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

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    Ukraine-Russia relations: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich (r.) and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev chat as they meet in Kharkiv April 21.
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In the space of a few weeks, Ukraine has executed a stunning geopolitical pirouette.

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.

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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."

Opposition leaders promise that when the Rada returns from its May Day recess next Monday, they will raise hell inside the parliament and on the streets. They warn that Ukraine's fragile democracy could follow the country's economy down the Russian path, and Yanukovich could create a Putin-style authoritarian regime in Kiev.

"This is a totalitarian merger of Russia and Ukraine, and it's all being decided behind closed doors with no public discussion," says Olga Bodnar, a parliamentary deputy with Ms. Tymoshenko's bloc. "What Yanukovich is doing does not coincide with the desires of the Ukrainian people; he is acting as if he were president of one part of the country and not the whole of Ukraine. When parliament reopens, you will see the opposition's response."

Moscow isn't surprised

In Moscow, where many people regarded Ukraine's pro-West fling under Mr. Yushchenko as a strange aberration from what they see as Ukraine's natural destiny within Russia's orbit, some analysts are predicting many more surprises to come.

"I think we are headed toward a full-fledged strategic union between Russia and Ukraine," says Kirill Frolov, a Ukraine expert with the Kremlin-backed Institute for the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "Five years of anti-Russian propaganda [under Yushchenko] obviously had no effect on Ukraine's population, who clearly see their future together with Russia. There is only one explanation for why Yanukovich is able to accomplish these big changes so fast: he enjoys massive public support."

U-turn less shocking than may appear

But other experts say there is less than meets the eye in Yanukovich's pro-Moscow policy U-turn. After all, they say, polls have consistently shown that the idea of NATO membership was never popular among Ukrainians and, in any case, Yushchenko failed to acquire a solid invitation to join the organization from increasingly leery Western leaders.

Trade keeps the neighbors close. Russia remains, by far, Ukraine's largest trading partner. Many Ukrainians, particularly in the heavily-russified east, still take their political and cultural cues from Moscow, while 1 in 3 Ukrainians are native speakers of Russian.

Military ties also ensure the two countries are in step. Russia's Black Sea Fleet has been stationed in the ethnically Russian-populated Crimea for over 200 years. Pollster Vladimir Paniotto, director of the independent Kiev International Institute of Sociology, says that more than 60 percent of Ukrainians in recent surveys expressed no objection to it staying there for another quarter century.

"This speedy pace of rapprochement contributes to a false impression that we're headed for some sort of full-on union," says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Center for Political and Conflict Studies in Kiev. "It's true that a lot of logical steps are being taken, rather quickly, to restore practical benefits for both sides. There is no doubt that Russia is a strategic partner for Ukraine, and we need to have good relations with it. But there are limits. Ukraine isn't going to do anything that isn't in its national interests."

Analysts say there is little chance that Yanukovich will be willing to revisit the ambitious program of economic reunification, called the Common Economic Space plan, which included a customs union and movement to a common currency, that Putin advocated before the 2004 Orange Revolution brought Yushchenko to power.

Ties to boost nuclear, aviation industries

Some Ukraine analysts say Putin's idea of merging the nuclear power industries of the two countries is very welcome in Kiev, because it would bring much-needed Russian assistance to complete the long-stalled Khmelnitsky atomic power station, and a 25-year contract to provide fuel for Ukraine's four existing nuclear plants at sharply discounted prices. Russia might benefit, too, because its own grand nuclear expansion plans have stalled for lack of international customers.

Another Putin proposal, to join the two states' aviation industries, is aimed at Ukraine's struggling Antonov, maker of giant Soviet-era cargo planes, which could be revived by an influx of Russian capital and expertise, say experts.

But there are signs that Yanukovich is already balking at Putin's latest suggestion to merge Ukraine's state gas company Naftohaz with the Kremlin-run natural gas behemoth Gazprom.

Critics say the scheme actually amounts to a takeover of the Ukrainian firm, which is barely a tenth the size of Gazprom, along with its lucrative pipeline network -- through which 80 percent of Russian gas exports to Europe flow.

"[Putin's suggestion] was quite unexpected, and it doesn't follow that we will accept it," the official Russian ITAR-Tass agency quoted Yanukovich as saying Thursday. "We are interested in building up gas transit, but our key policy is that of protecting Ukraine's interests."

Support for Yanukovich tied to economy

If the thaw with Moscow brings tangible economic benefits to Ukraine's crisis-hit population – something Yushchenko signally failed to do –Yanukovich may continue to get his way, both with the Rada and Ukraine's electorate, analysts say.

"During the time of the Orange leadership the Ukrainian people did not see benefits from the expansion of democracy and pluralism; unfortunately it was not a time of rising living standards," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

"So, if Yanukovich can deliver this, then political issues such as Ukraine's increasing dependence upon Russia may be easier for him to handle," she says. "But it's a mistake to think that Ukraine, or any other former Soviet country, is going to opt to become a satellite of Moscow. That's not in the cards."

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