Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Making It Clear To Putin

KIEV, Ukraine -- Vladimir Putin is in Kyiv this week to meet his counterpart, Viktor Yushchenko, as part of the first session of the Russian-Ukrainian interstate commission. There should be a lot to talk about.

Vladimir Putin

Relations between the two countries have been delicate ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, but this year has created particular strains.

It started out with price dispute over over natural gas that threatened to leave Ukrainians as well as Europeans short on fuel.

Since then, there have been the usual arguments over the rental rights of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, based in Crimea. Several Russian citizens have also been banned from entering Ukraine, even including controversial deputy speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky – at least temporarily.

A visit to Kyiv in October by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov should have improved relations, especially as he was met by Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych, recently re-elected and largely seen as pro-Russian.

Indeed, the Kremlin unapologetically supported Yanukovych’s fraud-marred bid for the presidency in 2004, which led to the West-endorsed Orange Revolution.

But instead, Fradkov was lambasted for suggesting that Russia would “shield” Ukraine from outside interference.

Considering the Kremlin’s heavy-handed policy under Putin, a healthy dose of caution is in order. Hundreds of Georgian citizens were deported from Russia after the authorities in Tbilisi detained a couple of Russian citizens on spy charges.

Western-leaning Georgia has also had its wine and mineral water exports to Russia banned. But Russia’s main weapon of intimidation seems to be gas, which Ukraine and, increasingly, Europe are frightfully dependent on.

It would be naive for anyone to believe that Russia, feeling particularly vulnerable itself, will not continue to try and cow Ukraine and its other neighbors. The now distant chance of Ukraine joining NATO particularly annoys the Kremlin, as does the more likely possibility that Kyiv may join the WTO first.

Ukraine should try to have the best relations with Russia as possible, and Putin’s visit can lay the groundwork for this. But conceding on issues of strategic security (i.e. NATO) or international trade relations (i.e. WTO entry) won’t help. More importantly, the country has to come up with an intelligible foreign policy.

A good start would be to decide who’s in charge of the Foreign Ministry. Ukraine’s Constitution says the president, so Yanukovych should back off. It doesn’t matter whether pro-Western Borys Tarasyuk’s recent dismissal by the Yanukovych-controlled parliament holds or not.

If Ukraine cannot define a clear foreign policy, how can it expect to be understood internationally? The confusion just makes Russian hegemony easier.

Source: Kyiv Post

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