By Taras Kuzio
Since he was elected president of Russia in March 2000, Vladimir Putin has progressively downgraded relations with Belarus while upgrading them with Ukraine. Five factors have led to this expanding strategic Moscow-Kyiv partnership.
First, Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is no longer useful as a buffer against an enlarged NATO and European Union. Putin is visibly less interested in a Russian-Belarusan union. (The idea, launched in 1996, has always been more virtual than real.) Russia has dropped the notion of a gas pipeline through Belarus to bypass Ukraine. Lukashenka, meanwhile, has rejected Putin’s proposals for a joint referendum on unification (that is, Russia’s absorption of Belarus). Lukashenka’s position remains shaky: Russia is sounding out the possibility of replacing him with a less odious figure.
Second, Putin’s more pragmatic approach towards Ukraine has allowed Kuchma to return to his 1994 election program of domestic and international alignment with Russia on condition that Russia recognize Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty and treat it as an “equal” partner. The Ukrainian-Russian border was no longer in dispute when Putin came to power, the May 1997 treaty with Kyiv having been ratified a year earlier.
Third, unlike his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Putin has few illusions about Ukraine’s permanence as an independent state, even has some grudging respect for it as such. Moscow is now concerned with securing Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence. This is especially important now that NATO and the EU will embrace, respectively, seven and ten new former FSU states and two others by 2007.
Fourth, Putin was fortunate in that, in the same year he was elected, the Kuchmagate scandal led to Kuchma’s semi-isolation in the West and a shift of Ukraine’s multivector foreign policy from the West to the East. To reinforce this trend, Viktor Chernomyrdin was appointed ambassador to Ukraine in May 2001. In October 2000 and April 2001 the last remaining pro-Western government ministers in Ukraine were removed–Borys Tarasiuk (foreign minister) and Viktor Yushchenko (prime minister). Then came NATO’s refusal to extend an invitation to Kuchma to attend its November 21-22 summit in Prague, a foreign policy disaster for Ukraine.
Fifth, the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001 fundamentally altered international politics. Russia and Uzbekistan became, for Washington, more important allies than Ukraine. Kyiv, quite simply, was no longer needed as an anti-Moscow buffer. This factor was reinforced by the simultaneous NATO and EU expansion. Russia increased its cooperation with NATO, allowing Ukraine to do the same. In late May 2002, as U.S. President George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin met in Moscow and agreed to move jointly against terrorism in the Middle East, Ukraine announced its goal of eventual membership in NATO. But in September, after the Bush administration had made Iraq its priority, Kyiv found itself facing the biggest crisis in relations with Washington since the collapse of the Soviet Union: Washington accused Kuchma of sanctioning the sale of military equipment to Iraq in July 2000, not long after the last U.S.-Ukrainian summit with President Bill Clinton in Kyiv. Totally discredited in the West, Kuchma’s regime is now perceived to be on a par with Lukashenka’s Belarus.