SECRETARY of State Warren Christopher's recent visit to Ukraine came at a delicate time for United States-Russian relations and amid escalating rhetoric between Moscow and Kiev.
Arriving on the heels of the Russian parliament's March 19 renunciation of the Belovezhskaya agreements, which had confirmed the independent status of the former Soviet republics, Mr. Christopher urged all nations to reject the unilateral action. Joining him were Georgian President Edward Shevardnadze, who called for a summit of former republics, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose working relations with the West are key to his reelection.
The parliament's vote was driven by a communist-nationalist coalition led by Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov, who is favored to win the June presidential elections. It reveals that the coalition is laser-focused on the band of nations running from the Baltics to Bulgaria, as the fulcrum of Europe, with Ukraine lying in the middle.
This calculus was advanced early on by Karl von Clausewitz and then by Halford J. Mackinder, the father of geopolitics. Long ignored, Mr. Mackinder posited before World War I that "he who rules east Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island (Eurasia); who rules the World-Island commands the World."
The heartland in this case is Ukraine, and the only power capable of controlling Kiev, its capital, is the Russian Federation. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma stated the issue clearly during Christopher's visit: "You can't proceed to the past." In other words, without Ukraine a reconstituted Soviet Union, by whatever name, cannot be - a point underscored, without exception, by Central European capitals.
Wedged between Poland and Russia and bordering Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary, Ukraine provides a firebreak for the newly independent states of Eastern Europe, separating them from any nascent Russian imperialism. It will remain such as long as its independence is sustained. It is simply too big to be otherwise. Larger than France, with a population and resources nearly to match and Europe's third-largest army, this border land (the literal meaning of Ukraine) is as strategically vital to international peace and stability as anywhere in the world.
But independence can't be taken for granted. Mr. Zyuganov is not the only one in Moscow dreaming of reincorporating Ukraine. Many Russians, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn, simply can't envision an independent Ukrainian republic and, like some in the Kremlin, think of Ukraine as a renegade province like Taiwan.
Before the breakup of the Soviet empire, former US President George Bush discouraged the notion of an independent Ukraine. And after 1991, it seemed that sustaining Ukraine's independence was at best problematical and certainly short-lived. One reason Kiev's prospects looked so bleak was that the old-style Communists were still largely at the helm in the capital, setting the priorities in both politics and the economy. These latter-day Bolsheviks, accustomed to clicking their heels at orders from Moscow, were among the least independent-minded of non-Russian nomenklaturas found in the old empire. Stalin, of course, understanding the importance of Ukraine and Ukrainian obedience, had seen to that, singling Ukrainians out for his genocidal savagery in the early 1930s.
Things crumbled under old guard
Ukraine's first president, Leonid Kravchuk (once the Ukrainian Communist Party's chief of ideology), in tandem with a Communist-dominated parliament, managed to turn a relatively prosperous nation (by Soviet standards) into a basket case in four years. Agricultural and industrial production plummeted, prices soared, the currency was debauched, and ordinary people were pushed to the limits of survival. Why? Because members of the old guard clung to their beliefs, which couldn't work, and refused market reforms, which could. The result? In June 1994, a desperate electorate threw out the incumbent and selected Kuchma, who has so far performed something of a miracle: halting the decline, initiating reforms, and largely securing Ukraine's independence.
Ukraine has ceased being a nuclear power, and such touchy and contentious questions as the Crimea and the Black Sea fleet have been resolved - all of paramount concern in Moscow. Moreover, President Kuchma has, for the moment, diffused Ukraine's potentially explosive ethnic problem: 11 million of Ukraine's 52 million residents are Russian and predominate in the eastern half of the nation. Kuchma has drawn the Russian community into his coalition, and in fact, Ukraine's economy is stronger than Russia's. Inflation has been chopped at the source - huge government deficits. The economy is growing as privatization picks up and the agricultural sector is reformed.
The Communist majority in parliament has been muted. The reason? A large majority of Ukrainians hold the Bolsheviks accountable for their misery, not the reformers as elsewhere in the region - and Kuchma has used this to his advantage.
Ukraine is not out of the woods, however. Domestically, Communists are blocking a new constitution, further market reform is necessary, and new parliamentary elections - two years away - are needed to strengthen pro-market democratic forces. Moreover, Moscow's mood bodes ill. The Russian parliament has challenged the entire post-cold-war architecture.
Fortunately, Christopher was at the right place at the right time - and European statesmen have a viable nation to support. But that's sure to be challenged if Russia's next government is headed by Gennady Zyuganov.