Strategically Vital Ukraine Merits United States Support

AT last week's meeting in Washington with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, President Clinton assured his counterpart that the United States would continue to provide financial assistance for difficult economic reforms. Mr. Kuchma also won promises from the International Monetary Fund that it would resume installments of a critical $1.5 billion loan.

Mr. Clinton's support - a sharp contrast to President Bush's admonishments against Ukrainian statehood - comes at a pivotal time in US-Russia relations. It sends a message to would-be neoimperialists in Moscow that the US is committed to a sovereign Ukraine as a strategically vital breakwater against increasingly anti-Western Russian foreign policy.

Geography underscores Ukraine's importance. Wedged between the former Eastern bloc and Russia, it is in the heart of Europe, sharing western borders with Poland, the Czech republic, Hungary, and Romania. The Communist and hard-line nationalist victories in Russia's parliamentary elections (and the probable defeat of President Boris Yeltsin in June at the hands of Communist chief Gennady Zyuganov, fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, or populist nationalist Gen. Alexander Lebed) highlight a reactionary turn in Russian politics and the rise of elements committed to restoring the Soviet Union and resuming an adversarial relationship with the West and the former satellites.

Signs of Moscow's determination to retain influence in the former Soviet republics have been evident for some time. Russia has coercively maintained troops and bases in nine former Soviet republics. Moscow's machinations in its "near abroad" have destabilized Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Tajikistan. Even the Baltics - Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania - have had a nettlesome time extricating themselves from Russia. All three are dependent on Russian energy. Russia has retained control of a missile installation in Latvia, has military transit rights in Lithuania, and is embroiled in a border dispute with Estonia.

The US and Russia have been at loggerheads over the Conventional Forces in Europe Agreement, the future of NATO, Bosnia, and Russia's favorable policies toward Iraq, Iran, China, and North Korea. Russia's brutal response to Chechnya only confirms a continued Soviet mind-set. By contrast, Ukraine, with 52 million people and an area the size of France, has maintained domestic and ethnic tranquillity. Kuchma peacefully defused a volatile crisis in Crimea, and Ukraine respects the rights of its 11 million Russians, 400,000 Jews, and other minorities. Its Army is poised to meet any external threats.

Russia, which ruled parts of Ukraine for more than 300 years, presents the most apparent danger. Communist leader Zyuganov says Slavic Ukraine and Russia are part of an indivisible ethnic whole. Polls show Russia's elites and millions of ordinary citizens share this view. Since attaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has sparred with Russia over the Black Sea Fleet, the Crimea, disposal of nuclear weapons, membership in the Tashkent alliance (the fledgling Russian-led military bloc), and the Russian minority. Its dependence on Russian oil and energy makes it vulnerable to economic blackmail.

But while a newly re-integrationist Russia poses a menace to Ukraine, the US and financial institutions seem to realize that short-sighted, overly stringent lending polices would undermine Ukrainian independence, Kuchma's long-term reforms, and Ukraine's role as a pillar of stability. Though economic reform has lagged in Ukraine, Kuchma is committed to democracy and fruitful relations with the West, and a market system. While a recalcitrant parliament is dominated by a leftist coalition of Communists, Agrarians, and Socialists, they represent a smaller portion than their counterparts in Russia. And unlike Russia, ultranationalists hold a tiny handful of the 450 seats.

Punishing Ukraine by using a purely economic calculus, while funneling aid to a retrogressive, neoimperial Russia simply because it has tighter budget controls, is strategically counterproductive.

In this geopolitical context, the Clinton administration's commitment to Ukrainian statehood is prudent. Writing in The New York Times, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott signaled an important policy shift. He said the US would not abide a forced reintegration of the Soviet Union and opposes Russia's "coercion and intimidation of neighboring states." British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkin says Ukrainian independence is vital to peace and stability in Europe. Clinton and congressional leaders such as Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole have indicated an understanding that Ukraine is a crucial buffer separating Eastern Europe from a former oppressor that may rekindle its hegemonist proclivities.

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