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Ukraine-Russia relations: Why Kiev made a dramatic U-turn back toward Moscow

President Viktor Yanukovich was elected in February on pledges to restore Ukraine-Russia relations. But he has acted more swiftly than anyone imagined, reversing the pro-West moves of the Orange Revolution.

By Correspondent / May 7, 2010

Ukraine-Russia relations: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich (r.) and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev chat as they meet in Kharkiv April 21.

Andrei Mosienko/Reuters



In the space of a few weeks, Ukraine has executed a stunning geopolitical pirouette.

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Five years after the Orange Revolution turned the huge post-Soviet state toward the West, newly elected President Viktor Yanukovich has turned it back toward Moscow in just a few months.

Some describe the twist as a pragmatic move to restore the economic synergies of the USSR era. But others warn that the wolf of Russian imperialism is stalking the region, and that the benefits being offered to Ukraine – such as cheap energy and capital for the hard-hit industrial sector – are intended to drag it back into Moscow’s jaws.

Mr. Yanukovich, elected in February on pledges to restore Ukraine's tattered relationship with Russia, has moved more swiftly and decisively than anyone imagined. He has reversed Ukraine's foreign policy priorities away from the West-leaning agenda of his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, and toward sweeping political rapprochement and economic reintegration with Russia.

Critics say that even if Ukraine’s pro-West opposition returns to power in a few years, they may be unable to sever the fresh bonds that Yanukovich is forging with Moscow.

Yanukovich's swift moves

In March, Yanukovich quietly shut down a government commission that had been preparing the country for eventual membership in NATO, removing that controversial option from Ukraine's to-do list. Last month he met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and signed a deal to extend Moscow's lease on the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, where the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet is headquartered, for 25 years. In exchange, Ukraine will get a 30 percent discount on imported Russian gas.

Infuriated by the deal, Ukrainian opposition deputies hurled eggs and smoke bombs inside the parliament while thousands of protesters shouted their dismay in the streets outside. But a newly created and unexpectedly strong pro-Yanukovich coalition in the 450-seat parliament, known as the Supreme Rada, ensured the bargain was ratified by a healthy 10-vote margin.

And in the past week or so Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has fired off a series of dramatic military proposals. If accepted, they will reintegrate Ukrainian and Russian elements of the former Soviet military-industrial economy that were sundered two decades ago by the Soviet collapse – including the nuclear power establishment, the aviation industry, and Mr. Putin's personal favorite: energy pipeline networks.

Opposition decries 'totalitarian merger'

Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who lost the presidential polls narrowly to Yanukovich, told the Russian newspaper Kommersant this week that the moves are part of a Putin-authored plan to "liquidate Ukraine."