KIEV, UKRAINE — For Russia and the United States, the diplomatic game now heating up is a strategic tug-of-war that echoes past days of cold war rivalry.
But for the former Soviet republic of Ukraine - caught in the middle, and being feted to choose between East or West - it is a delicate balancing act.
After a rocky winter in which Russia appeared to gain the upper hand, the West is now working overtime to repair relations with a state that both sides view as key to their visions of regional stability.
Strategically wedged between NATO's eastern fringe and Russia, Ukraine is the main route for Russian natural-gas pipelines to Europe. And while it currently rates as one of the least-efficient industrial economies, this state of 50 million people has a vast potential industrial base.
So Moscow, Washington, and Europe are sending strong signals as they bid to tip the balance.
"The Europe we are building must include Ukraine," said President Bush - to the surprise of diplomats here - during a recent major foreign-policy speech in Poland. Mr. Bush noted that some Ukrainians speak of their "European destiny."
In the latest move, NATO Secretary General George Robertson visited the capital, Kiev, last week. Considering Ukraine a pillar in post-cold-war stability, he said: "Ukraine can remember that it faces the future, with all its uncertainties, together with people who care about Ukraine and who want it to succeed."
He also reminded Ukraine of the importance of shared democratic values, such as press freedom.
Calling Ukraine a "critical country," Gen. William Kernan, the US Army's supreme allied commander, Atlantic, said it was "a magnet to draw together Western and Eastern Europe." Last month, US defense chief Donald Rumsfeld was in town with a similar message.
But Ukraine straddles the East-West divide as few other nations do. It signed a "distinctive partnership" deal with NATO in 1997, but has strong economic ties with Russia, is energy dependent on its mammoth neighbor, and recently agreed that Russia could fully take part in NATO exercises on its soil.
Analysts are sharply divided over the true leanings of President Leonid Kuchma, who plays off one side against the other in true cold-war fashion.
Mr. Kuchma is stung by a political scandal over the disappearance and murder of opposition journalist Georgy Gongadze, which, analysts say, gave Russia an unexpected opening.
Deepening the president's troubles - and placing Ukraine at the top of one list of European nations most violent toward the free press -another journalist died Saturday after being beaten by unknown assailants.
TV station manager Ihor Alexandrov had been banned in 1998, and took his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Ukrainian officials said yesterday that the president had ordered a "full and transparent inquiry" into the killing.
"It's the battle for Ukraine now between Russia and the West," says Pavlo Zhovnirenko, head of the independent Center for Strategic Studies in the capital, Kiev. While Kuchma "leans East," he says, Ukraine's elite want it both ways.
"They want to have all the look, the apartments, furniture and roads like the West," Mr. Zhovnirenko says. "But they organize their political business like in the East. They want all this without democracy, and with a strong Eastern state. Of course, it's impossible."
Western financial support slowed up during the winter, when the Gongadze scandal sent protesters into the streets of Kiev. Allegations of Kuchma's involvement - backed by secretly taped private conversations - led the International Monetary Fund to freeze a $2.6 billion loan program.
The US position was further complicated by granting asylum - officially, "refugee status" - to the Ukrainian intelligence operative who had bugged the president's office.
Russia was quick to take advantage of Kuchma's vulnerability and the West's subsequent disengagement, experts say, by casting itself as Kuchma's only friend.
Moscow regards Ukraine as its historic sphere of influence, if not its territory. The site of the historical root of the Russian state lies in Kiev, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been moving to reassert influence over all ex-Soviet republics.
At the peak of the crisis in February, Mr. Putin visited Kuchma, proffering closer ties that, until then, Ukraine had rebuffed.
Longstanding disputes over Ukraine's failure to pay for Russian natural gas were said to be solved. Kuchma called a decision to integrate the two countries power grids a "colossal step."
But two days later, Ukraine announced a major gas deal with Turkmenistan, designed to lessen its energy dependence on Russia. In a sign of Russia's seriousness, however, Putin recently appointed former prime minister and one-time gas chief, Viktor Chernomyrdin, as ambassador to Kiev.
Ukraine, meanwhile, has been boosting its pro-West rhetoric. The recent visit by Pope John Paul II was an "event of planetary importance," officials said, that would help bring Ukraine closer to the West.
Kuchma's see-saw positions, in fact, may be part of a strategy to leverage more from both camps.
Pro-Europe talk, for example, helps Kuchma "balance" Moscow's entreaties, says a senior Western diplomat, who adds that Kuchma recognizes a "genuine interest in being seen as a European state."
"I saw how it worked in reality," says Dmytro Vydrin, head of the European Institute of Integration and Development in Kiev, and a former Kuchma advisor. "When we visited the US, we said the US was a priority of Ukraine. One month later, we said Russia was the priority. This policy still exists."
For those who argue that Ukraine must make a choice, he notes that Russia is also looking Westward.
"It doesn't matter what decision Ukraine makes, because it will go to the West. Russia is orienting that way, too," Mr. Vydrin says. "Ukraine believes this myth that Russia wants to control all of Ukraine, but for Russia that is a bad dream."
And for all the recent Kiev-Moscow warmth, last week both nations introduced tit-for-tat value-added taxes, sparking talk - and denials in Kiev - of a budding trade war.
"No one is going to invade, but the Russians want to control the geopolitical traffic light for Ukraine," says Markian Bilynskyj, head of the Kiev office of the US-Ukraine Foundation.
Moscow wants to be consulted on strategic issues, he adds, though most people here see Ukraine's future in Europe: "The question is: Do we go to Europe in tandem with Russia, or under its power?"
But if it is to embrace Europe, Ukraine will have to shed the image that regularly ranks it among the top three in lists of corrupt states worldwide.
The IMF found last year that Ukraine had repeatedly lied about its currency reserves to get IMF loans.
"Because of the internal weakness of the president, he is playing his favorite game: the balancing act," says Hryhoriy Nemyria, director of the Center for European and International Studies at Kyiv National University.
"I doubt if Kuchma really sees Ukraine's future in Russia," says Mr. Nemyria. "But that doesn't mean that he understands what is required to be part of Europe. He uses the rhetoric, but actions don't follow."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor