While Europeans are talking about how Ukraine has been “swallowed” by Russia, Hillary Clinton is making her first visit to Kiev as secretary of state. Her European tour will also include visits to Poland, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Some European experts might view Clinton’s visit as one to victims of the Russian-American “reset” (Poland, Georgia) or the Armenian-Turkish “reset” (Azerbaijan).
But not everything is as it might have seemed even a half year ago. Ukraine is a different country than it was during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit last year, and even during President Viktor Yanukovich’s visit to Washington in early April.
First, the Ukraine of President Yanukovich does not feel offended by the United States. On the contrary, it is grateful: Ukrainian authorities can now use the U.S.-Russian “reset” as a carte blanche for moving themselves closer to Russia than they’ve been in 20 years.
The United States must understand that this Ukraine does not view itself as a victim of Russia’s “imperial ambitions” It is freely and willingly helping Russia appear as a new superpower.
For President Yanukovich, in contrast to the millions of Ukrainians who did not vote for him, the presence of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, or the law on Ukraine remaining outside any bloc (like NATO), is logical and natural.
The new government, in contrast to the opposition, does not see these agreements with Russia as a threat to Ukrainian sovereignty or territorial integrity.
Yanukovich offers Russia a very simple deal: Kiev will help Moscow gain the illusion that it is reviving its spheres of influence, and in exchange it will receive financial help (like the recent $4 billion loan from a Russian bank).
Yanukovich’s understanding of Ukraine’s national interests fundamentally differs from those of his opponents: He believes Ukraine cannot take a single Westward step further than Russia does. If integration with Europe means a visa-free regime with the European Union, then Russia must be no less interested in this than Ukraine.
The United States — and the West as a whole — should understand that Yanukovich does not perceive any concessions by Russia, even the most dubious, as “concessions.” His positions are often similar to those of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev — even on some of the most divisive Ukrainian-Russian issues, such as whether Sevastopol is Ukrainian or a “city of Russian glory,” as the Russians maintain, or whether the famine of 1932-33 was a genocide against Ukraine organized by Stalin or a calamity that struck people across the U.S.S.R.
Perhaps the only potential for disputes between Ukraine and Russia today lies in conflicting business interests between the Russians and Yanukovich’s entourage. Not ideological or security issues.
This has been clear in the question of the South Stream gas transit line. The Ukrainian leadership does not conceal its negative view of this project in bilateral or international forums. Yet in his election campaign, Yanukovich suggested the participation of Ukrainian companies in the project.
It might well be that Yanukovich will turn out to be a greater pragmatist than Medvedev or Putin, for whom a reinstatement of a “zone of privileged interests” is still more important than business deals.
Second, the West should take into account that despite his relations with Moscow, Yanukovich does not want to be a second Lukashenko, a leader non grata in the West. Recognition by countries such as the United States or Germany, where he plans to make an official visit in coming months, is very important to him.
At the summit on nuclear security in Washington in April, Yanukovich agreed — to President Obama’s joy — to give up enriched uranium not because he believes in a world without nuclear weapons, but because a handshake from the American leader was for him something akin to international legitimization of his presidency.
Given the criticism inside Ukraine and some disappointment among Europeans over his first 100 days in office, Yanukovich needs such an American endorsement no less today. He needs not only American help in securing financing, but also the symbolic support of the Obama administration.
During Secretary Clinton’s visit, the United States should make clear that such support will not be possible if Ukraine continues to manifest tendencies incompatible with its declared desire for integration into Europe.
This includes pressures on the media — and especially the situation concerning Channel 5 and TVi, which were denied broadcasting frequencies at the demand of a media group controlled by the wife of the head of Ukrainian intelligence agency S.B.U., Valery Khoroshkovsky, who is also the biggest media owner in the country. The conflict of interest is obvious to everyone except the new president and his entourage.
Or there was the private talk the S.B.U. held with a university rector demanding that he ban students from participating in opposition rallies. Or, in the the most recent incident, there was the detention of the head of the Ukraine office of the Adenauer Foundation at the airport, prompting interventions from the German government and the president of the European Parliament, apparently because he had criticized the first 100 days of the new Ukrainian authorities.
Finally, Secretary Clinton should not forget that Ukraine has no less influence on Russia than Russia on Ukraine.
Do not believe those who claim that Ukraine lost its influence on Russia after the Orange Revolution. Ukraine was at least in part why the Russian president started to speak in full voice about “European integration,” while before he had spoken only of partnership or cooperation with the European Union.
Ukraine also played no small role in the failure of several Russian integrationist projects in the post-Soviet area — and those that were formed without Ukraine are marginal. It was after Ukraine refused to join a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan that the Kremlin became more active in trying to join the World Trade Organization.
There are other examples, too, and they all point to the fact that the influence of Ukraine on Russia is positive, and that it is more important than ever to preserve it. But that can be done only if there is a stop to the tendencies moving Ukraine toward politics à la Putin.
Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the Institute of World Policy in Kiev.