KIEV, UKRAINE — SOMEHOW, it was appropriate for a month that kicked off with an April's Fools Day.
Ukraine's officialdom had spent much of March preparing for a visit by Boris Yeltsin. It was to be the first trip here by Russia's first president, one headlined by the signing of a comprehensive friendship treaty between the two most powerful ex-Soviet nations.
In the end, the joke was on the Ukrainians: Mr. Yeltsin stayed home. Russia's leader has now taken four years and counting to traverse some 500 miles between Moscow and Kiev.
He has not dallied because Ukraine is unimportant. On the contrary, it is significant enough to have hosted President Clinton in 1994 and is now readying for a stop by British Prime Minister John Major. If anything, Yeltsin's latest snub served to underline Ukraine's unique role in the current scramble for influence in Eastern Europe by Russia and the West.
Officially, the trip is on hold because Ukraine and Russia still cannot agree on the terms under which the Russian Black Sea Fleet will be based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, a part of Ukraine since 1954. But that dispute is just one irritant in a thorny relationship between two nations joined for more than 300 years until the Soviet Union broke up.
Ukraine shuns Russian unions
Independent Ukraine has become a key opponent of Russia's efforts to restore its influence by cobbling together its one-time colonies. It is one of the few members of the Commonwealth of Independent States to stay out of the Russian-dominated military alliance of former Soviet states. It has also refused to join a customs union and other multilateral agreements pushed by Russia.
President Leonid Kuchma was elected in 1994 on a platform of closer ties with Ukraine's giant neighbor to the east. But within months of taking office, he delivered a major speech in the western Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod that pointed Ukraine toward the West. Moscow did not applaud.
The gambit has paid off in other ways, however. Ukraine is now the third-largest recipient of US foreign aid, trailing only Israel and Egypt. Secretary of State Warren Christopher recently called Ukraine "a strategic partner" during a visit to Kiev.
Despite a lagging economic reform program, it continues to get loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank - thanks to American support.
In 1995, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) sent 40 percent of its aid within the former Soviet Union to Russia, and 25 percent to the western region that includes Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova.
Ukraine's stand pays off
This year, the percentages have been reversed, with Ukraine getting the lion's share of assistance.
"The object of this support is not Ukraine itself - it is to show Russia that the West is opposed to further integration of the Commonwealth of Independent States," says Irina Kobrinskaya, an analyst at Moscow's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Ukraine has gotten better at playing the game, and it can win big at it."
There are still limits to Ukraine's romance with the West. While it is one of the keenest participants in NATO's Partnership for Peace program, it is nervous about NATO's planned expansion eastward.
For Ukraine itself, a military alliance with Russia or the West is not a short-term option - parliament has enshrined neutrality into law. A nation of 50 million people, it is en route to status as a buffer state between two rival European blocs, dependent on Russia for its energy and trade, indebted to the West for its assistance.
"It's clear that Ukraine has become the place where the future geopolitical balance will be decided," says Kobrinskaya.
Ukraine's Western friends suggest its own preference is plain. "If there were lines drawn, which they believe do not exist at the present time, and if they had to make a choice, they would choose to be a part of Europe," says William Miller, the US ambassador in Kiev.
Whether Russia would let them choose is another matter. One reason Ukraine's leaders crave a friendship treaty with Russia is that it would affirm the country's sovereignty and borders. In the meantime, Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow and prominent supporter of Yeltsin's reelection effort, still likes to visit Sevastopol to proclaim it "a Russian city."
Another Western diplomat in the Ukraine predicts that the antagonism between Russia and Ukraine will outlive both the Russian presidential campaign and the dispute over the Black Sea Fleet. His advice to Ukrainians waiting for Yeltsin is not to hold their breath.
"He isn't coming ever," he says. "I don't think Boris Yeltsin is going to see Kiev again as long as he lives."