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Ukraine: Relations With U.S. Reaching All-Time Low

Ukraine was once the darling of U.S. foreign policy, seen as a vital buffer between Russia and the West. Now, relations between Kyiv and Washington have dipped to an all-time low after the United States accused Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma of approving arms sales to Iraq.

Washington, 8 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Is Ukraine set to become the new Belarus?

Mired in U.S. allegations that he approved arms sales to Iraq, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's relations with Washington are going from bad to worse. The situation threatens the country -- once considered to be a strategic buffer between Russia and the West -- with deep isolation.

The darling of U.S. policy among the former Soviet states during the 1990s, Ukraine's relations with the United States are looking more and more like those of its neighbor Belarus -- Europe's most isolated country under authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Catherine Fitzpatrick is a leading U.S. activist for human rights in the former Soviet Union. She said she's surprised things have gotten this bad with regard to Ukraine. "It is the 'Belarusification' of Ukraine. Even I think that that can't be happening. [Some people say:] 'What do you mean? Ukraine is better. It's better than all that.' But guess what? It isn't," Fitzpatrick said.

It's an apparent trend that has left the State Department concerned.

This week, a senior U.S. diplomat, who asked not to be named, said: "We've already downgraded relations. We don't want to put Ukraine in the Belarus category. We do want to have a relationship."

Yet the question remains whether the crisis over alleged arms sales -- along with a new strategic reality that has lessened Ukraine's importance to Washington and allegations implicating Kuchma in a journalist's murder -- will lead to a Minsk-type isolation for all Ukraine or stay confined to Kuchma and his senior associates.

Fiona Hill is an expert on the former Soviet Union with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. She said that, although Ukraine still has ties with the outside world, Belarus does not, and the "trajectory" over the last year has "clearly been negative." She said this is in part because of a strategic shift. "The priorities for the United States now are in the Middle East and Central and South Asia, rather than in Europe. In that regard, Ukraine's strategic importance as a bulwark between NATO and Russia seems to be diminished," Hill said.

Last week, NATO said it is not inviting Kuchma to its meeting with Ukraine at the military alliance's Prague summit later this month. NATO, whose move was seen as a snub for the arms-sales affair, says the meeting will be at foreign-minister level. The United States says it does not want Ukraine to give up its bid to join NATO, and that the snub is aimed at Kuchma, not at Kyiv. Kuchma has indicated he may attend the Prague summit regardless.

In September, tens of thousands of protesters in Kyiv marked the second anniversary of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze's murder by calling for Kuchma to step down. Kuchma denies involvement in the crime or that he approved a $400 million sale of an air-defense system to Baghdad.

The early-warning Kolchuga radar, which can target U.S. and British warplanes flying over Iraq without the planes detecting that they have been spotted, could complicate any U.S.-led war to disarm Iraq.

According to Anders Aslund, an economic adviser to Kuchma in the mid-1990s, the general crisis has Kuchma's court stewing in the same sort of anxiety that gripped Richard Nixon's inner circle before scandal forced the former U.S. president to resign in 1974. "It's a bit worse than the White House after Watergate. It's a feeling of the whole place being on the verge of serious destabilization," Aslund said.

The State Department has already cut off $55 million in aid to Ukraine after concluding that it has proof Kuchma signed off on the arms sale.

This week, U.S.-Ukrainian ties suffered another blow. A joint U.S.-British report probing whether arms were actually transferred to Iraq -- in breach of United Nations sanctions -- concluded that Kyiv withheld information from the investigators.

Ukraine rejects the charge, saying investigators had unprecedented access, and has asked the UN Security Council to look into the matter.

But the State Department is threatening to cut off more aid unless Kyiv cooperates with investigators and answers more questions.

As relations between Washington and Kyiv tumble, Aslund said the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is unlikely to take steps to cushion their fall -- and is more likely to take what he called a "hard-line-by-default" position.

Aslund, who is a senior fellow at Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that while Ukraine's opposition is united in its desire to take power democratically, it is divided over what tactics to use before elections scheduled for November 2004.

He said a hard-line U.S. position -- with relations kept at a minimum -- may be welcomed by the opposition led by Yuliya Tymoshenko. Aslund said that wing wants to destabilize the situation on the ground in hopes of toppling Kuchma before the elections.

But the Swedish-born Aslund said the moderate opposition, led by the Our Ukraine party of former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, a Washington favorite, would prefer to keep contacts open with Kuchma and go to elections in two years, as scheduled. "There's an obvious danger of [the hard-line approach]. In particular, the people in Our Ukraine are very afraid that this is happening, that Ukraine is becoming increasingly isolated from the West, and this essentially benefits those forces that are either isolationist or pro-Russian. Western-oriented people are then left in a situation that what they're arguing for is [not a] viable option," Aslund said.

To be sure, Kuchma has not yet reached the level of Lukashenka, who has been diplomatically ostracized for alleged human rights abuses and is not welcome in the West.

The Belarusian leader this week inquired about a visa to attend the NATO summit, but the Czech Republic has indicated it may not grant one, although it is likely to give one to Kuchma despite his not being invited.

If the Ukrainian leader does go to Prague, it will be a rare chance to break out of the semi-isolation that has haunted him since he was first implicated in Gongadze's murder, after a former bodyguard released alleged tape recordings of Kuchma appearing to order the journalist's death. The United States says those recordings are authentic and that they also provide the basis for the arms-sales allegations.

But a visit to Prague may not do much to sway opinions about Kuchma. With several disappearances of journalists and opposition politicians still unsolved, activist Fitzpatrick of the New York-based International League for Human Rights said Kuchma is looking increasingly like his neighbor, Lukashenka. "The secret of Ukraine is it's always been more like Belarus than we've wanted to admit. But because of the Ukrainian diaspora, because of the need to have an alternative to Russia, [Kyiv] got all this [U.S.] aid. And it was a big wash. It really was," Fitzpatrick said.

It's a view heard more and more in Washington. Last week, the U.S. Congress's bipartisan Helsinki Commission sent a letter to Bush calling the arms sale "a hostile and reckless act." It urged Bush to examine a host of other alleged illegal acts by Kuchma, including money laundering.