Steppe dance with the Kremlin

Four months after Viktor Yanukovych became president, Kyiv is moving back into Moscow’s embrace

Astakhov Dmitry/Corbis

Last week, Ukraine abandoned a long-held goal: to join NATO. In a bill submitted to parliament by President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine barred itself from joining the 28-member military alliance—a jarring shift from the policies of predecessor Viktor Yushchenko, who sought closer ties with the West. “The main element of predictability and consistency in Ukraine’s foreign policy is its nonaligned status,” said Prime Minister Mykola Azarov as he submitted the bill. Observers call it proof positive that, less than four months into Yanukovych’s presidency, the country is moving firmly back into Russia’s embrace.

Yanukovych has moved quickly to shore up Ukraine’s crumbling relationship with Russia. In April, he extended Moscow’s lease on Sevastopol (a major naval base on the Black Sea) for 25 years after the current lease expires in 2017, securing a cheaper deal on Russian gas for his cash-strapped country in return. Yanukovych has also pledged to sign a friendship treaty with Russia calling for closer economic integration. If its $19-billion loan request to the International Monetary Fund falls through, the country says it may seek bilateral loans from Russia.

It’s a swift departure from the Ukraine of Yushchenko, who defeated Yanukovych in the 2004 Orange Revolution. As president, he pushed the former Soviet state to integrate further with the West—including possible NATO and EU membership—as a way to shake free of Moscow’s influence, predictably angering the Kremlin. Russia twice halted natural gas deliveries, and accused Ukraine of supplying arms and personnel to Georgia during its 2008 war with Russia. Unfortunately for Yushchenko and his supporters, the country’s economic collapse and political infighting doomed his presidency.

Aurel Braun, author of NATO-Russia Relations in the Twenty-First Century, calls the Yanukovych presidency a “victory” for Russia, noting that Ukraine has long been viewed as a “linchpin.” But while Yanukovych’s overtures will be welcome in Moscow, some argue the countries’ relationship had deteriorated so far under Yushchenko that a rapprochement was unavoidable. Writing in the Wall Street Journal following his February election, Yanukovych promised to “build a bridge between both [Russia and the West], not a one-way street in either direction.” But he also emphasized that joining the EU remains a priority—a sign that, even as he pulls Ukraine closer to Russia, he’s not turning his back entirely on the West.

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