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Ukraine: Is Kyiv Set To Become A Close U.S. Ally?

Presidents Yushchenko (left) and Bush in Washington on 4 April Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on Tuesday continued his official visit to the United States. The new Ukrainian leader has already held talks with U.S. President George W. Bush, and is due to meet over the next several days with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. On Wednesday, Yushchenko is scheduled to address both houses of Congress, and honor reserved only for America's closest allies? Just how close are the U.S. and Ukraine getting?

Prague, 5 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It was no doubt a disappointment for Washington when Kyiv opted to pull its troops out of Iraq.

But relations between the United States and the new Ukraine administration appear to be improving rapidly.

Stuart Hensel of the Economist Intelligence Unit notes that former President Leonid Kuchma was in charge when Ukraine decided to send troops into Iraq -- but it was not enough to ingratiate himself with the United States.

"Mr. Kuchma was never in a strong enough position to ever get an invitation to come to the White House," Hensel says. "Given the scandals that arose during his second term, even sending troops to Iraq was not enough for Mr. Bush to actually invite him to come to visit Washington, D.C."

Kuchma sent 1,600 troops to Iraq, making it the fourth-largest contributor to the U.S.-led campaign. But ties between Washington and Kyiv cooled after allegations that Ukraine had supplied radar systems to Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime in 2000.
"Mr. Kuchma was never in a strong enough position to ever get an invitation to come to the White House."

Hensel says Ukraine's new westward-looking policy has done much to foster closer ties between Washington and Kyiv.

During talks yesterday, Bush promised to help Ukraine move closer to the West.

The U.S. president backed Ukraine's ambitions of joining NATO and the World Trade Organization (WTO). He also vowed to lift the Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions that were first imposed on the Soviet Union in 1974 and remain active regarding some former Soviet republics.

Some analysts say it is still too early to predict how close U.S.-Ukrainian ties will get.

Igor Losev, a professor at Kyiv's Mohyla Academy, says Ukraine has made clear its wish to become a close Washington ally.

But he says it remains to be seen whether Bush will deliver on the promises made during his talks with Yushchenko.

"The moves [the United States] are taking are still rather modest," Losev says. "We will see if the Jackson-Vanik amendment that applies to Ukraine will be lifted. We still have to see if Ukraine will be recognized as a country with a functioning market economy and if the United States will help Ukraine to join the World Trade Organization."

Losev also cautions that stronger ties with Ukraine could damage U.S. relations with Russia. Washington might not be willing to risk colder ties with Moscow for the sake of honoring obligations to Kyiv.

Ukrainian officials might have some doubts of their own about a U.S. partnership. Many Ukrainians harbor an ambiguous attitude toward the United States, and it could be hard for Yushchenko to convince his public of the benefits of a new U.S. friendship.

Oleksandr Sushko is the director of the Center for Peace, Conversion and Foreign Policy, a Kyiv-based research center.

"The broader public has some kind of suspicion towards the USA, which they see as a superpower that meddles in the political life of many regions of the world," Sushko says.

Sushko says this opinion is enhanced by the stereotypes remaining from the Soviet past, when the United States was considered an imperialist enemy. In many instances, he says, Ukrainians still prefer closer ties with Russia.

"Russia is an old partner and a country with whom we have very close, old ties," Sushko says. "America is something very far away -- something that is very often difficult to understand."

Still, Sushko says, anti-American sentiment is not particularly virulent in Ukraine. He says Ukrainians maintain much the same skepticism toward the U.S. as their European neighbors to the west.