Ukraine - the new frontline in Russia-West standoff

By bne IntelliNews August 29, 2008

Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv -

Western countries stepped up their diplomatic activity in Ukraine, showing solidarity for another aspiring Nato member. With Russia's meddling in the future of Georgia's breakaway enclaves, Ukraine began voicing concerns over Crimea and the neighbouring region of Transdniestr in Moldova.

Stopping off in Kyiv on August 27 after a visit to Tbilisi, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband sharply condemned Russia for its actions in the Caucasus and provided strong words of support for Kyiv's pro-western leadership. Miliband's visit comes a week before US Vice President Dick Cheney is scheduled to visit Kyiv. The last time Ukraine was the focus of such international attention was during the Orange Revolution of 2004, which propelled the pro-western Victor Yushchenko to the presidency over a Moscow-backed candidate.

Speaking to university students in Kyiv, Miliband warned Russia's leadership not to start a new Cold War. "Russia has not reconciled itself to the new map of this new region... We do not want a new Cold War and he [Russian President Dmitry Medvedev] has a big responsibility not to start one," he said.

"We need to raise the costs to Russia for disregarding its responsibility," he said, adding that there would be a conference call involving the foreign ministers of the G7. "We need to re-examine the nature, depth and breadth of relations" with Russia.

Fleeting problems

Yushchenko stressed the importance of the visit for his country's EU and Nato aspirations amid moves by Russia that the Ukrainian president described as having "brought tension to the region." Yushchenko has used the Georgia conflict to bolster weak public support for Ukraine's Nato bid, urging citizens to support the move and explaining that the country has little chance of defending itself without membership in a collective security alliance. Polls conducted in recent weeks show that a majority of citizens still oppose Nato membership, fearing it will strain relations with Russia. But support is expected to increase slightly in light of Russia's perceived aggression against Georgia.

Yushchenko and many in Ukraine wonder whether their country's western-integration drive could be challenged by an increasingly assertive Moscow. Russia has staunchly opposed efforts by Ukraine and Georgia to join Nato, signaling its discomfort with a perceived hostile military alliance stretching eastward into its backyard.

Officials in Kyiv opposed Russia's use of its Black Sea Fleet vessels stationed at a Ukrainian naval base on the Crimea Peninsula against Georgia. Ukraine, which has called for Georgia's territorial integrity to be upheld, also fears Russia could fuel separatist sentiments in Crimea and then refuse to remove its fleet from the Sevastopol base when a lease agreement runs out in 2017. Appearing increasingly confident Wednesday, Yushchenko raised the stakes in his country's long list of feuds with Russia, raising the possibility in an interview with Reuters of increasing Russia's rent on its Sevastopol base. Russia currently pays a mere $98m per year.

Such a move would be Kyiv's second trump card played against Russia in as many weeks. Earlier this month, Yushchenko decreed new restrictions requiring the Russian fleet vessels to notify Kyiv in advance upon entering and exiting the Sevastopol base. Moscow protested, but appears to be abiding by Kyiv's new rules. With this week's build-up of Nato and Russian naval vessels in the Black Sea south of Ukraine, every move by Kyiv will be watched closely for possible escalation.

Regional tensions

Hryhoriy Nemyria, Ukraine's vice-prime minister in charge of EU integration, said: "Ukraine is very much concerned that this dangerous dynamic and the vacuum of security could extend through escalation to include Crimea and Transdniestr." Crimea holds a strategic location in terms of militarily controlling the Black Sea, while there are potentially large untapped reserves of oil and gas off Crimea's coast. Transndiestr is a breakaway region of Moldova that borders Ukraine and, like South Ossetia and Abkhazia, is backed by Moscow. Moscow has held a large peacekeeping contingent in all three regions.

Nemyria said Ukraine was deeply in need of security guarantees, and described recent events "as an urgent call for the European Union to show real leadership." He also stressed the critical nature for Brussels of such volatile frozen conflicts in the region: "What is happening now is in the immediate neighbourhood of the EU."

In addition to sharing a large border with the EU, Ukraine is seen as a strategic ally of the West on energy diversification and a beacon of democracy on post-Soviet turf. But Russia's bold moves in recent weeks signal that it is systematically moving to sideline the West's policies of supporting democracy and energy diversification where most of the transit pipelines are confidently in Moscow's grip. Ukraine and Georgia are seen as key transit countries bypassing Russia in the Central Asian oil and gas supply chessboard.

Despite the increased show of western support, Ukraine's political elite seem to be as divided as ever. The Moscow--leaning opposition party led by Victor Yanukovych, which has strong support in the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, has ardently sided with Russia. Meanwhile, the rhetoric coming out of the Yushchenko camp, condemning Russia's move in Georgia and its potential implications for Ukraine, has been sharp. But another major focus of the president's team has been to score political points with voters showing Yushchenko as a tough commander-in-chief, while accusing his rival for the 2010 presidential contest, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, of being soft on Russia as she aims to win Kremlin support for her candidacy.

Recent polls conducted in Ukraine show that the country's voters are as divided as their leaders. A survey conducted by the Research & Branding Group in August suggests that the population is split on the Georgia conflict.

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Ukraine - the new frontline in Russia-West standoff

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