Ukraine Welcomes Western Support, But Russia Is A Permanent Fixture

LONDON, England -- It is often said that Ukraine lies on a fault line between east and west. But from Moscow's point of view, even that simple analysis is threatening: it indicates how far the front has moved eastwards since the end of the cold war. But that momentum has run out. Moscow has become progressively more assertive and western security concerns are focused elsewhere.

Europe and the US flirt with Kiev, but Moscow is a jealous patriarch – and one to which Ukrainians may return in the current elections.

Ukraine's presidential election looks certain to reflect that change in the strategic weather, with opinion polls favouring candidates ready to do business with Russia.

Divisions inside the country have always reflected competing pressures from outside. Seen from Washington, the collapse of communism opened up a "New Europe", with two functions. First, former Soviet satellites under NATO protection would be a buffer against any resurgence of a hostile Russia.

Second, these new potential NATO members would be more willing clients in other respects – opening their markets and supporting US foreign policy in general.

But Russia does not have a rival strategic claim so much as a different concept of what Ukraine is. Many Russians see it as an inseparable part of a greater Slavic entity whose capital is Moscow.

That view, or a diluted version of it, is shared also by Ukrainians in the east of the country, who consider themselves Russian or who have Russian as their main language. By contrast, Ukrainian nationalism in its most anti-Russian form is concentrated in western parts of the country that have stronger ties to Poland.

In the middle, geographically and politically, is ambivalence and nervous pragmatism. Western support is welcome, but it can come and go: Russia is a permanent fixture on the doorstep.

That fact is reinforced whenever Moscow cuts off gas supplies. Ukraine is a vital transit point to EU markets, something that augments its strategic importance but also creates opportunities for corruption. In some respects, Ukraine's gas trade is more powerful than the state.

To make matters more complicated, Russia's Black Sea fleet is based in Crimea – territory that Moscow only grudgingly accepts as part of Ukraine.

In that context, Moscow sees any Ukrainian bid for NATO membership as a massive threat. It saw the 2004 "Orange Revolution" as proof of western meddling in its "sphere of influence".

But there is no single "western" aspiration for Ukraine. The EU is divided and Washington's view is mutable. Russia's vicious little war with Georgia in 2008 had various causes, but one result was to signal a firm end to Moscow's patience with any western involvement in its backyard.

That fact, combined with an increased US focus on securing Russian diplomatic support against Iran, means further NATO enlargement is being discreetly shelved. Many Ukrainians, as well as anti-Russia hawks in the US and Europe, see that as appeasement of an authoritarian Moscow. Others see it as sensible realpolitik.

Either way, Ukraine's constant misfortune is to have the big decisions about its future taken in foreign capitals. That, more than anything, explains why politics in Kiev is so perennially unstable and dysfunctional.

Source: Guardian UK