On January 24, one day after his inauguration as President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko paid a visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yushchenko thus fulfilled a campaign promise to head for Moscow on his first presidential trip abroad, as a reassuring gesture to opponents in eastern Ukraine and a face-saver for Putin. However, in keeping with his campaign’s fundamental message, Yushchenko prefaced this visit with a strong affirmation of Ukraine’s European orientation; and, following the half-day visit to Moscow, he began on January 25 a tour of European institutions, while preparing to visit Washington at the invitation of President George W. Bush.
Yushchenko’s January 23 inaugural address, as well as his speech at the Orthodox religious ceremony in Kyiv’s St. Sophia Cathedral on January 24 just before his flight to Moscow, never mentioned Russia or Slavdom. He only accentuated Ukraine’s European identity and the goal of joining the European Union (Ukrainian Television Channel One, January 24).
In Moscow at the opening of the Putin-Yushchenko talks, television images showed a handshake without smiles, then both men eyeing each other again unsmilingly, with neutral expressions and tense body language while delivering their brief opening remarks. (Russian Television monitored by the BBC, January 24). Yushchenko and his team carefully refrained from alluding to the Kremlin’s crude efforts to hijack Ukraine’s presidential election. They had embarked on the Moscow visit hoping to open a new chapter in bilateral relations, without discussing with the Kremlin the chapter just closed. Whether their decision to accept the onus of relieving the Kremlin-created tensions was a far-sighted one is too early to tell. At the concluding news conference, Yushchenko answered that question in the affirmative, albeit with the qualification, “It is necessary in Moscow-Kyiv relations to reject Byzantine politics, when one thing is said, but another is done” (Itar-Tass, January 24).
For his part, Putin seemed to exemplify that type of politics by declaring, “Russia has said all along that it would work with any leader elected by the Ukrainian people . . .. Russia has never acted in underhanded ways in the post-Soviet space.” Attempting to blame ex-president Leonid Kuchma and ex-prime minister Viktor Yanukovych for the debacle in Russia-Ukraine relations, Putin claimed, “What we have recently done is only what the outgoing Ukrainian leadership requested of us. You know this, it’s no secret . . . We hope to establish equally trusting relations with you.” Moreover, Putin called for “adhering to Russian-Ukrainian relations based on experience. In this sense we expect continuity in the relationship” (Interfax, January 24).
When Yushchenko termed Russia a “permanent strategic partner” of Ukraine, Putin appeared not only pleased but also slightly surprised: “What you just said about strategic partnership is a very good and very pleasant sign” (RIA-Novosti, January 24). There is no mutually accepted definition of that concept, however. While Putin and other Russian officials repeatedly mentioned Ukraine’s membership in the Russia-initiated Single Economic Space (SES), Yushchenko and his team stated that their policy would only be guided by Ukrainian national interests and the requirements of integration with the European Union. The Ukrainians referred to economic cooperation with Russia on a bilateral basis, as distinct from multilateral undertakings in the would-be SES.
The Kremlin’s political operative Sergei Markov, one of the masterminds of the campaign to demonize Yushchenko in both Ukraine and Russia, now performed a 180-degree turn in depicting the Ukrainian president almost as a worthy analogue of Putin: “In fact, Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yushchenko have a lot in common, which, unexpectedly as it may seem, can lay a solid foundation for good relations . . .. They use the same cultural code, watched the same films and read the same books . . . share the goal of rapprochement with Europe, [pursue] anti-oligarchic policies, and consider themselves presidents of ordinary people, not the elites,” according to Markov’s new spin. For a crowning compliment, he found that Yushchenko shares Putin’s KGB background, as the Ukrainian president had performed his military service in the Soviet-era border troops (Interfax, Itar-Tass, January 24). The Ukrainian president and his voters might be hard put to decide which of the two spins is the more offensive one.
On the day of his Moscow visit, Yushchenko appointed Yulia Tymoshenko as acting prime minister (the definitive appointment is subject to parliamentary confirmation). Predictions that this appointment would antagonize Moscow were not borne out. On the contrary, some among Moscow’s leading pundits expressed respect for her qualities. Taking Putin’s cue, Markov blamed Kuchma and his team for having persuaded the Kremlin to launch judicial investigations against Tymoshenko and placing her on the Interpol wanted list. Putin indicated and Markov declared outright that the Russian arrest warrant against her would be rescinded and she could visit Russia (Itar-Tass, January 24).
The discussions touched on Russian gas transit via Ukraine, bilateral trade preferences, industrial investment, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and the status of the Russian language in Ukraine, apparently without going into details on any of these issues during this brief visit. Yushchenko did apparently agree to continue using the Odessa-Brody oil pipeline in the reverse direction, carrying Russian oil southward, instead of Caspian oil northward. The decision had become inevitable last year for lack of direct access to Caspian oil. Yushchenko said that, as an economist, he deems a dry pipeline intolerable (Interfax, January 24).
Yushchenko, with a Ukrainian delegation far larger than the one that accompanied him to Moscow, will in the next few days visit and address the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and the European Parliament in Brussels, the main destination of Ukraine’s aspirations.