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Ukraine: Analysis From Washington--'A State Outside A Bloc'

Washington, 29 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Some fundamental shifts in the balance of power in Eastern Europe have made it possible for Ukraine, in the words of its president Leonid Kuchma, to become "a state outside a bloc."

Speaking in Kyiv on Thursday following a meeting with visiting Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, Kuchma announced two major changes in the direction of Ukraine's security policy.

On the one hand, he said that "Ukraine does not intend to join NATO structures," even though he would not rule out future cooperation with the Western alliance.

And on the other, he said Kyiv no longer intends to be bound by the provisions of the collective security treaty signed in 1992 by seven members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Instead, the Ukrainian leader said, his country would seek to improve relations with individual countries including Russia as a means of promoting its security and well-being.

Kuchma's definitive announcement that his country would not seek NATO membership undercuts earlier statements by Ukrainian officials that Kyiv's strategic objective was to join the Western alliance at some point in the future.

But just like his declaration about the CIS, his remarks about NATO reflect three broader changes across the region.

First, Ukraine's shift represents a triumph rather than a defeat for NATO's policy of expansion.

It was no coincidence that Kuchma's remarks came only one day after U.S. troops landed in Crimea as part of a NATO-sponsored Partnership for Peace joint exercise.

Much criticized by Moscow, these maneuvers have reaffirmed Western support for Ukraine. But they have also prompted the Russian government to shift its position both rhetorically and practically.

Russian attacks on the maneuvers and on Ukraine's participation have softened since the exercises began, and Russian relations with Ukraine have continued to warm up, with the two sides announcing that Kuchma will make an official visit to Moscow early next year.

And that shift in turn has allowed the Ukrainians to stake out a position -- closer ties with NATO but no ultimate membership -- that allows them to take a step that will improve Kyiv's ties with Russia without giving up continuing support from the West.

Second, Ukraine's shift reflects the collapse of the CIS as an organization relevant to the security needs of Eastern Europe.

On the same day that Russian foreign policy expert Sergey Karaganov declared that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is "dead" because of its failures in Bosnia, Kuchma took a real step toward demonstrating that the CIS is close to its grave.

He did so not by withdrawing from the organization as a whole but rather by underscoring that Ukraine will give preference to bilateral ties with Russia rather than multilateral arrangements with other former Soviet republics.

Moscow can hardly object to improved relations with Kyiv -- indeed, Sergeyev welcomed them -- but Kyiv is the winner in this round because its stance undermines Russian pretensions to domination over the entire territory of a country that no longer exists.

And third, Ukraine's shift reflects a normalization of relations between Kyiv and Moscow, a growing willingness on the part of the Russians to view Ukraine as an independent country and on the part of Ukrainians to see Russia as something other than an enemy.

By staking out a position outside of any bloc, Ukraine is reaffirming its position as an important country within Eastern Europe, one that will act on its own interests rather than at the behest of anyone else.

And as ever more Russian officials accept Ukraine's new status -- something NATO's Partnership for Peace program has helped promote -- Ukrainians will find it easier to accept Russia as a potential partner rather than the inevitable enemy.

Obviously, a single speech, even one as important as Kuchma's on Thursday, will not guarantee that the geopolitics of this part of the world are going to develop without serious problems.

But as an indication of these more fundamental shifts, Kuchma's remarks are an important milepost on the road to a better future for Ukraine, for Russia, and for the region in which they both live.