New Russian Ambassador to Ukraine

Published by Kommersant, photo by Dmitry Dykhanin

by Roman Kupchinsky

In 2009 two new ambassadors will present their credentials to the president of Ukraine – one will be from the United States the other from Russia, two states who are vitally interested in Ukraine through which some 80 percent of Russian gas to Europe transits through.

Rumors in Washington indicate the new U.S. envoy will be John Tefft, currently ambassador to Georgia. But there are also whispers that it could be someone else.

Tufft has had a long and notable career as a diplomat. The Department of State’s official bio states: “John F. Tefft was sworn in as United States Ambassador to Georgia on July 28, 2005. He has been a career Foreign Service Officer for thirty-three years. Before assuming his current position, Ambassador Tefft served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and was responsible for U.S. relations with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova“.

The man apparently chosen by the Kremlin to represent Russia in Ukraine is a bit more controversial in the eyes of Russian nationalists. Mikhail Zurabov, the former health minister, who currently is an adviser to President Dmitry Medvedev, is an unexpected choice as one source in the Russian Foreign Ministry told Kommersant Daily.

According to Kommersant, a member of the Russian State’s Duma’s Committee on CIS Affairs stated that he would “not like to see Zurabov” as ambassador. “With Zurabov’s appointment all illusions will disappear that we have any type of policy towards Ukraine.”

The deputy head of the CIS committee, Konstantin Zatulin, was even more categorical in his criticism of Zurabov. “The appointment of Zurabov will be a mistake. He is not a political figure but a manager who is not very popular”.

With Ukrainian presidential elections due in January 2010, Russia needs an envoy who will promote the Kremlin’s line in Kyiv. “Chernomyrdin was not able to and Zurabov more so. The ambassadors from the U.S. and Poland are very active in these matters, but if our ambassador remains silent this will not be understandable” Zatulin added.

It is clear that the Russian government, like most other governments, does not want a maverick in Kyiv but prefers a loyal, manager/spokesman who will do what he is told and leave policy making to Vladimir Putin – with some input from President Medvedev.

What the opposition to Zurabov could mean however, it that Russia’s Ukrainian policy is being challenged by hard-line nationalists like Zatulin who was banned from entering Ukraine on a number of occasions.