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Russia/Ukraine: Analysis From Washington--A Victory For Ukraine

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 3 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The Ukrainian-Russian friendship treaty and the agreement on the fate of the Black Sea Fleet represent a major diplomatic victory for Kyiv even as these accords meet several of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's most immediate political needs.

For Yeltsin, the accords are politically useful in three ways.

First, because the Ukrainians had wanted a visit by the Russian leader for so long, these agreements as signed on Saturday in the Ukrainian capital gave him the opportunity to reassert in public a claim of a special relationship with Ukraine, even if Kyiv is less than totally interested in it.

Second, by using some language suggesting that neither party could ever reach an agreement with a third party to threaten the other, they allowed him the chance to take some of the sting out of Ukraine's ever closer relationship with the West, a relationship that was solidified last week with the initializing of a special Ukrainian-NATO charter.

And third, because the accords give Russia the right to use the naval base at Sevastopol for many years, the agreements provide the Russian president with some political protection against those in Moscow who want the Russian government to press for sovereignty over Sevastopol or even Crimea as a whole.

Because of the utility of these agreements for Yeltsin and because his press spokesman declared that they were the Russian president's "most important foreign policy move in 1997," many observers both in the region and beyond have been inclined to see these accords as a victory for Moscow in its efforts to retain or even increase its influence in Kyiv.

But such an interpretation fails to take into account the far greater political benefits that the accords give to Ukraine as a whole and to its president Leonid Kuchma. Beyond the specifics that Yeltsin and others have suggested benefit Russia, the accords taken as a whole provide three important, even critical, benefits to Ukraine.

First, this latest bilateral accord between Russia and Ukraine further undermines the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States. Kyiv has been unwilling to sign any CIS Defense arrangement with Russia. But Russia obviously wanted this "friendship" pact badly enough to be willing to forgive Ukraine some of its debt for energy supplies.

Neither of these facts will be lost on other Commonwealth countries, who will likely chart an increasingly independent course as a result, or on Ukraine itself, whose government has just seen a demonstration of the value of its own efforts to move closer to the West.

Second, both the friendship treaty and even more the accord on the Black Sea fleet provide a more precise definition of Ukrainian-Russian relations and thus give Kyiv a freer hand. Since the end of the USSR, the Russian government has sought to maintain enough ambiguity in its relations with the former Soviet republics to give it a freer hand in dealing with them.

While the accord gives Russia the right to keep its fleet in Sevastopol, it specifies that Russia is there only on the basis of a lease agreed to by Kyiv for a specific time. And while Yeltsin declared that the "Slavic" unity of the two countries was beyond challenge, he also said that Ukrainian borders were also beyond question.

And third, these latest accords further reduce the differences between Ukraine, on the one hand, and any other East European country, on the other.

Despite his occasionally flamboyant rhetoric, Yeltsin treated the Ukrainian president and Ukraine more generally as he would treat any other national leader or country. And given the pretensions of some Russian officials, that represents real progress.

Ukraine's enormous progress toward that kind of status was only reinforced two days later when Kuchma signed an accord with Romanian President Emil Constantinescu and thus ended one of the most neuralgic border disputes in the region.

Indeed, and in a way that the Russian president probably did not intend, Yeltsin's signature on the Ukrainian-Russian friendship treaty will only expand the possibilities for Ukraine to make more friends elsewhere.