Russia Strongarming Ukraine

PARIS, France -- When Donald Rumsfeld was asked at last week's NATO summit to comment on the situation of the American troops waiting to take part in the Sea Breeze exercises in Ukraine, he replied bluntly: "I can't comment on it. I haven't been involved in the details of it."

American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

Technically, this was no doubt true. Details can be tricky things. But it stretches credulity that Rumsfeld would not have been pretty familiar with the deeper issue of Ukraine's bid to join the NATO alliance. The question will certainly come up in the scheduled summit meeting between presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin ahead of next month's G8 meeting in St. Petersburg.

The 200 U.S. troops have now left Ukraine and the joint exercise has been "postponed" because Ukraine's parliament was too overwhelmed by the political crisis to vote the necessary authorization for foreign troops to operate on Ukraine soil. And that political crisis, along with the anti-NATO "riots" that greeted the American troops during their brief stay in the Crimea, play central parts in the unfolding drama.

The political coalition that brought about the democratic triumph of Ukraine's Orange Revolution has fallen apart, in part through the personal animosity between President Viktor Yushchenko and his former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The president has most recently tried to cobble together a coalition with the socialists, the party with the fourth-largest number of votes in parliament after the March elections, but that plan failed when the socialists demanded the powerful post of speaker in parliament.

Now President Yushchenko's party is talking about a coalition with the pro-Russian Party of the Regions, led by Viktor Yanukovich, the very man the Orange Revolution rallied to block from becoming president. (His party won the second-largest number of votes.) And should that happen, Ukraine can probably forget the grand strategy to anchor the country definitively into the West by joining both NATO and the European Union, the plan that President Yushchenko declared was the crucial mission of the Orange Revolution.

The EU has been cool about Ukraine's prospects from the beginning, and with Romania and Bulgaria, Turkey and the Balkan states already lined up to proceed through the accession process, Ukraine is a long way down the EU's list of priorities. But joining NATO is a different matter, and Ukraine had been hoping to begin the formal accession process later this year at the next NATO summit in Riga. But after the cancelled Sea Breeze exercises and the anti-NATO demonstrations that met the American troops, hopes of progress at Riga now look unrealistic, even if Ukraine's government were sufficiently stable and in agreement to push NATO for an answer. This will come as a great relief to Russia.

"The accession to NATO of countries like Ukraine or Georgia will undoubtedly herald a colossal, geopolitical change," Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told the Duma, Russia's parliament, last week.

And the Russians have been striving, through diplomatic, political and other more subtle means over the past year to prevent such a formal adherence of Ukraine to the West. Those anti-NATO protests were mounted by pro-Russian groups, and Russia's blunt cut of gas supplies to Ukraine over the winter served as a reminder that life could get very cold and bleak if Ukraine severed its traditional ties with Russia. Russia's official line, as stressed by Foreign Minister Lavrov, is that the choice is for Ukraine to make.

"Every country, including the countries of the former Soviet Union, is entitled to make sovereign decisions as to who their partners on the international arena will be, be it a state or an organization," Lavrov said.

"We consider these (formerly Soviet) states to be independent sovereign states and that is the basis on which we are developing our relations with them," Lavrov said, stressing that "the move to market principles of pricing in trade, including the trade in energy," is clear evidence of this.

"Needless to say, those of our neighbors who choose alliance partnership relations with Russia will benefit from this as is the case in any other part of the world where allies have privileged status," Lavrov went on.

The message to Ukraine was clear: energy will be cheap and plentiful so long as you stay within Russia's orbit. But join NATO and freeze.

Curiously, at the same time that this message was sent to Ukraine, the Russian Black Sea fleet was conducting joint anti-terrorism exercises with NATO in the Mediterranean, and its Baltic fleet was taking part in the Baltops 2006 exercise with NATO and Swedish warships. And in September, NATO Special Forces from the U.S. and Britain, France and Turkey will take part in joint exercises on Russian soil with the 76th Airborne Division near Pskov.

The Russian military values its special relationship with NATO, but Russian politicians and much of public opinion remain openly suspicious and even hostile to the old Cold War adversary. Last month, NATO and the Russian government jointly organized a 9-day public relations campaign in nine cities, from Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast to Vladivostok in the Far East, called "Russia-NATO: Pooling Efforts."

It went down like a lead balloon. The public stayed away from the exhibitions and lectures, and NATO speakers were pelted with hostile questions and faced angry crowds holding banners and posters that read "NATO the occupier" and "NATO is worse then the Gestapo" and "NATO out."

Where there were no NATO flags to burn, the demonstrators made do with burning American flags, according to the report in Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta. And we can be pretty sure that Russians burning American flags is one of those details on which Defense Secretary Rumsfeld most certainly gets briefed.

Source: UPI