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U.S.: Washington Looks To Poland To Help Its Dialogue With Ukraine

Washington is using its good friend Poland to reignite dialogue with estranged Ukraine. While recent scandals in Ukraine have limited U.S. contacts with Kyiv, Washington maintains key contacts with Ukraine through Poland, whose President, Aleksander Kwasniewski, often meets with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

Washington, 24 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Just a few years ago, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Ukraine one of the most important countries in the world for U.S. foreign policy.

A potential buffer state against any resurgence of Russian imperial designs, Kyiv in the 1990s was among the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid.

But all that has come to an end after more than two years of scandal in the government of President Leonid Kuchma, starting with audio tapes recorded by a former Kuchma bodyguard that appear to implicate the president in the killing of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and culminating last year with allegations that Kyiv sold sophisticated radar systems to Iraq.

Following that scandal, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush froze most aid to Ukraine and ordered a broad policy review. Still, there are signs that Washington would like to revive relations with Kyiv, which in the United States' absence has appeared to be coming under increasing Russian influence.

One way Washington hopes to improve ties with Ukraine is through a trilateral dialogue with Kyiv and neighboring Poland, which has become a key U.S. NATO ally. But that dialogue is not just for the sake of the United States. Analysts say it's in the interests of both Ukraine and Poland, whose policy since independence has sought to diminish Russian influence in the former Soviet republics to the East.

Janusz Bugajski, a Polish-born analyst at Washington's Center for Strategic Studies, said Ukraine's increasing isolation is becoming a more pressing problem for all three countries. "It's become more urgent in a way since the arms scandals and the semi-authoritarian activities of the Kuchma government in Ukraine. Ukraine is now -- a country that was very close to the United States -- has now drifted away and is perceived in a very negative light, and the Poles fear this could push Ukraine closer to Russia, which is something, of course, that Poland doesn't want," Bugajski said.

While U.S. ties with Kuchma have been limited by the scandals involving his government, Washington maintains a good deal of contacts with Kyiv through Poland, whose president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, frequently meets with Kuchma.

The U.S. ambassador in Kyiv, Carlos Pascual, underscored Poland's key role in the dialogue. In a speech in Washington last week, Pascual said Washington must not give up hope that Ukraine, despite its recent problems, can still be brought into the fold of Western institutions, such as NATO and the European Union.

Ukraine has said it seeks to join both organizations, although the EU has signaled that its final border will stop at Ukraine.

But Washington, Pascual said, will continue to try to work toward those goals with Kyiv. And in this effort, he said the role of Warsaw is key: "They have the ability to talk honestly with the Ukrainians and to talk from their own experience to express what they found necessary to make the successful transition to Euro-Atlantic integration. In many cases, it carries much more weight than what we could ever say."

Last week, Kwasniewski met with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House. Along with the war on terrorism and Iraq, Ukraine was at the top of the agenda, according to Alex Michalski, the press attache for the Polish Embassy in Washington. "Mr. Kwasniewski was talking about Ukraine with President Bush. Mr. Kwasniewski always underlines the issue of Ukraine: Ukraine is important, it's a part of Europe, and policy should be more active toward Ukraine and trying not to leave Ukraine behind," Michalski said.

At a time when the United States' traditional European allies are at odds with much of U.S. foreign policy, Bush singled out Poland as being Washington's best friend in Europe. "I've got no better friend in Europe today than Poland. One of the reasons why is because this man's [Kwasniewski] made a commitment to work together as equal partners in the war on terror, on the desire to find freedom for people who live in misery," Bush said.

Bugajski said he believes that Bush's praise is genuine. He attributes it to Poland's strong support for the war on terrorism; its growing economic ties with the United States, including the recently announced intention to purchase U.S.-built fighter jets; and Warsaw's policy toward Moscow, which seeks to reduce Russian influence.

That policy was summed up in Kwasniewski's so-called Riga initiative, a vision for working to bring countries like Ukraine and Belarus into the Western fold, which the Polish president enunciated in the Latvian capital last year. "Poland wants really its own buffer zone to the east, which is firmly within part of the trans-Atlantic security structure. Hence, I think the Riga initiative is designed in that direction. How successful it will be -- there are many unknown players involved; a lot depends on internal developments, so its success is still to be determined," Bugajski said.

However, he said Poland has less dialogue with Belarus than with Ukraine, because of what he called Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's greater "entrenchment" and the many anti-Lukashenka activities emanating from Poland, including the publication of opposition periodicals and the existence of dissident organizations. "For Lukashenka and Belarus, Poland is seen as more of a threat. In a way, Lithuania plays more of, or wants to play more of, a mediating role, particularly since Minsk sees Vilnius as less of a threat to the survival of the Lukashenka regime. But Poland, I'm sure, would want to play a similar role if, indeed, a government were to come in[to power] Belarus that was more accommodating, more pro-Western, and less authoritarian," Bugajski said.

Many analysts dismiss the Polish-U.S. efforts in Ukraine, saying that the chaotic country has already come under strong Russian economic and political influence. Add to that the EU's apparent closed-door policy, and there would appear little incentive for Ukrainian leaders to keep knocking on the West's door.

But Robert Paul Magosci disagrees. A professor of Ukrainian history at the University of Toronto, Magosci said the possibility of Ukraine joining the West may look impossible, but that these things take time. "We know that 10 to 15 years ago, there was no conception, imagination that countries that are already in the European Union or candidate countries would ever be so. There is short-term and long-term historical perspective. From the short-term [perspective], things very often don't look very good. But from the long-term [perspective], I would argue that [bad relations] aren't inevitable," Magosci said.

Although the EU has signaled that it has no plans to expand to include Ukraine, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recently gave a glimmer of hope to Kyiv's Western aspirations.

Last week, Berlusconi said the EU should one day bring in Ukraine, as well as Turkey and Israel, in order to be able to better compete with the United States. While no more than his own opinion, Berlusconi's statement has been one of the only public calls by a Western EU leader for Kyiv to join the bloc.

Berlusconi, one of Washington's strongest Western European allies, was the only EU leader to meet with Kuchma at November's NATO summit in Prague. He has also taken other recent steps to lessen Ukraine's isolation, including extending an invitation for Kuchma to visit Rome.