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Biden In Ukraine To Assure Leaders Of U.S. Backing

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrives at Kyiv airport
KYIV (Reuters) -- U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden arrived in Ukraine on July 20 to reassure its leaders Washington has not forgotten the ex-Soviet republic following President Barack Obama's push to improve ties with neighbouring Russia.

But, with Ukraine paralysed by domestic political feuds and suffering a deep economic recession, Biden will find a country less interested in the United States and NATO and more preoccupied with its own internal problems.

The streets of Kyiv were shut down for security reasons for Biden's visit. But ordinary Ukrainians were largely indifferent to the vice-president's arrival and newspapers had little coverage ahead of his arrival. Biden's visit comes two weeks after Obama met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow and told him he wanted to "reset" relations that had hit a post-Cold War low under former U.S. President George W. Bush.

"This is the balancing trip by Biden to Obama's Moscow visit but the balance is very different to that under the Bush administration," said Christopher Granville of Trusted Sources, an emerging market research firm in London.

"It is the vice-president making the balancing trip and not the president, after all."

President Viktor Yushchenko, vaulted to power in the 2004 Orange Revolution, has angered Moscow with an aggressive bid for Ukraine to join NATO and his promotion of Ukrainian nationalism.

But Yushchenko's term ends early next year and polls show he is very unlikely to win reelection in the January 17 poll. The favorites to succeed him, including Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, prefer a less confrontational approach towards Russia.

"For Ukraine, the most important issues are U.S. guarantees of Ukraine's security, the determination of future Ukrainian-U.S. co-operation in defense, and also the continuing support from the United States of Ukraine's process to enter NATO," Yushchenko's deputy chief of staff, Andriy Goncharuk, said last week.

He said Ukraine wanted "clear and public" signals of support from the United States on issues of national security.

Yushchenko has made NATO accession the lynchpin of a policy of Western integration and told Moscow it must vacate its naval base in Sevastopol in 2017 when Russia's lease runs out.

Many observers say the combination of Russia's base, Ukraine's NATO aspirations, and Crimea's mostly Russian-speaking population is a diplomatic tinderbox waiting to explode.

Biden is expected to signal support for Ukraine but the Obama administration is less strident than Bush in backing Yushchenko's NATO bid.

He will also tell the country's leaders that Washington is concerned about the political paralysis gripping Ukraine and will urge Yushchenko and Tymoshenko to "live up to the promise of the revolution," Biden's national security adviser, Tony Blinken, told reporters on July 17.

A snap poll by the English-language "Kyiv Post" found that 66 percent of respondents wanted Biden to tell Ukraine's leaders: "Get your act together" while only 5 percent suggested "Resist Russia with all your might."

Biden is also expected to call for reforms in the energy sector, beset by financial woes and ageing infrastructure.

Ukraine is a major transit country for Russian gas going to Europe but rows over prices and Kyiv's struggles to pay for increasingly expensive gas led Russia to cut off supplies for a time to millions of Europeans in January.

The vice president will leave Kyiv on July 22 for fellow ex-Soviet state and NATO aspirant Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia last August after an unsuccessful military assault by Tbilisi on the pro-Moscow rebel region of South Ossetia.