Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 54

A burst of initiatives on several foreign policy fronts suggests that Ukraine is still capable of resuming a Western orientation, which unsound economic relations with Russia and the political crisis in Kyiv have recently jeopardized. On March 15, Foreign Affairs Minister Anatoly Zlenko defined Ukraine’s foreign policy priorities in terms analogous to those used by his immediate predecessor, the outspokenly pro-Western Borys Tarasyuk, and at times by President Leonid Kuchma, before the recent drift phase. On March 16, Tarasyuk himself credited official Kyiv for its effort to resume an “active foreign policy,” but noted that the effort is being overshadowed by the internal political malaise in Ukraine.

Zlenko chose the leftist and ethnic Russian stronghold of Simferopol–the administrative center in Crimea–as the venue for delivering a policy address which stated that “irrespective of internal differences and tactical adjustments, Ukraine’s real long-term strategic priority is and will remain one: the European.” As if echoing the statements which had characterized Kyiv’s most active Western-oriented phase (1998 to autumn 2000), Zlenko stressed the dual value of Ukraine’s “European choice”–as foreign policy guideline and as basis for internal consolidation.

The minister listed the three main directions of Ukraine’s foreign policy: the European Union, Russia and the United States. Relations with Russia he described almost in damage-limitation terms: “Our strategic course toward European integration must not be viewed as being opposed to partnership with Russia, our largest neighbor. Stability in our relations with Russia forms a component of our Eurointegration policy,” Zlenko said. Relations with the United States he seemed to rank as ultimately crucial: “While the European Union and Russia have yet to become global players, the United States directly influences world politics. That is why the strategic partnership with the United States is a major achievement of Ukrainian foreign policy and we have no intention to deviate from it under any circumstances.”

On March 14, Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry made public a note of protest to the Russian government in connection with exercises conducted by troops [“marine infantry”] of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Those exercises breached the agreements which regulate the stationing of the Russia’s fleet on Ukrainian territory. The Russian command had failed to prenotify Kyiv, used land tracts beyond the authorized exercise sites, and fired live ammunition which damaged natural reservations in Crimea’s mountains. Zlenko cited the protest note during a stopover in Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is headquartered. On March 16, Yushchenko announced that an investigation has been launched to ascertain who was responsible for the transgression. Yushchenko implied that officials of the Crimean autonomy had granted the approval behind the back of Kyiv’s central authorities and of the Defense Ministry.

Those exercises had been held on February 13-16, to immediate protests by Ukrainian national-democratic forces. On February 27, the Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s chief spokesman in a press briefing seemed to condone those exercises. The Ministry took a full month to issue its protest. But the fact that it ultimately issued it–rather than consigning the matter to easy oblivion after all this time–suggests that a political decision may have been taken in recent days to signal a firmer course in foreign policy. Against the background of Zlenko’s policy address, such signals seem to add up to a coherent set.

On March 14, Ukraine’s cabinet of ministers resolved to postpone a decision on imports of Russian electricity and on parallel operation of Ukraine’s electrical power system with that of Russia. Those measures had been due to come into effect on March 1, pursuant to decisions made by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Leonid Kuchma at their summit meeting in February in Dnipropetrovsk. Kuchma had yielded to triple pressure from the Kremlin, from Russian business interests and from some of Ukraine’s oligarchic circles. In the cabinet of ministers, however, Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, then Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Yulia Tymoshenko and others had all along opposed that scheme as detrimental economically and politically to Ukraine. Eventually, Yushchenko was unable to protect Tymoshenko, but he prevailed on Kuchma to dismiss Minister for Energy and Fuel Serhy Yermilov, who had signed the parallel operation agreement with Russia’s United Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais. In the March 14 cabinet meeting, Ecology and Natural Resources Minister Ivan Zayets–a Rukh member–was instrumental in blocking the scheme. Zayets, like Yushchenko, is a staunchly pro-Western figure who has refused to join those sections among the national-democratic forces that are currently campaigning against Kuchma.

On March 12, the Ukrainian Navy announced that it has initiated the formation of a special task force for rapid response to crisis situations, protection of Ukraine’s maritime borders, and search and rescue missions. The task force is to include twelve to sixteen surface ships and some coastal missile batteries and it should become operational before the end of the current year. Last year, Russia’s Naval Command in Moscow had proposed to Ukraine the creation of a joint Russian-Ukrainian naval squadron for those types of missions. In January of this year, Russian Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeev presented a scaled-down proposal along similar lines during his visit to Kyiv, preparatory to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Ukraine. The Ukrainian government ignored the first proposal and denied Sergeev’s claims that Kyiv had accepted the second proposal. The March 12 announcement seems designed to end the matter conclusively and publicly.

On March 13-15 in Odesa, Ukrainian and U.S. military officers held a planning conference for the joint exercise Sea Breeze-2001. The exercise is scheduled to be held in June, with naval phases in the northern part of the Black Sea and land phases at the Chobanka training range in the Odesa region. Some ten NATO member and partner countries are due to participate. A further exercise, Peace Shield-2001, is in the planning stage.

Meanwhile, elements of the Polish-Ukrainian battalion are currently exercising at the Yavoriv training range in the Lviv Region, preparing for rotation to Kosovo as part of NATO-led forces there. Those exercises highlight Ukraine’s unique position as an ex-Soviet republic that hosts a NATO peacekeeping exercise range on its territory and maintains a joint unit–the UkrPolBat–with a NATO member country, in this case Poland. Against that background, the Kyiv daily Den–which is controlled by Yevhen Marchuk, currently the Secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council–published a joint article by the Ukrainian and Polish foreign affairs ministers in which Zlenko underscored Kyiv’s support for Poland’s NATO membership and the adherence of Ukraine to the state program for cooperation with the Atlantic Alliance under the Distinctive Partnership Charter.

On March 14 and 15, Ukraine’s presidential office and Foreign Affairs Ministry announced that Kuchma is consulting with other presidents of the GUUAM member countries with a view to an early rescheduling of the GUUAM summit. The event was due to have been held in Kyiv on March 6-7, but was postponed at the request of the Moldovan and Azerbaijani presidents. No substitute date was scheduled. Official Kyiv now seeks to resume its role as a “GUUAM locomotive.”

Speaking on March 16 to a foreign policy round table in Kyiv, Tarasyuk–who is now a member of the opposition party Reforms and Order–welcomed those official initiatives. But he observed with concern that Ukraine’s internal political and economic problems undermine the country’s foreign policy. Tarasyuk pointed out that those internal problems dominate the agendas of all official bilateral contacts between Kyiv and its Western partners and interlocutors, foremost among whom are the United States, the European Union and Poland. On the basis of his recent visit to Washington, Tarasyuk reported that the new administration and the Congress are “formulating policy toward Ukraine against a very negative background, one which is being created here in Ukraine.”

Kuchma’s March 15 meeting in Kazimierz Dolny, Poland with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski substantiated those concerns as expressed by Tarasyuk, among others. The meeting was to have highlighted the special political, economic and security relationship between Ukraine and Poland. Instead, it served mainly to convey to Kuchma via Kwasniewski the concerns of the German, French and Polish governments over Ukraine’s internal situation (UNIAN, March 12, 14-16; New Channel Television, February 27, March 14; Second Channel Television, March 6; Den, March 14; STB, March 14-15; PAP, March 15; see the Monitor, January 23, 29, February 7, 12, 15-16, 19).