic lows under Yanukovych's pro-Western predecessor Viktor Yushchenko's presidency, Ukraine and Russia are taking significant steps to cement close ties in economic and strategic areas after years of destabilizing animosity.
Yanukovych has been pursuing stronger relations with Russia ever since his February election and along with a proposed friendship treaty that the two nations intend to sign in the coming months, Ukraine and Russia have announced the resumption of full military cooperation and mutually beneficial trade and energy deals in recent weeks.
A resumption of military cooperation between the two nations follows on from Yanukovych’s signing of a controversial deal in April allowing Russia to extend its lease on the Black Sea Port of Sevastopol for another 25 years after the current agreement expires in 2017.
Return to military cooperation signals new direction
In May, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Yanukovych also issued three joint strategic declarations during a presidential summit in Kyiv; they pledged to jointly advance the Russian president's initiative aimed at signing the European Security Treaty, work together on resolving the conflict in the restive Transdnistria region and cooperate on naval security in the Black Sea region.
In June, Yanukovych made it clearer still in which direction he intended to take Ukraine when he effectively made good on an election promise to turn away from the West and NATO.
"On June 4, parliament passed an initial draft of a bill establishing Ukraine's non-aligned status, fulfilling President Yanukovych's pledge to halt the country's drive to join NATO," Asher Pirt, an expert in Russian and Central Asian Affairs, told Deutsche Welle.
"In addition, the renewal of Russia rights of the Black Sea Fleet Port and signing bilateral agreements point to a change in Ukrainian policy toward Russia rather than the West. Ukraine is not a great power like Russia and the US and needs assistance with defence, economic stability and energy supplies. Its neighbor Russia is able to provide this at a price."
Yanukovych has also attempted to repair relations over trade and energy security with Moscow which were damaged under the Yushchenko administration. The previous presidency consistently battled with Moscow over transit rights for oil pipelines, leading to annual cut-offs and supply shortages in Ukraine and customers in Europe.
Healthy economic ties being promoted by Moscow
Kyiv and Moscow recently agreed a new deal on oil and gas transportation which would secure previously contentious transit routes and set fees while also providing security to Russia's main customers in the European Union.
Ukraine and Russia have also normalized and improved trade relations since Yanukovych came to power with Russian-Ukrainian trade doubling in the first four months of the current year. In the last year of the Yushchenko presidency, trade between Russia and Ukraine collapsed to $22 billion (17 billion euros) from $40 billion. However, the new boost to economic ties seems to be driven mainly by Russian desires with Ukraine coming under a certain amount of pressure to cooperate.
"There is significant evidence in terms of economic alignment as well but there is also the question of how far Ukraine wishes to go with this and to what extent Ukraine can resist Russia’s overtures," Dr. Susan Stewart, a senior research associate at the Russia/CIS Research Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Deutsche Welle.
"Ukraine would like substantial but limited economic cooperation while Russia says it wants deeper relations, with Prime Minister Putin saying that he wants to see Gazprom and Ukraine’s Naftogaz merge."
While the developing closeness between the two nations has been greeted with relief among many who believed the damaging rift created under Yushchenko would ultimately lead to confrontation, Kyiv's shift towards Moscow is raising concerns in the United States.
US, Western powers concerned about Kyiv's direction
"For the United States, Ukraine's change of direction should cause some concern," Dr. Stewart said. "There are concerns over Yanukovych's authoritarian tendencies: the way that he formed the parliamentary coalition, how the courts are controlled, concerns over self-censorship by journalists and censorship by media owners and the government. The US should be aware that even the limited democratic achievements that resulted from the Orange Revolution are rapidly deteriorating."
Although a certain amount of political chaos marked the Yushchenko years, his presidency, his willingness to steer Ukraine westwards and his championing of NATO and EU membership made Yushchenko a valuable ally for the US. While struggling to reform the post-Soviet state amid back-stabbing and political power plays, Yushchenko and his Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko attempted to introduce a Western-style democracy to Ukraine and finally pull away from Russia's sphere of influence.
Yanukovych's election has apparently reversed much of what his predecessor set out to achieve, retaining only his policy of pursuing membership of the European Union.
"The US certainly has concerns over the state of democracy in Ukraine," Jana Kobzova, a Ukraine expert at the European Council for Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle. "With Yanukovych at the helm, Washington is right to be worried."
"I think that the United States would love to see warm ties between Ukraine and Russia as long as 'warmth' is also evident in both countries’ relations with the United States," Stephen Bandera, the political editor at the Kyiv Post, told Deutsche Welle.
NATO expansion on hold after Ukraine turns away
Ukraine, along with Georgia, has also been viewed as an integral part of NATO's Eastern expansion and while NATO was sure both countries would eventually join the alliance, it declined to put them on an immediate path to membership.
Russia fiercely opposed NATO's proposal, saying that both states were in a region where the Kremlin says it has "privileged interests" and wants to prevent further encroachment by Western powers.
While Yanukovych's election and rejection of NATO membership has eased the strain between Russia and the US over the issue, Washington is said to be concerned over Ukraine's future strategic direction and this is likely to be addressed by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton during her visit this weekend.
"While NATO still has its liaison office in Kyiv and still provides military advice, there is no chance of Ukraine joining NATO while Yanukovych is in charge," said Kobzova. "That is completely off the agenda."