Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 8

Putin and Yushchenko met in Astana yesterday, January 11

Russian President Vladimir Putin is shifting tactics toward Ukraine. Following the “gas attack” designed to produce regime change in Ukraine at the upcoming parliamentary elections, Putin is now apparently moving to reach an understanding with the severely weakened President Viktor Yushchenko. The January 4 signing of the gas agreement presaged this tactical shift, and the two presidents’ meeting on January 11 brings it into the open.

In essence, Putin now offers to rescue a crisis-plagued Yushchenko presidency, on the apparent calculation that the president can be induced to countenance a return to a dual-vector orientation of Ukraine in the post-election period. Apparently, Moscow anticipates an uneasy coexistence of weak pro-presidential groups and relatively strong Russia-oriented forces in Ukraine’s post-election government.

Putin and Yushchenko met in Astana on the occasion of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s inauguration. They arranged the meeting on short notice after the signing of the gas agreement, and after months of futile efforts by Yushchenko to meet with Putin. The event’s choreography resembled that of Putin’s informal meetings with former president Leonid Kuchma: amiable banter coupled with promises of large-scale economic cooperation projects between Ukraine and Russia. Such televised meetings were a fixture of Ukraine’s parliamentary and presidential election campaigns during the Kuchma era. They were designed to demonstrate to Russia-oriented sections of Ukraine’s electorate that Russia supports the incumbent authorities. A similar pattern now seems to develop.

At this meeting, Putin finally accepted Yushchenko’s invitation to visit with him in Ukraine. They are to spend a weekend skiing in the Carpathians (presumably at Yushchenko’s residence there). Putin tried to imply that he trusted Yushchenko and the incumbent Ukrainian government more than he had trusted their predecessors: “Our relations have gained a new potential for future development. We are happy to state, after many years of our relations with Ukraine, that we finally have people in Kyiv who do what they say.”

The Russian president outlined a comprehensive if vague agenda of state-driven economic cooperation: “Developing the economy, science, health care, contacts between people; there are a great many areas for cooperation and I am fully convinced that we’ll be able to make serious advances in these areas in the future.” While the agenda is fuzzy, the political signal seems clear: the Kremlin is willing to partner with the Yushchenko presidency and new government in the post-election period.

Yushchenko’s comment to this, “We agreed on principles of cooperation that we can present to the public,” also seems to reflect electoral motivations. The two presidents also discussed a possible increase in the export of Russian gas via Ukraine to markets of other countries. This intention refers to possible construction of additional transit capacities in Ukraine for Russian gas and Russian-marketed Central Asian gas.

Putin went on to announce that he is inviting Ukraine’s Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov to pay an official visit to Moscow soon. The invitation is clearly designed to demonstrate Russia’s support for both Yushchenko and his government, in the wake of the Ukrainian parliament’s no-confidence vote. By treating the Yekhanurov government as fully legitimate, Putin is siding with Yushchenko as well. Yekhanurov is to co-chair with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov in Moscow a session of the intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation. Kyiv had long asked for this long-overdue session to be held as a signal of normalizing relations with Russia. After many demurrals, Moscow now agrees to give that helpful signal at the height of the electoral campaign.

During the presidents’ joint news conference, Yushchenko expressed his “conviction that the gas agreement was drafted professionally [as] a sound compromise, politically and economically,” and a “wonderful result was reached” on the basis of market principles.” “I am aware of every provision,” Yushchenko stated. He was, apparently, not asked whether he was aware of the identity of RosUkrEnergo company’s Russian and Ukrainian owners and managers.

On January 11, Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers upgraded the status of the Ukrainian delegation to the high-level working group on the formation of the Single Economic Space (SES, Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan-Ukraine). First Deputy Prime Minister Stanislav Stashevski was appointed as delegation chief, replacing Economics Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. The Ukrainian delegation’s status had been lowered in early 2005 when then-Minister of Economics Serhiy Teryokhin was appointed head of the delegation; he was, moreover, a declared critic of SES. The re-upgrading of the delegation’s status seems to be another signal in Moscow’s direction.

(Interfax-Ukraine, Russian Television Channel One, RTR Russia TV, January 11)